Caffeine and Performance
Written by: Kevin Cann
Caffeine and coffee consumption are always hot topics, whether it be for general consumption or athletic performance. To understand if it can be a benefit in the diet we must first understand the mechanisms of action of caffeine. The main course of action that our cup of coffee takes to stimulate us is by methylxanthine.
Methylxanthine is used in COPD treatment for its effects as a bronchodilator. On top of stimulating our airways methylxanthine also increases heart rate and is an antagonist to adenosine receptors (Nehlig, 1992). Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that causes us to become drowsy when it binds with its receptors due to the slowing of nerve cells. Caffeine actually looks like adenosine to the receptors and will bind with them. This disallows the adenosine to bind with those same receptors and make us drowsy (Ribiero, 2010). Caffeine then increases neuron firing and this sends a signal to the brain that something is not right. The pituitary gland is thus stimulated and releases the hormones responsible for our fight or flight response such as cortisol. So what effect can this have on our health and performance?
For one, after we drink a cup of coffee we become less drowsy and more alert. This can lead to increased productivity in the workplace. One study actually proved that caffeine increases cognitive function. This study measured the effects of 0, 12.5mg, 25mg, 50mg, and 100mg of caffeine on cognitive performance, mood, and thirst. After receiving the dosage of caffeine the participants were then required to take two performance tests, a reaction test, and a rapid visual examination test. All levels of caffeine had a positive effect on those tests, thirst, and mood (Smit, 2000). Studies have also shown that caffeine may protect against the risk of Parkinson’s disease as well when consumed in moderation (Ascherio, 2001).
However, the release of our fight or flight response is also a stressor. The dangers of being under a chronic stressor are well documented and include heart disease and cancer, among other illnesses. One study showed a correlation with bipolar disorder and heavy caffeine consumption. A case report showed a sudden drop of symptoms after 10 years of drug therapy, and removing heavy caffeine consumption seemed to be a major factor (Tondo, 1991). Coffee may also increase our risk for coronary heart disease. Studies on this topic are inconclusive, but the risk is definitely there, and coffee does raise our blood pressure.
Caffeine may or may not be beneficial to performance in sports as well. Most studies are inconclusive and do not show that coffee consumption increases performance. One study showed that doping with pure caffeine could allow an athlete to have a higher power output and workout longer (Graham, 2001). I personally feel I get a better workout when I consume a cup of coffee approximately one hour before my exercise. This may not be a direct effect from the caffeine, but may be due to the increased cognitive function and mood associated with caffeine consumption. If I am more focused and I have a positive attitude I will definitely perform better than if I was drowsy and my mood was negatively affected.
In conclusion, we did not really answer our question whether we should be drinking caffeine or not. As with many things in the world of nutrition the answer is: it all depends on the person. If someone is free from excessive cortisol, adrenal fatigue, mental illness, and high blood pressure then a cup of coffee can be an enjoyable beverage drank in moderation that may even have some positive health benefits due to the antioxidants found in coffee. If any of those conditions exist I recommend not taking in caffeine until those issues are in order. If an athlete is looking for an edge in performance, maybe caffeine can alter focus and mood before a workout. I have personally experienced a boost in performance with caffeine pre-workout. It may also benefit you to take it before a big test or an interview or meeting at work due to those shifts in positive mood and cognitive performance. Tinker with coffee consumption and see how you react.
Graham, T.E. (2001). Caffeine and exercise: Metabolism, endurance, and performance. Sports Medicine. Retrieved on March 5, 2012.
Tondo, Leonardo (1991). The course of seasonal bipolar disorder influenced by caffeine. Journal of Affective Disorders. Retrieved on March 5, 2012.
Smit, HJ (2000). Effects of low doses of caffeine on cognitive performance, mood, and thirst in low and high caffeine consumers. www.pubmed.gov. Retrieved on March 5, 2012.
Ascherio, Alberto (2001). Prospective study of caffeine consumption and risk of Parkinson’s disease in men and women. Journal of American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society. Retrieved on March 5, 2012.
Nehlig, A (1992). Caffeine and the central nervous system: mechanisms of action, biochemical, metabolic, and psychostimulant effects. www.pubmed.gov. Retrieved on March 5, 2012.
Ribiero, Joaquim (2010). Caffeine and adenosine. Journal of Alzyhmer’s Disease. Retrieved on March 5, 2012.
Kevin is owner of Genetic Potential Nutrition. He is a holistic nutritionist, wellness coach, and strength coach. He works with people fighting illness, to competitive athletes. Check out his site at www.geneticpotentialnutrition.