My freshman year of college, I bought a coffee maker. After moving into my apartment and sitting through syllabus week, scanning Walmart’s shelves for something under $25 while double-checking my bank account felt like the natural next step. As I recall the memory of me lifting a soon-to-be-mine Mr. Coffee cardboard box into my cart, time reels in slow motion and the fluorescent lights above us begin to dim. No one told me that this moment would mark the first of my ceaseless affair with coffee—like locking eyes with a lover seconds before the scene cuts to a montage of romantic events in a turbulent drama.
OK, it’s not that serious. But, can’t you relate?
Before college, coffee was a treat. I’d skip into Starbucks, order a holiday-themed latte with whipped cream and be on my naïve, high-schooler way. That’s not the coffee I know now. These days, it’s a fix. Every few months, I find myself announcing to anyone that’ll listen: “I’m no longer a coffee person. I’m not drinking coffee ever again.” Weeks go by as I sip green tea and nibble a bar of dark chocolate, quietly proud to get my caffeine in a less obviously desperate way.
But, before I’m fully aware of what’s happening, I’m staring wide-eyed into a mug of that black holy water, yet again. And it tastes amazing.
Here, we explore three of coffee’s effects on our brains and the good feelings that follow each pour.
All the Dopamine
We throw our central nervous system into a cold shower after downing an 8 oz serving of coffee. Certain neurotransmitters suddenly increase and flood the brain, such as dopamine and epinephrine. Dopamine is the rewarding hormone released when you finally satisfy a craving, thus reinforcing the behavior. Epinephrine is secreted during a fight-or-flight response, also known as adrenaline, and alerts the body to circulate more blood—hence a rise in heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, we feel more alert, focused and high on life.
Finals Got Me Up All Night
Ever wonder why coffee and all-nighters get along so well? Once the caffeine seeps into your system, it temporarily disables the secretion of a neurotransmitter called adenosine. Adenosine is one of your body’s natural sleep-aids that rises as you near the end of the day. Coffee allows you to side-step your circadian rhythm, thus making you feel more awake. Be warned though, the fatigue is likely to catch up with you the following day and potentially lead to a pattern of insomnia symptoms. Insomnia isn’t just the inability to fall asleep, but a lack of quality, restorative sleep.
Hurts So Good
Some may say that the feel-good wash of chemicals is what land us in the Starbucks drive-thru each morning, but what about those withdrawal headaches? Upon entering your brain, the caffeine squeezes and shrinks certain blood vessels, helping to reduce symptoms for migraines. Many over-the-counter pain medications include caffeine because it strengthens their pain-relieving properties. As the tolerance to caffeine grows, we need more to maintain these medicinal effects. And so, the cycle continues.
Though I fight it, I know I’m a coffee person. But rather than buy into all its promises, understand coffee’s effects on your brain first and create necessary boundaries. This will foster a healthier, albeit still addictive, relationship with America’s favorite, unregulated drug.