Caffeine has long been a staple of our modern lives, but whether it’s good for us remains a subject of debate in many circles. Some people are convinced they can’t get by without it, while others abstain completely because they’re concerned about negative side effects.
When we look at the whole of the scientific research on caffeine, we see a largely positive stack of evidence in favor of caffeine’s solid position on the “good for you” spectrum. Some have gone so far as to claim caffeine as a superfood, though it depends on the source whether that might be true.
What is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a crystalline compound found naturally in over 60 known plants including those we use to make coffee and tea. It’s also made in the lab to be added to food and beverage products.
In its natural form, caffeine protects plants from insects and parasites. In humans, it is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Because of this action, it’s officially defined as a psychoactive drug and has been called the world’s most widely used drug.
How Does Caffeine Work in the Body?
Caffeine is similar to adenosine, which is a neurotransmitter in the human brain. In normal conditions, adenosine suppresses the central nervous system, promoting sleepiness. It binds to certain receptors on the nerve cells, inducing drowsiness and signaling that you need some rest. Adenosine levels in the brain are typically highest after you have expended a lot of energy.
Caffeine is similar to adenosine in its chemical structure, so it can confuse the nerve cells, binding to the adenosine receptors and blocking the action of adenosine. As it interferes with adenosine’s actions, it helps you feel more awake and alert. It also boosts the action of the nerve cells so they fire their signals more rapidly, promoting energy and that tell-tale caffeine “buzz.”
Are There Any Health Benefits to Caffeine?
Much of the research on caffeine has been done on coffee, with the results showing that caffeinated coffee has many health benefits. According to a 2017 review of studies, for instance, coffee may reduce the risk of:
- Parkinson’s disease
- death from all causes
- death from cardiovascular disease
- cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke
- cancer and mortality from cancer
- liver disease, including non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- type 2 diabetes
- Alzheimer’s disease
The review also found evidence that coffee may reduce the risk of other conditions like gallstones, gout, and renal (kidney) stones. Coffee has also been found to help boost mental cognition and attention.
What is the Healthiest Form of Caffeine?
If you get your caffeine from coffee and dark chocolate, for example, those are much healthier options than if you drink caffeinated soda. Both coffee and dark chocolate naturally contain caffeine along with many other healthy nutrients like antioxidants and vitamins.
Soda, on the other hand, is mostly sugar and carbonated water with synthetic caffeine (made in the lab) added to it. We know that consuming a lot of sugar is unhealthy, whether it has caffeine or not. Indeed, in a recent 2019 study, researchers found that the regular consumption of soft drinks was associated with a greater risk of all causes of death.
Energy drinks, too, contain caffeine, but they come with their own health risks. In a 2017 study, researchers noted that energy drinks were linked with several negative health consequences including adverse cardiovascular effects, poor mental health, and kidney conditions. Another 2019 study found that consuming them significantly increased blood pressure.
Is It Okay to Drink Caffeine Every Day?
When considering how much caffeine is best for you, take into account what the research shows as well as how you feel.
We all metabolize caffeine differently depending on our genes, metabolism, and other factors. In a 2010 study, scientists looked at twins to see how they responded to caffeine, and found genetics played a definite role. An earlier study found similar results – not everyone responds to a single cup of coffee in the same way.
The sweet spot of caffeine consumption seems to be right around four cups of coffee a day (or about 400 mg of caffeine). Drink more than that (or consume about the same amount of caffeine from other sources) and you could experience negative effects rather than benefits.
For you, the amounts may be different. You may be able to drink one cup of coffee just fine, but start to feel jittery after two. As long as you’re choosing healthy sources of caffeine, observe your responses to judge how much is too much.