Updated: May 1
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Most folks use stimulants on a daily basis. That might sound like an exaggeration, I can assure you it's not. Caffeine is the most used psychoactive substance in the world, and it falls squarely into the class of stimulatory drugs.
According to consumer data trends from Statista, coffee is the second most consumed beverage in the US second only to water, and the list of caffeine-laden substances doesn't end there. Energy drinks, sodas, chocolate, teas and many dietary supplements are also common in households across the globe, and they can all contribute to an ever-rising daily caffeine load.
I'm not saying this to scare you away from your daily cup of java, but rather to take a deeper look at why modern society has become so reliant on stimulants just to make it through the day. Coffee is a wonderful beverage I enjoy myself, but I think our reliance on it highlights how out of balance many people's lives have become. We're going to examine the benefits of caffeine, the drawbacks, and best use practices so you can intentionally determine for yourself how it fits into a balanced lifestyle.
Caffeine is most famous for its energy-boosting effects, but it has a lot more to offer. Caffeine-containing substances are used by athletes, academics, and the average joe alike to improve mental and physical performance. Its effectiveness has been extremely well-studied which makes it one of the most reliable performance enhancing substances on the market according to the National Institute of Health.
Potential Positive Attributes of Caffeine  
Increased focus + memory
Delayed feelings of fatigue
Improved athletic performance
Faster mental and physical reaction time
Speeds up metabolism
Can combat headaches
Like most good things, caffeine can also have harmful effects depending on what else it's consumed with, how frequently, how much, and when. Learning to recognize these effects in yourself and develop strategies to avoid them is key to creating a healthy relationship with caffeine use.
Potential Negative Attributes of Caffeine  
Insomnia or worsened sleep quality
Increased heart rate
Can heighten sugar cravings
Withdrawal symptoms (headache, fatigue, depressed mood, irritability)
Severe afternoon energy crashes
Dysphoria (feelings of unhappiness)
Building Healthy Caffeine Habits
So what do we do with this information? Firstly, you need to be honest with yourself about how you're using caffeine. Are you downing several cups of coffee and functioning in a sleep-deprived jittery state on a regular basis? Maybe you struggle with anxiety or can't fall asleep at night? These are all warning signs that your sleep, rest and fuel are out of whack, and that you're using caffeine as a band-aid solution to deeper problems that need attention.
The most important thing to remember is that caffeine doesn't actually provide you with additional energy. Instead, it works by temporarily blocking adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that makes you tired, so when caffeine blocks the receptors, adenosine begins to accumulate and will eventually make you feel even more tired than before once the caffeine is cleared from your system.
It essentially functions the same way as a credit card. You're borrowing energy from your future self by delaying the fatigue you'll pay back in full later. The only way to actually increase your energy is to optimize your fuel intake and get adequate rest. There are truly no shortcuts to becoming a high-functioning and well individual.
Here are a few simple caffeine habits to keep in mind whenever possible to make sure it's leading you closer to your ideal self instead of further away.
Best Caffeine Practices  
Avoid caffeine 8-12 hours before bed to optimize quality sleep.
Aim to keep single doses below 3 mg per kg of bodyweight, and below 400 mg total per day to avoid negative side effects and reduce dependency.
Never use it to replace food or sleep. While coffee does contain antioxidants and other beneficial substances, you'll be missing out on essential nutrients by skipping meals and essential energy repletion by cutting back on sleep.
Be mindful of what you pair your caffeine with. Since caffeine increases dopamine, it will also increase the liking of whatever foods or activities you pair it with. This is why a regular coffee and donut combo can lead to increased sugar cravings.
Avoid drinking it first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. This can cause indigestion, bloating, and excessively high levels of the stress hormone cortisol may lead to hormonal imbalances and increased tiredness later in the day.
All that being said, please enjoy your coffee or other caffeine containing substance of choice. It's a fantastic tool to increase focus during deep work, to heighten your athletic performance during workouts, and it can even increase your retention of material while learning new information. Not to mention, life is truly about balance. We all break the rules sometimes. We're not shooting for perfect, just better.
Non-Alcoholic Beverages Infographic (Statista)
Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance (National Institute of Health)
Caffeine Research Database (Examine)
The neuroprotective effects of caffeine in neurodegenerative diseases (CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics)
The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review (Frontiers in Psychiatry)
Caffeine Health Sheet (Princeton University)
Adenosine, caffeine, and sleep–wake regulation: state of the science and perspectives (Journal of Sleep Research)