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Jul 04 2016
by Alexandra Carpenter

The Effects of Caffeine on Your Brain and Body

By Alexandra Carpenter - Jul 04 2016

It is pretty likely that at some point in our high school careers, we discovered the wonders of coffee. This attraction was inevitable as the workload of secondary education proved vastly more draining than expected. As we move on to college, the understanding seems to be that this miracle drink (far superior in performance to its caffeinated counterparts like tea and cocoa) will prove even more essential. According to a study at the University of New Hampshire, for 40 percent of college students (those aged 18-24 in this case), it is certainly an integral part of college survival.

It’s obvious that coffee provides a convenient so-called “boost” for most students, but what works behind the scenes of this common practice? Like with many beverages, the science has two sides. Remember: caffeine is technically a drug.

Most of the benefits are obvious: a few cups throughout the day provide the user ample energy to keep themselves rolling. The morning cup is a savior before that dreaded 8 AM class, and another in the afternoon will start you right back up again for that evening class you just couldn’t get scheduled at a more convenient hour. The culture of coffee, too, is a plus, as there’s nothing quite like a study session at the local Starbucks. But there are many hidden benefits to top the whole cycle off. 

Coffee has been shown to prevent certain diseases, according to AARP. It also impacts emotional health. Similar to other drugs, it stimulates the release of dopamine (the “happy” neurotransmitter), boosting mood. In 2013, Harvard's School of Public Health even found that the caffeine in coffee reduces suicide risk by almost half. Another chemical benefit is its effect on adrenaline release. According to The Telegraph, the resulting fight-or-flight response from adrenaline may increase concentration and sharpen your vision--definitely a plus for any college student fighting to stay awake through some dry, required reading. For the athletes in the crowd: good news, academics aren’t the only thing with which coffee is a help. The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee also claims that coffee increases endurance and betters your performance in sports.

While the benefits all sound wonderful, caffeine’s title as a drug carries some serious downsides. It has primarily been shown to pose health risks to people with pre-existing conditions, but in the case of college students, we’re all still relatively healthy! So--regarding our present lifestyle and our young bodies’ ability to handle considerable caffeine use--what exactly do college students have to worry about when it comes to daily consumption?

Again, caffeine is a drug. That being said, it can be habit-forming (though scientists are hesitant as of yet to call it “addictive”). AARP even points out the recent addition of “Caffeine Use Disorder” to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders--the psychiatrist’s bible. Caffeine’s ability to affect our chemicals also means it can cause anxiety and play games with our sleep patterns. On the subject of sleep, keep in mind that coffee is no substitute for adequate rest. According to The Telegraph, what many users consider a “crash” after their coffee wears off is actually just your “normal” state of tiredness. Clearly, sleep is still important, and your body will hand you the hard truth once that first cup is through with you. If it’s 3 AM and you’re still watching Netflix, there is only so much your morning coffee can do for you. Don’t put your coffeemaker on a pedestal above all else--your pillow may be even more important.

Maybe that obsessive Netflix-disciple sounds like you, and you’ve become a slave to your coffee. You’d probably know how dependent you are, based on reported withdrawal symptoms, namely headache and drowsiness, according to the The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee. Getting rid of these annoying symptoms can be as simple as slowly reducing your coffee intake. Coffee has been shown to remain in the body for about twelve hours after consumption, and the remaining lack of energy you experience as you head off to your second class is probably just your sleep deprivation catching up to you.

Sometimes, the psychology of coffee usage may be part of the problem. Daily Mail reported a Bristol University study where participants tested for alertness showed little variation despite some being under the influence of caffeine and some only a placebo. Do you need coffee, or do you just think you need it? 

Perhaps the key to coffee usage in college is to know yourself. Most students aren’t afraid to admit when their studies are keeping them up late at night only to be completely dependent on coffee for the next day’s work. Sleep is just as incredibly important of a study helper as is caffeine. On the other hand, the caffeine in coffee is an incredibly safe and legal drug to use when a morning boost is all you really need. It’s certainly a much preferred alternative to such other methods like abusing prescription medications in search of similar effects.

All in all, use your coffee wisely, and you will reap its benefits!

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Alexandra Carpenter - Temple University

Alexandra is a rising sophomore with junior standing at Temple University and is majoring in psychology with minors in biology and criminal justice. She plays multiple instruments and occasionally writes music for piano. In her spare time, she enjoys collecting record albums and listening to music, mainly classic rock and heavy metal. She also is an avid writer of fictional stories and is working on two novels.

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