Americans drink around 400 million cups of coffee per day-and the energy drink market in the US alone is $13.97 Billion per year (and almost 1/4 of that is RedBull!!). That is a whole lotta caffeine! While many people, including many natural health advocates, are very “down” on caffeine in any form, let’s dive in deeper-because that’s what we do, and that’s where the answers lie.
The brain is a complex machine indeed, with several different neurotransmitters allowing one neuron to trigger or inhibit the next, while the predominance of an excitatory vs. inhibitory effect on different parts of the brain brings different effects. If you didn’t follow that, don’t feel bad. Think of it like this: if your right foot pushes harder, pushing on your car’s brake pedal vs. pushing harder on the accelerator bring different results! Same thing in the brain. This is important in this discussion because while caffeine is a stimulant, its overall action is far more complex.
Caffeine changes the effects and levels of the neurotransmitters Glutamate (exitatory), GABA (inhibitory), and Dopamine (excitatory, kind of). Dopamine is what provides the feeling of reward, achievement and pleasure. Whether it’s the ‘ding’ sound of your phone as you score another social media ‘like’, or the barrage of sounds when you’re playing Call of Duty, it’s a feel-good kind of thing! So much so, that it’s at the root of some addictions.
That does explain why video games and RedBull go so well together, though, doesn’t it? Let’s continue.
Your frontal lobes are where self-discipline and self control come from. So, if we look at more stimulation, more Glutamate, if it happens in the frontal lobes, it equals more control and not less. That’s a grossly simplified example (apologies to fellow neurology nerds) but it is an illustration. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It’s what you use to suppress thoughts and desires. So, if you’re concentrating on your schoolwork or that blog post you’re trying to write (LOL) more ability to attenuate the desire to check email for the 69th time today, or check the stock market and crypto prices again (which are both in freefall at the moment!) more ability to block out distractions (usually that’s GABAnergic function) will help.
When someone has ADHD, they can’t attenuate as well. What is concentration, except the ability to block out everything that isn’t part of what you’re concentrating on? See how that works?
Now the fun part.
Ever wonder why Adderall, the most common medication for ADHD, would help a person to focus better, when it’s a stimulant? It’s an amphetamine salt; one of the most stimulating class of drugs. Similarly, caffeine is a stimulant, though not as powerful a stimulant. But, what if caffeine helps GABA to mobilize in the brain to where it is needed? Indeed it does. It also affects the action of glutamate and dopamine-though it’s important to realize that neither Adderall nor caffeine have an all-or-none effect. The end result is more nuanced, with some speeding up in some parts of the brain, and better attenuation/inhibition in others, along with an easier path to pleasure. How many coffee mugs have a saying on them that says the day doesn’t start till after coffee? Yes, many!
A recent study found that the use of caffeine compounds is increasing in the US Army amongst soldiers who have ADHD. The study also showed that it’s helping them, while also showing that alcohol made things worse.
Coffee and caffeine have been shown to help prevent, slow, or reduce Parkinson’s Disease, which is a disease that affects Dopamine production and use.
When you put all of this together, it really looks like caffeine is very good for some of us. Perhaps not as good for some of us as others, but there are now very well documented benefits. As is often the case, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing, so don’t go overboard with it and burn out your adrenals. And, it should be noted that energy drinks have a lot of sugar, and that does not promote any of the benefits discussed here. In fact, it can cause insulin resistance of an unstable blood sugar, which can rob you of energy and cause other health problems.
You could look at this as another example of two different interventions: one medical (Adderall) and one natural (Coffee or energy drinks). I know, energy drinks aren’t “natural” but compared to a prescription medication, it sort of is.
If you’d like to understand more about your own system and how your neurotransmitters are balanced (or not) we have labwork for that. It’s available, along with virtual consultations and supplements, on my WellProz site at: https://neurodoc4u.wellproz.com/patient/signin
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34637050/ https://neurosciencenews.com/caffeine-adhd-20281/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7700297/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32273803/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7132598/ https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/dopamine-the-pathway-to-pleasure