There are people who avoid coffee and energy drinks because they feel that caffeine is a dangerous, addictive stimulant. However, caffeine has proven to be anything but harmful for many people who enjoy its various performance and health-related benefits.
Coffee has become the world’s most widely consumed beverage. One major “java draw-card” is its stimulant effect. The key ingredient is, of course, caffeine.
Caffeine’s undeserved reputation as a precursor to sleep deprivation, irritability, anxiety, and stomach irritation is to be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, provided one’s daily coffee is not guzzled by the gallon, caffeine may significantly improve many markers of good health and physical and mental performance (5, 6, 8).
While coffee has been linked to lower rates of diabetes, reduced risk of cancer, and lower incidences of Parkinson’s disease (4), caffeine remains a not-so-secret ingredient for optimizing human performance by improving mood, memory, and energy levels. In 2015 a systematic review and meta-analysis of 36 studies involving more than 1,270,000 people found that those who consumed between 3-5 cups of coffee a day were significantly less likely to experience cardiovascular problems (3). Many other such studies have presented similar findings.
Coffee, and in particular the stimulating nature of the caffeine it contains, is one vice many java junkies refuse to relinquish. Those contemplating a life without the day-defining go-juice will be happy to know that they would be better served maintaining their current habit. Read on to learn how caffeine may not only brighten your days but also make you a battle-ready iron warrior–– impervious to exhaustion, pain, and even depression.
Breach the Workout Pain Barrier
The memory-enhancing, physical performance-boosting benefits of caffeine are widely known and revered among its legions of committed consumers. What may surprise many however is caffeine’s potent painkilling properties (12,15). In fact, scientists have discovered that a single cup of coffee works within minutes to quell pain over the short term. In one study, 50 men and women were ordered to thrust their arms into buckets of ice-cold water (7). Initially, the men were able to withstand the extreme pain for longer than the women. However, upon receiving a 250mg dose of caffeine (around 3 cups of regular instant coffee or one double espresso) tolerance to the cold was significantly improved among the female volunteers, who were able to suppress pain for longer than the men––who interestingly enough received the same dose of caffeine.
In another study, the effects of caffeine on ischemic muscle contraction pain (a particularly intense form of pain associated with heart attacks) was measured (2). Upon receiving either 200mg of caffeine or a placebo, study participants were, upon resting for one hour, asked to raise their arms in order to drain them of blood. Blood pressure cuffs were duly attached to prevent blood from returning to the muscles. Wrist curls with small weights were then performed and each subject was asked to rate their pain at 15-second intervals. Pain reported by those in the caffeine group was significantly less than that experienced by members of the control group.
The potent pain-relieving effects of caffeine, as reported above, and in other studies, is largely attributable to its ability to block adenosine, a neurotransmitter responsible for carrying pain signals from nerve endings to the brain.
Caffeine also activates the adrenaline pathways necessary for pain suppression, thus stimulating the body’s natural pain-killing mechanisms. Fundamentally, caffeine suppresses pain by providing relief at the site of injury. For heavy lifters, caffeine reduces muscle soreness by reducing inflammation and accelerating recovery to facilitate tissue healing (14). Central nervous system function is also revived with caffeine. This enables strength to be restored faster following intensive workouts. Caffeine (an initial 200mg dose and 100mg every few hours) has long been valued for its ability to both prevent the onset and mask the pain of migraines. Now the world’s most popular drug of choice can be strategically used to address a wider range of pain-inducers.
A Fatigue Fighter
Like many an esteemed artist, 19th Century novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac prized caffeine’s mentally invigorating effects. “Coffee sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles; it accelerates the digestive processes, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects,” he famously proclaimed.
Caffeine’s effectiveness when seeking to improve alertness, motivation, attention, reaction time (8, 10, 13), and reasoning is not lost on those for which such attributes are essential for the preservation of life itself. Indeed, military personal are often reliant upon caffeine (and other stimulants) to stay focused and alert in the throes of battle. Many of these true heroes are known to ingest granulated coffee by the fistful to ward off mental and physical fatigue. As a universally available stimulant that is also legal and socially acceptable (not to mention of low toxicity and with low potential for abuse), caffeine is, for these warriors and also countless iron warriors in gym settings, a go-to supplement for enhancing aggression, as well as physical and mental output (8).
Caffeine is particularly effective when performing tasks of a monotonous and repetitive nature (8). Grinding away in the gym (whether it be rep after rep of shoulder presses or 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio) demands extreme focus and attention to correct form and intensity output.
Caffeine, with its host of powerful ergogenic actions, can assist here (5). Aside from caffeine’s effect on CNS activity, the combined effects of its metabolites theobromine (which increases oxygen and nutrient flow to the brain), theophylline (which relaxes the smooth muscles and increases heart rate efficiency) and paraxanthine (which aids lipolysis – the breakdown of fats for energy).
In fact, caffeine increases fatty acid levels in the bloodstream to such a degree that carbohydrate stores are preserved and better utilized (11). This raises overall muscle endurance and helps the lifter stay energized for longer. Combining carbs and caffeine pre and intra-workout is a known strategy for boosting athletic performance. However, taking this combo within 4 hours post-training has been shown to increase physical output by increasing glycogen uptake by a staggering 66% (9).
By increasing neuronal firing, and by triggering the pituitary gland to release adrenaline, caffeine jolts us into action and enhances productivity. In short, caffeine keeps us moving faster and more efficiently while making us stronger, for longer (8). Its inclusion as a staple component of all good pre-workout formulations (and also when used post-workout to boost muscle glycogen uptake) comes as no surprise.
More than a pick-me-up
Both water and fat-soluble caffeine are, upon consumption, easily dissolved in the bloodstream before being rapidly shuttled across the blood-brain barrier to work its magic. Once infused with caffeine, the brain unleashes its natural stimulant supply and a range of powerful psychoactive effects ensue. Caffeine closely resembles a brain molecule called adenosine. Adenosine, when locked into its receptor sites, causes feelings of tiredness, thus ensuring the body receives much-needed rest as required. However, as it is structurally similar to adenosine, caffeine also fits neatly into adenosine receptor sites. With adenosine momentarily unemployed (for up to four hours), tiredness is thwarted and replaced with feelings of energy and alertness.
By blocking adenosine receptors, caffeine enhances the production and circulation of a plethora of natural brain stimulants (notably the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and adrenaline) (1). The combined and individual actions of these chemicals, when released in abundance, regulate anxiety, reduce depression, improve mood, increase motivation, combat mental fatigue, and enhance emotional wellbeing (1, 16). Therefore, caffeine could be viewed more as a stimulant enabler than a stimulant itself. Whatever the case, this unsurpassed supplemental energizer, when used judiciously, can alter brain chemistry for the better.
To caffeinate or not?
The evidence is clear. Caffeine, when supplemented correctly and not abused, can assist human performance safely and more effectively than any other drug. Whether aiming for a new one-rep-max, maxing out muscle via an endurance event, or channeling mental energy into a creative task (this article would not have been possible without a gallon or so of strong coffee!), caffeine, for those addicted to its energizing effects, is an essential part of daily life.
Provided no more than 500mg per day of caffeine is consumed in divided doses, or better yet, used strategically, this ever-popular stimulant could be just the performance booster you have been looking for. As it only becomes toxic at around 12g, or around 80 cups of coffee, per 176 lb person per day, caffeine is one of the least problematic, yet most effective performance drugs available today. Better yet, it does not require a prescription. Nor will your coffee stash earn you a prison term. With that in mind, it perhaps comes as no surprise that coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil.
Yet caffeine is addictive and comes with a host of (albeit relatively harmless) side effects (headaches, lethargy) lasting between 7-12 days upon cessation. To get the most from caffeine, consume it in the early part of the day and refrain from it in the hours before bed. Caffeine can also be cycled (for example, tapered to 1-2 cups of coffee per day and then increased to 6-7 over 4-5 day cycles) to boost its effectiveness. All in all, caffeine can be a great training partner. Use it to maximize your performance, not only in the gym, but in the arena of life.
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.