Coffee lovers of the world know that their morning cup contains a substance to be reckoned with. Caffeine is so effective at juicing our energy and productivity that until 2004, its intake was restricted by the International Olympic Committee. But the original performance-enhancing drug doesn't just provide a jolt to athletes.
“In many ways, it is the drug of work,” says Stephen Braun, a medical writer and author of Buss: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine. “When caffeine was first introduced to Europe in the late 17th century, it was seen by business owners as a miracle drug that turned formerly dozy workers into productive cogs in the industrial machine.”
But while caffeine is best known for its ability to keep us awake and alert—more than a few of you are likely reading this piece with a cup of coffee in one hand—research suggests it can sharpen performance across an astonishing range of tasks. As with most things, though, it's easy to overdo it and negate those positive effects. Here’s how, and when, to dose yourself with coffee just right.
Coffee won't help you as much if you're tired
It may sound counterintuitive, but caffeine, which made its name as an accessory to sleepless nights, actually works best when you’ve had some rest. This comes down to the drug’s chemistry: Caffeine mimicks the shape of a naturally occurring brain chemical called adenosine, which Braun compares to an internal “brake pedal” that allows us to turn off and fall asleep. By essentially clogging our adenosine receptors, caffeine plays defense for stimulating brain chemicals such as dopamine, allowing them to work without the crank-down effects of adenosine. But caffeine won't do as much for you if you're so tired that the chemicals it's clearing the way for are already depleted.
“Caffeine will work best when you already have high levels of these accelerants, like when you’ve had a good night’s sleep or had a nap,” Braun says. “If you’re really sleep-deprived, you won’t get the full benefit of caffeine.”
Drink just enough before you need to stuff your brain with facts
According to a 2014 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, caffeine consumption could significantly improve long-term memory, allowing users to remember information better, and for longer stretches. In it, researchers at Johns Hopkins University gave subjects a series of images to study, along with either a placebo or a 200-milligram caffeine pill—roughly the amount found in two cups of coffee. The next day, subjects were tested on their ability to recall the images.
"We found that 200 mg of caffeine enhances memory over a 24-hour period,” said Michael Yassa, Ph.D., who worked on the study before moving to his current role as associate professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California at Irvine. To take advantage of this effect, Yassa suggests consuming moderate amounts of caffeine before you need to absorb large amounts of information.
And lest you be fooled by click-baiting blog posts that promise a single best time and dose of caffeine to get the biggest impact, Yassa said that different people handle caffeine in different ways, and there is no universal ideal dose. “Just like every other pharmacological agent, caffeine has a U-shaped curve with higher doses impairing performance,” Yassa says. Not to mention the potential for increased tolerance for the drug, serious jitters, and a slew of sleepless nights.
Grab a cup right before your brainstorming meeting (or typing test, or figure-drawing class)
Could caffeine make people more willing to collaborate? Maybe, according to a 2009 study published in Nutritional Neuroscience. In it researchers in Hong Kong asked participants to play a game in which their willingness to cooperate would directly benefit somebody else. Subjects who had consumed 150 mg of caffeine via coffee showed significantly more willingness to cooperate than those who were given decaf.
The more researchers look into caffeine, the more benefits they seem to find. And they're only now beginning to understand the drug’s wide range of effects and possible uses.
“This is such a broad spectrum drug,” Braun says. “Other stimulants are more surgical in their effects. But caffeine is working with the adenosine system, which is all over the freaking brain, so it’s not surprising that you see effects with things like creativity, typing speed, data processing speed, and mathematical computation.”
According to Yassa, research suggests caffeine could be associated with increased longevity, a reduction in cognitive decline in men, and even help with Alzheimer’s in mouse models. If these results bear out in further studies—Yassa and his collaborators are currently looking into its possible use as an Alzheimer’s intervention—caffeine could be prescribed for a lot more than staying awake and alert.