Let’s talk about caffeine. It is the single most widely used psychoactive compound in the world, and one of the most well-researched. Esports athletes are known regular consumers of caffeine. My goal is to explain how it works, what it does, and what dose to take.
Let’s get in to it.
How does caffeine work?
Life involves action. At any given time every cell in your body is undergoing a symphony of processes that allow you to exist. EVERY action in the body (thoughts included) requires a cost. No action is possible without the use of energy. We get all of our energy from food.
The universal energy currency is adenosine triphosphate (ATP). You want to breathe? ATP is paid. You want to think? ATP is paid. You want to lift weights? ATP is paid. You get the idea. All of the food you eat gets converted into ATP eventually.
The body is smart. We don’t have 100 different currencies. We just use this ATP to pay for everything. Converting between currencies would require extra work and time, and human life as we know it would be impossible.
Changing topics slightly – there is a concept called ‘sleep pressure’ (which means exactly what you think it does). The longer you go without sleep, the more sleep pressure there is. It builds up until you do sleep, then it resets.
The mechanism behind sleep pressure is believed to be a buildup of adenosine molecules (sound familiar?). As you use energy throughout the day (i.e., as you burn ATPs), adenosine accumulates. Your body senses the buildup of adenosine and interprets it as sleep pressure. The more adenosine that has built up, the more sleepy you feel.
Why am I telling you all of this?
Caffeine is an adenosine antagonist, meaning it blocks your receptors from noticing the adenosine buildup. It’s like a little screen that covers up the sensors. It’s still there, but you can’t feel the effects anymore. As a result, your body becomes more alert and awake.
Does caffeine work for everyone?
Some people see benefits from caffeine, some people don’t experience any changes, and other people actually get worse. In the unfortunate group, caffeine makes them more anxious and jittery.
Most people who get worse with caffeine know they get worse. These tend to be our naturally non-coffee drinkers.
It should be noted that if the dose gets high enough everyone will experience symptoms of jitteriness, nervousness, and anxiety, even without a genetic predisposition.
Is caffeine a nootropic (cognitive enhancing substance)?
Caffeine has been shown to enhance multiple metrics of brain performance. The military routinely uses caffeine in sleep-deprived individuals to enhance vigilance, alertness, and mood. The research consistently finds that caffeine can restore some measures of performance in sleep-deprived individuals. However, the restoration is never complete. In other words, getting adequate sleep is far superior to taking caffeine!
What else does caffeine do for the brain?
- Improve reaction time
- Reduce fatigue (this also has the added benefit of allowing you to push yourself harder during workouts, one of the main reasons it’s used in pre-workout formulas)
- Improve spatial memory
- Improve perceptual memory
- Improve ability in tasks requiring limited working memory
- Improve ability in learning tasks that are presented passively
Where does caffeine fall short?
- It hinders tasks that heavily depend on working memory (as opposed to a limited dependence)
- It doesn’t help tasks that are learned intentionally (as opposed to passively)
- It has no effect on long term memory formation
- It has no effect on visual acuity or hand-eye coordination
How do you take caffeine?
The first thing you need to know is that people who habitually take caffeine see minimal to no improvements. The body quickly adapts to chronic dosing. The people who see the biggest improvements from taking caffeine do so infrequently.
Yes, you can get around the issue by continually increasing the dose – however, this will quickly get risky for your health.
As far as actual dosing protocols, this is what you need to do:
- For cognitive benefits in an important short duration task (like scrims or a competition), take 200-300 mg 30-60 minutes before the task begins.
- For sustained cognitive benefits across an entire day, have 50 mg 4-6 times evenly spread throughout the day (same dose, just broken up).
For reference, one cup of coffee has approximately 100 mg of caffeine (most people drink more than this if you order from a coffee shop), and one cup of tea has approximately 50 mg of caffeine.
What about pre-workouts and energy drinks?
I don’t have the space to cover this topic in detail here, but know that most of them get 90+% of their benefit simply from caffeine and then add in a bunch of junk. I’ll do a deeper dive into specific products in the future.
That’ll do it for this article. Let me know if you’d like me to do a more detailed look at some of the physiological benefits of caffeine (as opposed to cognitive), or any other supplement for that matter!
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