Outside of sugar, one of the next most frequently abused and misunderstood ingredients hiding in our diet is caffeine. For some it is our morning ritual to have a nice hot cup of Joe to get us started, For others it might be that caffeine that is in our favorite can of soda, or those that like to mix up a pre-workout before they hit the gym, even worse yet there those that frequent one of the many brands of energy drinks or products. What does caffeine do and what does it do for me? Lets start with The Basics.
The largest source of caffeine in the western diet is Coffee. In and of itself coffee is not that bad for us, at least not until we start adding sugars and other ingredients to counter some of the bitterness in coffee. Soda, as we read before is already packed with sugar, but then there are energy drinks. Some of the early products were loaded with sugar but now we are starting to see more “low sugar” and “no sugar”. Regardless of how much sugar is present, the caffeine is still there.
Not everything that we see on the side of the box or side of the can is what it seems though. Caffeine is pretty easy to recognize, but in many cases we will see other ingredients that have the same caffeine effects but under a different name. Look at the side of your favorite energy drink and you will see items such as Taurine, Gaurana, Ginseng, and L-carnitine.
Gaurana – plant found in the amazon; one seed of this plant produces 5 times as much caffeine as a single coffee bean
Taurine – aids the movement of potassium, sodium, and calcium in and out of a cell
Ginseng – root of a slow growing perennial plant from Asia, acts as a stimulant
L-carnitine – improves ability to transport fatty acids to mitochondria: enhances metabolism
Basically, we are looking at ingredients and series of ingredients that act as stimulants, and increase neurotransmitter activity. They either mimic the effects of caffeine or amplify the effects of caffeine.
Once we have consumed our food or beverage with caffeine, the digestive process starts and the caffeine makes its way into our blood stream. Just like anything else that we eat, the first thing that is affected is our hormones, and neurotransmitters. These are the chemicals that send and receive information and commands within our body.
One of the neurotransmitters that caffeine effects is known as GABA (Gamma AminoButyric Acid). GABA is a messenger that slows down our neuron activity and promotes our ability to relax and subsequently sleep. Caffeine also effects our adenosine levels. In Enter Sandman, I talked about how adenosine is the chemical that allows us to feel sleep pressure, or to feel like we need to sleep. In both cases, caffeine blocks the receptors for these signals. Our body still sends the signal to slow down our activity and feel tired, but with the receptors blocked we never get the call.
Caffeine then goes to work on our serotonin levels. Serotonin is involved with managing our mood and appetite regulation. Caffeine not only boosts the amount of serotonin that we produce but also prompts our body to have more receptors. All together this is what improves our mood when we are drinking coffee. With the increase of serotonin receptors that means that in order to have that same mood improvement the next time it will take more serotonin to do the job. This is why people can be grumpy and grouchy until they have had their morning cup of “sunshine”.
That brings us to our Adrenal glands. Adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys and essentially control our ability to mange stress. Our adrenal glands produce two hormones, Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and Cortisol. Adrenaline, when released, increases our respiration, heart rate, blood pressure and a number of other things designed to support our “Fight or Flight” Response. Cortisol increases out blood sugar, increases glucogenisis, immune responses, anti-inflammatory response, and Central Nervous System activation. These two hormones combined give us the ability to quickly access stored energy and allow our body to quickly react. This could be being able to react in an emergency or that “adrenaline rush” that we feel during some sports or before making big lifts.
So thats the basic functions. That’s from it though, It is good for me? Is it bad for me? Maybe we need to re-think our questions. What does it do for my health? What does it do for my performance? Those answers and more coming in Part 2: The Good News and Part 3: The Bad News.