It is probably safe to say that the vast majority of people start the day with coffee (and lot of them continues with it as well). As a result, it is no surprise at all that there are numerous studies on the health effects of this popular beverage. In addition, coffee is also a common choice when people need an instant energy boost, during work or studying. Consequently the effects of coffee on the brain is a frequent research topic too. Is that immediate power uplift beneficial for your brain function and memory in the long term? Since it would be probably excruciating for you to stop drinking coffee, let’s examine this question in detail.
Is coffee healthy or not?
Since the brain is the “engine” of the body, most of the foods that boost our cognitive power are good for our general health as well. For that reason, it makes sense to initially ask this question. Unfortunately, it is a very controversial topic. You can read a lot of articles about both of the benefits of regular coffee consumption, and all the good things that can happen to you if you stop drinking it completely. Accordingly, it is challenging to answer it with a simple yes or no. Instead of supporting one of these groups, I would rather objectively look into the nutritional information.
Firstly coffee is undoubtedly high in antioxidants, which, as we all know, can reduce the risk of many diseases. Actually, for a lot of people who don’t consume a ton of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, coffee can be the most important source of antioxidants. (1) (2)
Secondly, it contains a small amount of some vitamins and minerals. It can be irrelevant if you don’t drink much coffee, but several cups per day can add up to a notable amount to your nutrient intake. (3)
Finally, and most importantly, the main active compound is caffeine. This stimulant is addictive, can reduce the quality of you sleep, and it can cause health issues in case of some people. That sounds bad, but caffeine has positive effects as well. For instance, it can speed up metabolism and enhance exercise performance. In addition, it plays a key role when we study the effects of coffee on mental performance.
In case you’ve read my previous post on water, you now that staying hydrated is crucial for optimal brain performance. When you consume coffee, it can actively dehydrate your body. The reason behind that is the diuretic effect that can be caused by caffeine, especially in higher doses. Diuretics are substances, that cause the body to make more urine than normally. The consumption of caffeine can result in this, by the caused increasing blood flow to the kidneys. That being the case, if you are bored with water, coffee definitely won’t be a good alternative. Moreover, it might be a good idea to drink water after a cup of coffee. (4) (5)
Another important lifestyle factor that can boost your cognitive power is quality sleep. Your eating habits can significantly support you if you want to ensure that perfect rest time, but they can do the exact opposite as well. As I’ve already mentioned, coffee belongs to the latter group since it can cause sleep problems. Caffeine blocks sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain and boosts adrenaline production, which can make you stay alert and awake. Although it varies from person to person, but generally speaking the stimulating effects last about 3-5 hours. As a result, if you don’t consume it close before bed time, it probably won’t significantly effect your sleeping patterns. (6) (7)
So far it doesn’t look so critical. You probably drink enough water and consume coffee earlier during the day. However, the caffeine addiction can be a more serious issue. When you reach the point of caffeine dependency, once you withdraw your daily intake of the stimulant, the symptoms can significantly reduce your mental and physical performance. The most typical indications are:
- bad mood
- decreased concentration and alertness
- drowsiness (8)
Hopefully you won’t immediately ditch your morning coffee after all this, because the pros can easily outweigh the cons. If you keep things in moderation, and you drink quality coffee instead of the extra-large, sugar-enriched versions, the benefits can be invaluable.
Researchers have documented coffee’s ability to:
When you consume coffee, the caffeine goes to your blood flow, and it reaches your brain. After that, it occludes the inhibitory neurotransmitter adenosine. As a result, the amount of other neurotransmitters like dopamine or norepinephrine increases, finishing in enhanced firing of neurons. (11) (12)
There is also an increasing evidence that coffee can protect the brain as well. According to a couple of studies, regular coffee drinkers have a lower risk of Alzheimer and Parkinson’s disease. The reason behind that is a group of compounds, called phenylindanes, that can prevent plaque build up, which is a key indicator of Alzheimer’s disease. (13) (14) (15) (16)
Wakeful rest is also important
“Smart work beats hard work”. Sometimes being overly enthusiastic can do more harm than good. When you sacrifice your night sleep to work or study more, you take away the opportunity from your brain to improve memory recall. In addition, it turns out wakeful rest periods like coffee breaks can also help you digest and memorize new information.
According to researches, activity between the hippocampus and neocortex increased during wakeful rest times, after learning tasks. These parts of the brain play an important role in memory and processing. For that reason, these results were also associated with improved memory.
Next time when you have an important meeting or class, try to finish it with a coffee break to help your brain consolidate information. (17)
As you can see, despite what you might have read so far, there are many great things that we can say about coffee. Of course it has a couple of downsides too, but if you pay attention to certain things you probably won’t put yourself at risk.
Firstly, always drink at least one 8-oz. cup of water after every cup of coffee to avoid dehydration. Secondly, don’t drink coffee 5 hours before bed time. Thirdly, don’t add sugar, syrup, ice cream and all of these usual fancy stuff to your coffee. (At least not regularly.) Finally and most importantly, consume it in moderation. It is hard to say accurately what is the perfect amount, because it can be different from person to person, but try not to drink more than 3 cups per day. Also it might be a good idea to drink intentionally less coffee on less challenging days, and a little bit more when you need to maintain your energy all day long. That way you can make sure that it will give you that additional boost when you need it the most.
To answer the original question: no you shouldn’t. Coffee can be a great tool to enhance your mental performance.