!Awake: This is Your Brain on Caffeine.

If there's one thing I can truly claim to be an expert on, it's staying awake. For five years I struggled to stay employed with an undiagnosed sleep disorder. The modern work environment can be an exhausting ordeal and as a REM sleep deprived zombie, it can be a nightmare.

The good news is I survived and so can you. Better yet, I have an arsenal of accumulated knowledge to share with the world. Today, let's look at everyone's favorite morning pick-me-up:

Caffeine isn't as helpful as you think.

Let's face it, caffeine is the life blood of developers. If you're not sharing the morning pot of coffee you're probably having your RedBull or Kombucha instead. Caffeine may make you feel great, but it might be more detrimental than you realize.

When you've been awake for too long (or skimping on sleep) your nervous system starts populating with this little molecule called adenosine. A neurochemical that tells your brain it's time to go to bed. Structurally, the adenosine molecule is very similar to that of caffeine, so much in fact, that the caffeine molecule fits neatly in the receptor adenosine is normally absorbed into. But rather than emulating the effect of adenosine, caffeine acts as a antagonist, meaning it simply blocks the receptor from use all together, preventing those feelings of drowsiness. And that's not all, after a while your brain detects this new abundance of adenosine in your system and reacts by activating your adrenal glands, secreting adrenaline, which gives you that sudden feeling of alertness. If you're wondering why there's that afternoon coffee crash a few hours later, it's because all that adenosine that has no where to go gets released in a tidal wave a fatigue as the caffeine leaves your system.

"Ha!" you say, "I'll just keep drinking coffee until I'm off work and by then I'll crash right as I'm about to go to bed anyway."

Great idea, except your brain might have some ideas of it's own. See, your brain doesn't like being wired up all the time and thinks your missing sleep so it starts producing more adenosine on a regular basis and reduces the effectiveness of your adrenal (norepinephrine) receptors too. Now your daily caffeine intake is only letting you break even at best to compete. Worst yet, without your daily cup you're more fatigued than normal with a serious degradation in your ability to wake yourself back up.

But wait there's more!

Daily crashes and a chemical dependency aren't the only side effects, unfortunately. Caffeine can affect you in other ways too:

  • The caffeine half-life is roughly six hours, which means if you consume 200mg in the morning, you'll still have 50mg in your system by the time you go to bed, often causing insomnia.

  • The overuse of caffeine for long periods of time can actually reduce women's chances of pregnancy by about 27%.

  • Caffeine is well known to increase anxiety, with an even greater effect on those already with anxiety disorders.

  • Daily intake of caffeine can cause serious digestive issues including; heartburn, ulcers, and poor absorption in your digestive tract.

If you've personally noticed any of these issues or an onset of chronic fatigue, I have good news. Caffeine tolerance only takes a week or so to completely diminish, so if you want to quit you'll probably only have to survive a single work week at most. Better yet, by reducing your intake by a cup (or half a cup) a day you'll barely even notice the withdrawal. And don't forget, there's always decaf!

When abstinence is not an option.

I get it, energy drinks of all types just aren't the same with that little kick. Saying decaf coffee is just as good as regular is like saying non-alcoholic beer tastes just as good as the real thing. So how do you keep the habit without all the nasty side effects?

Your first option is simply to switch to a lower level of caffeine. Everyone's body chemistry is different, but there's a sweet spot where you can intake enough caffeine to reduce drowsiness, but not so much where it starts firing off your adrenal glands. Personally I find half a cup of coffee or a full cup of weaker tea does the trick. Consuming energy drinks becomes a little harder because of their serving size, but some of the more recent, "natural", brands have under 50mg of caffeine or sometimes none at all. Just be careful though, there's lots of similar chemicals like Guarana that are just caffeine in disguise.

Your second option is to alternate between 'on' and 'off' days for caffeine consumption. Drinking coffee every 3-5 days instead of every day will usually work. Cycling your intake helps prevents your body from building a strong tolerance, but sorry, you'll still get the daily crash. You can also switch back and forth between caffeine and other types of (legal!) stimulants like Vitamin B to Ginkgo Biloba to keep your body from adapting.

Check the blog next month for more tips on staying awake!