Caffeine for Health and Athletic Performance

Updated: Jun 27

Author: Daniel Burnett

Posted: 2/3/2022

Caffeine is the most consumed psychoactive substance in the world. With the amount of caffeine that most adults drink, have you ever wondered about its health benefits or risks? As an athlete, do you ever wonder if caffeine is the right motivational tool, or if it is hurting your performance? Good news is that the answers to these questions are in this article. Grab yourself a cup of coffee and have a read!

Caffeine was popularized in Egypt in approximately 850 AD and has been consumed in a form of coffee ever since. A staggering number of adults consume caffeinated beverages. In fact, an average of 90% of adults worldwide consume caffeine. With caffeine consumption being so common, it is important to ask if it is helping or hurting us.

The general thought is that caffeine consumption in the right amount can boost physical endurance, alertness, mood, cognitive functions, and athletic performance. However, like any drug, caffeine in excess can lead to concerns of sleep disturbances, addiction and dependency, anxiety, dehydration, and high blood pressure risks. So, how much is too much? Studies conducted by various researchers of the British Nutrition Foundation established double blind trials with placebo controls over 15 years to establish caffeine consumption that would maximize the benefits of caffeine use and minimize its risks. Most of the studies reported benefits associated with caffeine intake that equated to 38 to 400 mg per day. Most adults meet this range at approximately 200mg per day.

First, it is important to evaluate the cognitive findings. Caffeine inhibits neurotransmitters known to slow down brain activity. The receptors are benzodiazepine and, more importantly, adenosine. Caffeine acts as a stimulant due to the way it acts on adenosine receptors in the neural membranes. Adenosine is a neuromodulator in the central nervous system (CNS). In layman’s terms, adenosine is a messenger that binds to receptors in the CNS. When adenosine binds to its receptors, neural activity slows, causing sleepiness. Adenosine is essentially a hormone that facilitates sleep. Caffeine is an antagonist to adenosine, meaning that it can bind to the same receptors. This means that fewer receptors will be available for adenosine to bind to, and the brain will not slow down as fast. This inhibitor of adenosine can lead to a perception of decreased fatigue, which can ultimately benefit the athlete.

The con is that caffeine can cause sleep disturbances and irritability. Therefore, timing and dosage of consumption is important. For example, caffeine consumption can circulate the body for as long as 10 hours after consumption. For this reason, even an afternoon coffee can impact your sleep routine. A grande dark roast coffee right before bed is not the best idea. Caffeine intake also causes changes to the neurotransmitters of dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, glutamate, noradrenalin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid. However, specifically noradrenalin and dopamine should be emphasized. The activation of noradrenalin is known as the “fight or flight” hormone. This hormone will give the body an extra burst of energy, which is the goal of most caffeine drinkers. However, individual responses to caffeine vary and some people experience too much extra energy. This may lead to increased heart rate and irritability with caffeine consumption. Some people also report withdrawal symptoms when caffeine becomes an addiction. The common symptoms are headaches and moodiness. Caffeine increases the production of dopamine, or the pleasure hormone. This can further influence dependency which can later lead to withdraws that consist of headaches, nausea, and excess sleepiness.

Overall, studies show benefits of improved alertness, short-term recall, and reaction time. There were also positive findings for mood and lower perceived fatigue. Doherty and Smith (2004) examined 40 double-blind studies that evaluated caffeine and performance. Their findings show that caffeine has ergogenic properties, and increased exercise test performance by 12% to as much as 30%. Physical aspects for physical performance improvement are still being studied; however, theories suggest an increase in muscle triacylglycerol utilization, sparing glycogen usage. For this reason, the utilization of triacylglycerol may also mean an improvement in heart health. Studies show that caffeine is recognized as a diuretic; however, it does not cause dehydration. The diuretic property only shows concerns of dehydration when consumption reaches levels over 400mg in a 24-hour period.

Just like most things, more does not mean ‘more better.’ Caffeine is a great ergogenic aid that can be used to help athletes train longer and harder. It can stimulate the brain to think clearer and create greater concentration. However, it should not be used in excess. Like most good things, there are limits. When consuming excess caffeine, some may experience upset stomachs, nausea, and anxiety when one is already subject to anxiety. So, in a competition setting that may already create feelings of anxiety and nervousness this should be considered. Caffeine is a stimulant that should be evaluated by the individual. Especially in athletic use it is important to know the recommended use range and then test what works best for the individual. If an individual experiences excess anxiety when performing in front of a crowd, then maybe caffeine should be avoided all together. However, we have all had one of those days where our body does not want to cooperate with our sluggish brain. Sometimes caffeine seems like the right jumpstart to get the ball rolling.

In conclusion, caffeine in the right amounts (38-400mg on average) is beneficial for daily life, especially in athletic performance. Caffeine can have positive effects on physical and cognitive function. After reviewing these studies, caffeine is evident to its benefit in endurance and short-term, high intensity exercise. More benefits are noticed during endurance exercise than with short-term exercise of 20 minutes or less. Therefore, it is an ergogenic aid that can be considered for athletes. However, athletes should test its benefits in an environment that is lenient so that they can adjust intake as needed.


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