Saturday, October 14, 2006

Caffeine

We just mentioned caffeine here, in relation to the mood-enhancing effects of fast thinking.

So along comes a little more information about the connections.

Probing Question: Is caffeine harmful to your health?


The basic answer seems to be "no", when the stuff is used in moderation. Just as interesting are the details of how it works:
How does caffeine achieve its most sought-after effect of counteracting fatigue? To understand that, we first have to understand the chemistry of fatigue itself. Like all cells in the body, brain cells access fuel through an energy-storage nucleotide called ATP. ATP -- adenosine triphosphate -- loses one of its three phosphate molecules with each burst of energy it releases, eventually becoming a single adenosine molecule. The longer a person is awake, the more adenosine will accumulate on special adenosine receptors in the brain, signaling it to slow its activity.

Enter caffeine. Acting as a wolf in sheep's clothing, caffeine is molecularly similar enough to adenosine to fit into its receptors, blocking adenosine from getting through -- yet it is distinct enough not to be "read" by the brain as instructions to take a nap.

Without adenosine's calming effect, the brain's neurons fire more rapidly and the body reads this increased activity as an emergency requiring the release of the "flight or fight" chemical: adrenalin [AKA: epinephrine]. The result? You feel excited, alert, mentally quick, ready for anything.

Of course, if there actually is a lot of adenosine in the brain, that's a sign it may be running on a nearly empty tank. Probably not a good idea to continue this too long without replenishing the fuel supply.

Another thing to watch out for: If you take caffeine while pulling an all-nighter to finish that important assignment, you may not be able to come back and have a good nap after the work is turned in:

Negative Effects Of Caffeine Are Stronger On Daytime Sleep Than On Nocturnal Sleep
A new study at the Université de Montréal has concluded that people drinking coffee to get through a night shift or a night of studying will strongly hurt their recovery sleep the next day.


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