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The Chemistry of Coffee: a Common College Addiction

By Leah Ginn

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It all starts with a slow rhythmic drip, followed by a noise of bubbling and an emergence of steam. An arousing aroma settles over the room and beckons you to partake in a cup. The first sip is hot and sweet (or bitter, according to preference) to the taste. You soon feel a boost of energy and feel prepared to take on the day. This routine is one that countless students and adults depend on morning after morning, and one that many seem unable to function without; coffee has undoubtedly become a predominant beverage in the lives of young adults and college students in particular.

We may know that we seem to function better after having a cup or two, but the chemistry behind coffee and the way its chemicals interact with our minds and bodies is a topic infrequently brewed over (pun intended.)  Becoming informed on the science behind coffee reveals the reasons that so many of us are guiltily addicted to this substance: its active ingredients and how those affect our health in both the short and long terms.

At any given time of day, the neurons of the brain are firing and releasing adenosine, a neuromodulator that calms down neural activity and makes us feel sleepy.

Coffee is such a widely used stimulant in America and Europe that it was devoted its own organization, ISIC: the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (Coffee, 2015.) ISIC was founded by a group of major coffee distributors in 1990 as a non-profit organization that serves to research and conduct studies on the relations between coffee and health. ISIC is becoming more widely associated with physicians, dietitians and nutritionists alike in order to provide better knowledge to patients and clients on the effects they will face from drinking coffee. The primary reason that we feel energized and stimulated after a cup of coffee is simple: caffeine acts as the main active ingredient. In one cup of coffee alone, 80-100 mg of caffeine can be found. Research by ISIC has concluded that this amount of caffeine can be very beneficial to one’s diet by increasing alertness, attention and improving physical performance. By digging deeper into the chemistry of caffeine, we find how the compound interacts with the central nervous system. At any given time of day, the neurons of the brain are firing and releasing adenosine, a neuromodulator that calms down neural activity and makes us feel sleepy. Caffeine, when ingested, travels through the bloodstream to the brain and binds to the receptors that adenosine usually would bind to. This means that the sleepiness we would normally feel is put at bay, since the adenosine’s receptors become occupied with caffeine instead (Dubuc, 2002.) Caffeine also stimulates the pituitary gland, which signals the adrenal gland to produce more adrenaline; this is why our attention seems to be more focused after our morning dosage of coffee: our fight or flight response is kicked into a higher gear. Caffeine also increases the production of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter that causes temporary euphoria. While the caffeine in coffee does a lot to us, coffee also includes other ingredients, like antioxidants. Research conducted by ISIC states that the levels of antioxidant compounds in the bloodstream increases after coffee consumption. These antioxidants increase cellular defense mechanisms, which strengthens our immune systems against many diseases and pathogens.

Research conducted by ISIC states that the levels of antioxidant compounds in the bloodstream increases after coffee consumption.

The main ingredients in coffee seem to be overall beneficial to our health in the short term, but how will your body be affected by coffee consumption years down the road? ISIC has studied these effects and has concluded with some obvious results: caffeine consumption can be physically addictive, and after one gets used to his or her morning cup of brew, withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches and nausea, are likely to occur after going a few days without it. Caffeine consumption can also disturb normal sleeping habits if taken at late hours. On the brighter side, ISIC has found that the antioxidants and other ingredients in coffee stimulate neural activity, which may slow down age-related cognitive deterioration in the long run. In one case-control study conducted by ISIC, including 54 patients and 54 controlled subjects, regular coffee drinkers (199mg consumed in controlled subjects vs 74mg consumed in case subjects) were seen to be at 17-20% lesser chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Two meta-analysis studies done by ISIC in 2014 have also reported that the risk of contracting Parkinson’s disease decreased 25% in coffee drinkers compared to non-coffee drinkers. Evidence collected by ISIC concluded that drinking 3-4 cups of coffee per day leads to a 25% lesser chance of developing type 2 Diabetes. These, and many other studies done on the effects of caffeine on cognitive decline can be found at www.coffeeandhealth.org.

A plethora of research has established coffee as a beneficial supplement to one’s daily diet, as it seems the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to coffee’s effect on health. A chance of dependency and a temporary state of high awareness seems like a small price to pay for the advantages of gaining attention, alertness, focus and a dopamine rush for the span of the day. The long-term advantages are also enticing, as it has been found that coffee seems to lessen the chances of suffering congenital decline along with the chance of acquiring several diseases. So take your pick: black, or cream and sugar?

Resources

Coffee and Health. (2015). ISIC: the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee.  Retrieved August 15, 2015 from http://coffeeandhealth.org

Dubuc, Bruno (2002.) How Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters. The Brain From Top to Bottom. Retrieved August 15, 2015 from http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_03/i_03_m/i_03_m_par/i_03_m_par_cafeine.html