Coffee and caffeine in general has become a big part of many people's daily routine. Do we need to regulate our intake?

As stimulant based drink, coffee is often compared to alcohol, in fact, there are many blogs, articles and first-person accounts online of people giving up both coffee and alcohol at the same time. But are they the same? Are there any health benefits to coffee, and ultimately, should we consider reducing our caffeine intake, (or even give it up altogether)? 

The surprising science

Both caffeine and alcohol alter ‘adenosine neurotransmission’ in the brain, but the relationship is complex, and may be dose dependent. On average, a mug of brewed coffee contains about 95mg of caffeine, instant coffee contains less – at around 30-90mg, but if your style is more ‘double shot please’, that’s more like 125mg of caffeine per cappuccino/latte, or if you’re opting for decaf, that’s only 3-4mg per mug. 

Our bodies absorb 99% of the caffeine within 45 minutes, and we can absorb 300-310mg of coffee at any one time, after which any more has no effect on brain receptors. When it comes to removing the caffeine from our system, caffeine has a ‘half-life’ of five hours, meaning if you drink one 100mg mug of caffeine, five hours later 50mg of caffeine will still be in your system, and five hours after that, 25mg will be in your system and so on. So, that gives us a bit of an idea as to how much caffeine the body can take in, and how quickly we get rid of it from our systems. 

woman holding coffee cupThe concept of a substance ‘half-life’ is an interesting one when it comes to alcohol versus caffeine. Substances like caffeine are broken down and metabolised as quickly as the body can process them, and hence they have a half-life. Alcohol however, does not have a ‘half-life’. The body metabolises on average around 13ml of alcohol per hour – this is called a ‘steady state metabolism’. The body deals with the two substances differently because of one important difference; in order to metabolise (get rid of) alcohol from the body, a poisonous by-product (acetaldehyde) is made, and this by-product has to be eliminated before any more alcohol can be processed, so that the body isn’t compromised by acetaldehyde poisoning. 

So, although those of us who drink caffeine later in the day might have difficulty sleeping due to its five hour half-life, the body isn’t dealing with poisonous by-products when metabolising the caffeine, as it does with alcohol.

Important differences

Another important difference to note in the effects of coffee and alcohol in the body, is how it affects us physiologically. An interesting study lists the many powerful physiological benefits of coffee, to name a few:

  • Increased alertness, wakefulness, and feelings of “energy”
  • Decreased mental fatigue and physical fatigue and decreased sense of effort associated with physical activity
  • Enhanced physical performance, motor performance and cognitive performance
  • Increased accuracy of reactions and the ability to concentrate, focus attention
  • Improved short-term memory, and ability to make correct decisions

In terms of enhancing our performance when it comes to energy, focus and memory, coffee is a pretty impressive tool. Now let’s compare that to alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant, so it slows down our central nervous system and causes delayed brain function. In a stark contrast to the effects of coffee, it affects our:

  • Judgement and decision-making skills,
  • Impacts our information processing skills and our hand-eye coordination
  • Decreases our reaction time
  • And has a negative effect on our memory

The health benefits and negatives of coffee

Moreover, there are further health benefits to drinking coffee. According to a report by Harvard Medical School, caffeine can not only improve short term and long-term memory, it also has the power to lower chances of developing Parkinson’s, colon cancer and Type 2 Diabetes.

The issues surrounding caffeine mainly come in the form of dependence in order to keep up energy levels, and its impact on our sleep. Good quality sleep is a necessity for us when it comes to health and longevity of life. Sleep scientist and author of Why We Sleep Matthew Walker has advised that sleep is more important than a healthy diet or physical exercise in keeping us healthy. So, ensuring our coffee consumption doesn’t impact our sleep quality is an important factor to consider here. One important piece of research found high doses of caffeine have been found to potentially increase anxiety, particularly in people already suffering with panic or social anxiety disorders.

So, should we decrease our coffee consumption?

While the abuse of any stimulant is of course not good for us, in moderation, coffee could provide benefits to our performance and health. Thinking about when we consume coffee is important though – if we’re feeling anxious, or if we are feeling as if we have enough or too much mental or physical energy naturally, a decaf or another beverage might be a better choice in that moment.

Overall, the report from Harvard Medical School announced that moderate coffee consumption is safe, so if you are a coffee lover, the key is to keep your consumption to less than 300mg caffeine per day (that’s about three mugs of filter coffee or four shots of espresso a day), and if you’re craving a mug in the late afternoon, opt for decaf in order to protect your sleep quality and quantity.


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