A lot of people are hell- bent on stigmatizing caffeine as the ultimate health pariah. Caffeine leaves you more dehydrated than a Sahara crossing. Caffeine shoots blood pressure higher than a Russian spy satellite. Too much caffeine and your bones will be flimsier than a telenovela plotline.
So how can something that makes us feel so energized be so bad for us? Well, it turns out that our guilty pleasure isn’t so decadent after all. In fact, if you delve into the latest findings from the white coats, caffeine has some very impressive performance and health benefits. Here’s the lowdown on five reasons caffeine is keeping us abuzz.
1. Caffeine improves your game.
Several studies, including a 2008 report in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, have concluded that consuming caffeine before or during exercise helps you run farther, bike harder and hoist more iron. “Caffeine has stimulatory effects on the brain and central nervous system, which changes your perceptions of exertion and pain so you can exercise longer and more intensely,” says Asker Jeukendrup, Ph.D., professor of exercise metabolism at the University of Birmingham School of Sport and Exercise Sciences (U.K.).
Those looking to increase muscle strength should take heed of a University of Nebraska study that reported men who took a supplement containing about 200 milligrams of caffeine before working out increased their one-rep max on the bench press by about 5 pounds — not bad at all, when you consider how much effort you put into boosting that important total. (A caveat: A 2006 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology determined that 200 milligrams of caffeine an hour before exercise decreases blood flow to the heart by up to 39 percent during exercise through constriction of coronary arteries. Although the caffeine didn’t harm the healthy study participants, it’s wise to avoid caffeine supplements and high caffeine drinks for four to five hours before exercise if you have heart disease or a strong family history of it.)
The ideal caffeine dose is about 1.4 milligrams per pound of body weight taken an hour before exercise, because it takes some time for caffeine to reach peak levels in your body. Supplemental caffeine is arguably the ideal way to go, as chlorogenic acids and other compounds in coffee may reduce some of caffeine’s potency.
2. Caffeine helps you recover after intense activity.
Not only can caffeine give you an edge on the field or in the squat rack, but it also may help you recoup afterward. A 2008 Journal of Applied Physiology study reported that when cyclists combined carbohydrates with caffeine (the equivalent of 3.6 milligrams per pound of body weight) after cycling, they accumulated 66 percent more muscle glycogen — the main fuel for working muscles — four hours after exercise compared to when only carbohydrates were consumed.
“Caffeine triggers a greater increase in blood glucose and insulin levels, which brings more glucose into muscles to make glycogen,” says John Hawley, Ph.D., study lead author and professor at the RMIT University School of Medical Sciences in Victoria, Australia. “It also has a big effect on the number of signaling proteins that transport glucose into the muscle.” The results of a study examining the recovery- related effects of lower amounts of caffeine are pending.
Further, University of Georgia scientists found that subjects who were exposed to the caffeine equivalent of two cups of coffee one hour before a maximum force test had a nearly 50 percent reduction in postworkout muscle pain compared to the placebo group. The researchers speculate that caffeine prompts this by blocking the body’s receptors for adenosine, a pain- stimulating chemical found in most body tissues, including the muscles.
3. Caffeine might help you shed body fat.
A central nervous system stimulant, caffeine could act as an appetite suppressant and increase your body’s ability to burn calories by revving up heart rate and metabolism. By allowing you to exercise longer at a more intense clip, you’ll torch more calories, which surely will have positive effects on body composition.
Caffeine may also bind to fat cells, blocking the storage of dietary fat in these cells. Less fat in the fat cells equals smaller cells, which means less flab. So you begin to see why almost all fat-burning supplements include caffeine.
4. Caffeine can rev up your sex life.
A study published in Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior revealed that female rats that got a shot of caffeine were more motivated to seek out sex from their male counterparts than uncaffeinated animals. “Stimulants like caffeine produce arousal that could enhance the positive aspects of a sexual encounter,” says lead researcher Fay Guarraci, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Southwestern University. “Caffeine also has been shown to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with rewards — drug rewards as well as natural rewards, like food and sex.”
5. Caffeine can give your brainpower a boost.
Austrian researchers found that subjects given 100 milligrams of caffeine displayed significantly more activity in areas of the brain associated with memory and attention when confronted with a test designed to assess short-term memory.
Another study administered caffeine to severely sleep-deprived Navy SEALs trainees and found that 200 milligrams improved their alertness, mood and reaction time. Dopamine stimulates the area of your brain gray matter responsible for pleasure, alertness, and problem solving.
Over the years, consumers have been told caffeine contributes to a range of ills. Here, we set the record straight on five common assumptions.
Does caffeine have a diuretic effect?
“The diuretic properties of caffeine have been overstated, and it really only increases urine output at high levels exceeding 500 milligrams,” says caffeine researcher Matthew S. Ganio, Ph.D., a research assistant at the University of Connecticut Department of Kinesiology.
Can it cause or exacerbate osteoporosis?
Human studies have found only a negligible effect of caffeine on bone loss or bone density, which can easily be offset by consuming a bit more calcium in the diet.
Does it prompt hypertension?
Caffeine induces a small rise in blood pressure (especially in those who are sensitive), but the effect is usually short- lived. A Johns Hopkins study followed more than 1,000 men for 33 years and found that coffee drinking played an insignificant role in the development of hypertension when smoking and alcohol use were also taken into account.
Is it addictive?
Because caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, regular use can cause mild physical dependence. But withdrawal symptoms are nowhere near as unpleasant as what occurs with drug and alcohol dependency.
SOMETHING TO CHEW ON
During endurance exercise lasting longer than one hour, consider using sports drinks, gels and energy chews that contain both carbohydrates and caffeine.
Research by Asker Jeukendrup, Ph.D., professor of exercise metabolism at the University of Birmingham School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, has found co-ingestion of the two improves performance more than what occurs with only carbohydrate intake. At higher doses, caffeine appears to improve carbohydrate absorption, and thus energy delivery to the muscle, which could prolong how long it takes to fatigue, he says.