Caffeine is probably the most widely used psychoactive substance on the planet. It acts as a stimulant to the central nervous system. Certainly, there are many studies that validate increases in cognitive performance, short-term memory, recall, processing speeds and arousal from ingesting caffeine. I am not denying that plenty of evidence exists to support that. So why wouldn’t we use caffeine as a mental stimulant? Is caffeine a good solution for fatigue? It’s cheap, it’s legal and it doesn’t require a prescription. What’s not to love?
It is my opinion that there are some down sides to caffeine consumption that make it a slippery slope and not quite as ideal as all that.
For one, caffeine is a stimulant, so for many people that can lead to anxiety, irritability, jitters, sweating, trembling and insomnia. This is largely a dose-dependent response with everyone having different levels of sensitivity. Some people do fine with one cup, but if they were to have three cups, they would experience this kind of response. Many people cannot tolerate any caffeine at all. Their nervous system is already on overdrive; they don’t need any more hyperarousal. I know for me, I can have one espresso drink in the morning – any more caffeine than that throughout the day and I won’t sleep that night. I’ll never forget one night many years ago when I was living in Seattle. I was with friends at a place called B&O Espresso – they have incredible cakes and desserts. It’s very unusual for me to eat dessert, but this particular night I indulged in a chocolate-espresso mousse cake. I didn’t sleep for two days … I’m not kidding, two whole days.
So that is one extreme. Habituation is another issue. Basically, one cup might give a great brain-boosting effect for a while, but then it’ll fade, and it will take two cups to have that same effect. The body adapts, and more and more of the substance is needed for the same benefit (this is really true of any addictive substance!). Athletes also use caffeine to boost performance, but they have to use it selectively so that it works when they need it to work. I would suggest that the same is true for people with general fatigue. Caffeine is better saved for special occasions or moments of particular need so that it can be relied on to have the desired effect. In other words, if you have a meeting at work or a day where you need to focus on getting a lot of tasks done, drink caffeine then, but avoid it on days that you are at home with not much on your agenda, even if you feel that you need it on those days.
For those who are more sensitive, I would just avoid it altogether. Your nervous system has enough to deal with without having to process a stimulant. Caffeine is also dehydrating, so per our underlying beliefs about the benefits of water and adequate hydration, caffeine can set you back in that department.
What about green tea? Isn’t that a good source of antioxidants? Well, yes, it is. And green tea also has lower caffeine levels than coffee. But to stay really kind to your nervous system, find a decaffeinated green tea or green tea extract and get the benefit without the caffeine.
Another major detriment of caffeine, and one of my major objections to it, is its impact on the adrenals. One cup of coffee a day might not be the end of the world, but people who use caffeine just to function and get through the day will ultimately put extra stress on their adrenal glands, which could lead them to even deeper exhaustion levels in the long term. The short-term gain may well not be worth the long-term damage. I am fully aware of the temptation to use caffeine to fuel the body when it is completely exhausted. However, a better, healthier way would be to work on rebuilding the adrenals and to work on the mitochondrial function of the cells so that the body can experience more internal, organic energy and not be as reliant on external crutches.
I love coffee, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying one cup a day is the end of the world either. I’m just saying that relying on coffee or other caffeinated drinks to get through the day could end up depleting your adrenals, disturbing your quality of sleep, and making you even more fatigued in the long run.