Caffeine, the main active ingredient in coffee, has a well-justified reputation for being an energy booster. But caffeine is also a drug, which means that it can impact each of us differently, depending on our consumption habits and our genes.
“The paradox of caffeine is that in the short term, it helps with attention and alertness. It helps with some cognitive tasks, and it helps with energy levels,” said Mark Stein, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Washington, in the US, who has studied the impact of caffeine on people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. “But the cumulative effect — or the long-term impact — has the opposite effect.”
Part of the paradoxical effects of caffeine results from its effects on what researchers refer to as “sleep pressure,” which fuels how sleepy we become as the day wears on. From the moment we wake up, our bodies have a biological clock that drives us to go back to sleep later in the day.
Seth Blackshaw, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University who studies sleep, said that researchers are still learning about how sleep pressure builds up in the body, but that over the course of the day, our cells and tissues use and burn energy in the form of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. As that ATP gets expended — as we think, exercise, run errands or sit on conference calls — our cells generate a chemical called adenosine as a byproduct. That adenosine goes on to bind to receptors in the brain, making us more sleepy.
Chemically, caffeine looks similar enough to adenosine on the molecular level that it occupies those binding sites, preventing adenosine from binding to those brain receptors. As a result, caffeine works to temporarily suppress sleep pressure, making us feel more awake. Meanwhile, adenosine continues to build up in the body.
“Once caffeine wears off, you get a very high level of sleep pressure, and you have to pay it back,” Blackshaw said. In fact, the only way to relieve and reset an elevated level of sleep pressure is with sleep.
Compounding the issue is that the more we drink caffeine, the more we build up our body’s tolerance to it. Our liver adapts by making proteins that break down caffeine faster, and the adenosine receptors in our brain multiply, so that they can continue to be sensitive to adenosine levels to regulate our sleep cycle.
Ultimately, continued or increased caffeine consumption negatively impacts sleep, which will also make us feel more tired, said Stein.
“If you’re sleeping less and you’re stressed, and you rely on caffeine to improve it, it’s just a perfect storm for a short-term solution that’s going to make things much worse in the long term,” he said. “You’re going to be adding more shots to your espresso, but the negative impact on your sleep is going to continue, and that is cumulative.”