The Caffeine Fuelled Brain: How Coffee Improves Mental Performance

Coffee is an integral part of our lives, especially for all us coffee lovers. It is also an effective way to improve mental performance and increases productivity. It can sharpen the mind like you could never imagine!

With more than 2.25 billion cups enjoyed worldwide everyday, coffee is the planet’s single most valuable traded food, and comes with many perks for your mental and physical performance.

Coffee can be a major benefactor in helping you concentrate or complete tasks accurately, when consumed in the right doses. It can also improve our reaction times when faced with multiple choice tasks where challenged to answer questions in quick succession, or having to make multiple decisions. The connection between caffeine’s main botanical source, the coffee plant and our own biochemistry is a fascinating one.

Where Does Caffeine Come From?

There are two types of coffee plant: Arabica is one source and accounts for 80% of the coffee that companies produce worldwide. The remaining 20% comes from the source of Robusta coffee. Both coffee plants contain caffeine, also known as a crystalline solid called an alkaloid which is produced from the plant using nitrogen they take from the soil.

The coffee you drink contains the caffeine found in the coffee plant’s seeds, otherwise known as the coffee beans, which helps give coffee its unique taste. Every cup of coffee contains around 80-175 mg of caffeine depending on the type of bean and the process by which it is prepared.

Coffee plant branch with cherries and flowers

Caffeine and Genetics

Caffeine sensitivity can vary from person to person, depending on your genetic makeup. How come? The enzyme CYP1A2 metabolises coffee in your liver – how much CYP1A2 you create depends on your gene and can affect how you process caffeine. No two caffeine drinkers are alike, and your genetic combinations and brain chemistry help build your unique relationship with caffeine.

  • Caffeine for fast metabolisers – If you have a fast metabolism you can consume a moderate amount of caffeine (between 300-400 mg) as your bodies utilise it quicker.
  • Caffeine for slow metabolisers – You are more advised to consume less caffeine per day (no more than 200 mg) for the best effect.

Caffeine and The Brain

When caffeine hits the brain it suppresses a neurotransmitter called adenosine which influences attention, alertness and sleep in all of us. When adenosine hits a certain level it shuts off, making you feel tired and struggling to pay attention. When you sleep the adenosine resets, and come morning, you are alert and ready to go again. Caffeine can cause an increase in adrenaline which can improve your performance, and is best consumed in the morning to start the day.

Caffeine competes with adenosine and binds to certain receptors in the brain. If adenosine can’t bind, it can’t make you feel sleepy. The caffeine blocks adenosine and keeps you feeling alert and awake throughout the day. It also helps stimulate brain chemicals like glutamate and dopamine, giving you a surge of energy and improving your mental performance, as well as slowing age-related mental decline. Caffeine achieves this by increasing your serotonin levels, which is a major mood influencer to make you feel more positive.

  • Coffee Increases Attention

Attention is your ability to focus on a task while suppressing any distractions. When you are working on a report for example, and your phone goes off and you see an email alert, but instead of stopping, coffee can help you stay on task and save that email for later.

  • Coffee Increases Vigilance

Like attention, vigilance in this context is the ability to hold your focus on a repetitive task for long periods of time, from proofreading, to data entry and processing orders. Coffee can help you from getting too distracted and letting your mind wander, which can cause mistakes. It can also give you an energy booster if you are starting to get tired or sleepy.

  • Coffee is a Mood Booster

Coffee increases positive mood hormones for a short time after you drink it, and is handy when working in large working environments where people need to work together.

How Else does Caffeine Affect Us?

In this article, we have already discussed how caffeine can affect our mental performance, from being a mood booster, to influencing neurotransmitters to help increase attention levels. So how else does caffeine affect us? Caffeine can enhance short-term memory and in the long-term, can protect your brain against diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

woman at work holding coffee

Caffeine and Dementia

Research suggests that caffeine can counter the effects of dementia. Hypoxia, is when the brain is starved of oxygen, which triggers dementia, but research has suggested that caffeine can affect this. Hypoxia sends the brain cells into panic mode, similar to what we see in Alzheimer’s disease, and triggers the release of a chemical called adenosine. This causes a chain reaction of enzymes leading to inflammation. Caffeine can interfere with this process by blocking the cell’s ability to recognise adenosine and reducing the extent of inflammation.

Caffeine and Physical Performance

Caffeine can even improve our physical performance and is being recommended to be consumed pre-workout, to give you an energy boost. It does this by moving the active muscle’s metabolism away from carbohydrate and towards fat. Carbohydrate is the muscles preferred fuel for vigorous activity, and the sparing of this, when consuming caffeine means there will be more of it available when needed towards the end of a workout session. This can help you to keep performing at a high level for longer.

As well as improving endurance performance for athletes, caffeine also has ergogenic effects on short-term activities such as stop-start sports including football and tennis. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and can increase the capacity for muscular work by delaying feelings of fatigue. In addition to this, it also works by providing extra muscular power by releasing calcium stored in muscle and used for muscular contraction during physical activity.

Caffeine is a huge benefactor and impacts our modern lives like never before, from encouraging us to focus on multitasking, to improving our physical performance. Want to find out more about the impact of coffee? Read our article here.

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