Your brain on coffee: Here’s what really happens when you take a sip

Humans are obsessed with stimulants which is why so many of us are addicted to coffee. But what really happens when we take that first sip? What actually happens in our brain? According to science, some very alarming changes.

Everyone loves coffee

The human addiction to coffee is why projections estimate that by 2022, the world’s dietary supplements market will reach around $220 billion in revenue. At the top of this wellness craze is coffee.

It’s now the second most widely consumed beverage in the world (behind water) and viewed as an essential product for the modern worker. 

What’s in your cup

Coffee contains the central nervous system stimulant known as caffeine. According to neurologist Ajay Sampat, M.D., caffeine acts on a chemical in your brain called adenosine.

As Sampat said, “Adenosine is like a sleep-inducing molecule that your brain makes while you’re awake. The longer you’re awake, the more adenosine you have in your system.” 

Caffeine may increase blood adrenaline levels and brain activity of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. This combination stimulates the brain and promotes a state of arousal, alertness, and focus, with links to improved mood and reaction time. 

Drinking coffee within reason can be good for you. Coffee contains a healthy dose of antioxidants along with Riboflavin (vitamin B2), Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), Manganese and potassium, Magnesium and niacin (vitamin B3), and may even reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

Your brain on coffee in the first six hours

Caffeine is most effective in the first six hours of consumption with levels peaking in the blood after about 15–45 minutes of consumption. 

The Power of Positivity broke down exactly what happens during that period: 

Within 10 minutes: The caffeine from coffee enters your bloodstream, causing your blood pressure and heart rate to rise.

Within 20 minutes: Two of the above-described neurochemical reactions take place. First, the caffeine binds to the brain chemical adenosine, which neutralizes fatigue while increasing our energy. Dopamine levels then increase, which provides the alert and focused feeling. 

Within 30 minutes: The adrenal glands kick into high gear and produce more hormones. Our pupils dilate and may sharpen vision for a short time.

Within 40 minutes: The body produces more serotonin, which improves the functioning of neurons within the spinal cord called motoneurons. This leads to improved muscle strength and coordination.

Within 4 hours: Cellular metabolism increases, which initiates the expedited burning of energy. The body will break down stored fats as a result. Levels of acid within the stomach increase.

Within 6 hours: Caffeine produces a diuretic effect, promoting the act of urination. During this time, approximately half of the caffeine consumed earlier is expelled. (This is called a drug’s half-life – or the amount of time needed for its chemical presence in the blood to drop to 50%.)

The half-life of caffeine in healthy individuals is about 5 hours. However, caffeine’s elimination half-life may range between 1.5 and 9.5 hours. And the lasting effectiveness varies based on several factors. 

Obviously, how you drink your coffee matters. There’s a big gap between a plain black espresso in the morning and making multiple trips to Starbucks for a Cinnamon Roll Frappuccino.

As stated by Jerri Ann Reason of Livestrong, mixing large quantities of caffeine with too much sugar can come with serious downsides: “The blood glucose levels soar and then crash shortly thereafter, and when combined with caffeine, the enormous surge of energy from the sugar and the stimulant in caffeine lead to a crash of blood sugar within hours.”

Even if you avoid the loads of sugars and fats dumped into a latte, just adding cream to your homebrewed coffee could quickly skyrocket to over 200 calories per serving. 

With that said, there’s no reason coffee can’t be an energizing part of your day. I love drinking coffee with some oat milk and a dash of agave. But I also know how to balance it with a healthy lifestyle. Be mindful of how much you’re consuming and pay attention to your mind and body within six hours of taking a sip.

What to do if coffee is keeping you awake

While caffeine consumption is generally considered safe, coffee affects everyone a little differently. A lot of our caffeine sensitivity comes down to genetics and tolerance.

A common downside for people who drink caffeinated beverages is a need to up the frequency to see the same results. But there are several easy ways to reset your caffeine tolerance

If coffee is disrupting your sleep or causing headaches, we previously broke down some sustainable alternatives including spirulina, L-Theanine, mushroom coffee, matcha, and various nootropics.

Adaptogen supplements and products with limited caffeine like MUD\WTR are growing in popularity as well.