About 75% of Americans drink morning coffee, and nearly half of them are regular drinkers.
One cup of coffee (8 oz) contains 95 mg of caffeine.
For decades, people have believed that caffeine in their coffee made them feel alert and energetic.
Researchers now think otherwise.
On comparing the neurological effects of coffee vs. caffeine, researchers have reported that coffee and not caffeine led to increased brain activity and cognitive functioning.
If so, where does this leave caffeine at? Keep reading to learn more about this study.
The relationship between the CYP1A2 gene and caffeine is a two-way street. The gene affects how you metabolize caffeine. At the same time, your caffeine consumption habit influences the activity of this gene. Knowing your CYP1A2 gene status can help you learn about your ideal caffeine consumption.
How Does Caffeine In Morning Coffee Promote Wakefulness?
Caffeine is a natural bitter substance found in more than 60 types of plant sources.
A few of the most common sources of caffeine are:
- Coffee beans
- Tea leaves
- Cacao pods
- Kola nuts
Caffeine is a known stimulant of the Central Nervous System (CNS).
This substance activates the noradrenaline neurons in the CNS and encourages dopamine release.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes people focused, happy, energetic, and alert.
This is why most people drink morning coffee first thing in the day.
They feel the cup of coffee improves wakefulness.
Coffee vs. Caffeine: Understanding the Difference
Coffee is made by roasting, grinding, and brewing coffee beans.
It contains multiple compounds that affect the human body and mind, including the following:
- Chlorogenic acid
- Citric acid
Caffeine is the most commonly used drug worldwide.
One cup (240 g) of coffee contains about 96 mg of caffeine.
The average caffeine consumption in the United States is 200 mg/day.
Adults consume caffeine in the form of coffee and caffeinated beverages.
While low to moderate caffeine consumption is safe and beneficial, very high doses of caffeine can lead to cardiovascular problems.
Caffeine abuse can lead to a condition called Caffeine Dependence Syndrome.
This is marked by behavioral, psychological, and cognitive changes in the person.
How Morning Coffee Affects Brain: The Study
For a long time now, it has been believed that the caffeine in coffee gives people an energy boost, focus, and other mental changes.
However, a 2023 study published in the Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience reports that some of these changes could be an imaginary sensory effect of drinking morning coffee and unrelated to caffeine intake.
Coffee brings various physical and mental changes to the body.
Not all of these changes are recorded or explained.
A group of researchers conducted Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) on habitual coffee drinkers to understand the neurobiological impact of the drink.
Two groups of participants were a part of this study.
Coffee group - 47 individuals with an average age of 30
Caffeine group - 36 individuals with an average age of 32.1
The fMRIs of the study participants analyzed changes in the Default Mode Network (DMN), the higher visual network, and the Right executive control network (RECN).
DMN is a group of brain areas that activate when the person is not focused on what’s happening around them.
The DMN system has been associated with various mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
The RECN is responsible for the brain's information manipulation, decision-making, and problem-solving capabilities.
Higher visual networks of the brain are areas associated with complex visual response processes.
The study observed interesting differences in the fMRIs of the coffee and caffeine groups.
fMRI Data Of Coffee Drinkers
The fMRI data of coffee drinkers reveal the following.
- The connectivity of posterior DMN was decreased after coffee consumption compared to before-coffee data.
- Node connectivity in the higher visual and RECN systems was increased after coffee consumption compared to before-coffee data.
- Interestingly, in caffeine drinkers, the researchers noticed a decrease in posterior DMN connectivity but didn’t see increased connectivity in higher visual and RECN systems.
How Coffee and Caffeine Affect DMN
One of the interesting observations of the study was the effect of caffeine and coffee on the posterior DMN connectivities, especially in the precuneus region.
Precuneus is associated with tasks like self-consciousness, cue reactivity, integration of information, and memory retrieval.
The decreased nodal connectivity in the precuneus region could be why people experience higher preparedness from rest to action mode.
Another interesting observation was the decreased functional connectivity between the motor networks and prefrontal cortex after consuming coffee and caffeine.
According to these researchers, this connectivity trend could be a reason for increased preparedness for action in coffee drinkers.
Effect Of Coffee Tied To Sensory Experience
A stark difference in the fMRI of coffee and caffeine drinkers was that only coffee drinkers experienced increased connectivity in the higher visual and RECN networks.
This increase wasn’t noticed in the caffeine group.
According to these experts, other components of coffee could be causing higher connectivity in executive control and visual imagery.
These experts feel that an imaginary sensation could trigger the pleasure responses in coffee drinkers.
This imaginary sensation has nothing to do with the already established neurochemical responses.
It is, instead, associated with the sensory experiences of sipping a cup of coffee.
This study concludes that coffee's effects, like alertness to external stimuli and being prepared for action, could all result from other complex compounds in the drink and not due to caffeine.
These researchers report two different responses to coffee in the brain - the neurochemical effects of caffeine in the body and brain and the sensory experiences of the beverage.
While the neurochemical responses can be attributed to caffeine, the sensory experiences must be explored further.
The sensory experience could be a placebo effect of drinking the beverage, a response to the relief from caffeine withdrawal, or a result of other coffee compounds.
The researchers mention that fMRIs can be stressful to some people and this may have skewed the results.
The absence of a non-drinker control sample is a limitation of the study too. This could have helped rule out withdrawal symptoms as a reason for these sensory changes.
The fMRIs in this study only analyzed resting-state brain connectivity. Measuring the connectivities in task-oriented states may provide more precise results.
Here's an interesting read for you
How Genes Regulate The Effects of Caffeine on Sleep?
How To Feel More Alert In The Morning?
While coffee is certainly helpful in feeling more alert in the morning, here are other ways to move from rest to preparedness without depending on caffeine.
- Exposure To Sunlight
One of the easiest ways to feel more alert in the morning is to pull the window shades up and let sunlight enter the room.
You could also take a quick walk outdoors to soak up the sunlight.
Sunlight helps shake off the morning grogginess.
- A Good Night’s Sleep
One of the main reasons people feel tired and sleepy in the morning is not having 7-8 hours of restful sleep at night.
Going to sleep and waking up at set times and having a good night’s sleep can both help stay alert and active in the morning.
- Working Out In The Morning
Even 10-15 minutes of exercise in the morning can help get the blood pumping across the body and brain and help clear up grogginess.
- Protein-rich Breakfast
Consuming a protein-rich breakfast in the morning will help give the body the needed energy to go through the day actively and with better focus.
- Check Medications
Some medications you take may cause grogginess and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Talk to your doctor about this in that case, and try switching medicines or altering doses.
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Summary: Effect Of Morning Coffee Is Placebo?
- About three-fourths of the American population drink coffee. People believe that the caffeine in coffee helps them stay active, focused, and with increased energy levels.
- Researchers now think there could be other components in coffee, apart from caffeine, that give people the sensory experience of drinking the beverage.
- Besides caffeine, coffee contains several compounds like chlorogenic acid, tannin, thiamin, xanthine, and citric acid. The exact effects of all these components have not been studied yet.
- A study published in the Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience conducted fMRI studies in people who drank coffee and caffeinated beverages and analyzed the difference in nodal connectivity in the brains.
- According to this study, drinking coffee caused changes in nodal connectivity in the higher visual and RECN systems, which weren’t noticed in people who consumed caffeine.
- These changes helped people experience higher preparedness from rest to movement. These also created a sensory experience that caffeine didn’t bring.
- The researchers hence believe that there could be other compounds in coffee that caused these effects.
- While coffee does help stay alert in the morning, exposure to sunlight, working out in the morning, enjoying a protein-rich breakfast, and getting a good night’s sleep can also improve morning alertness.