Someone once said “there’s no sunshine without coffee.” I tend to agree. However, there’s a great deal more to understand regarding the effects of caffeine – the central nervous system stimulant most people associate with coffee – and its effects on mental acuity, performance, etc. In this article I’m going to cover what people really need to know about this topic, so they can make educated choices.
Caffeine – a compound in the methylxanthine family – has its effects through various mechanisms on the central nervous system, and to be honest, I doubt those mechanisms are of great interest to most readers, so I won’t bother with an extensive discussion on it here. Suffice to say, caffeine positively impacts memory, performance, endurance, coordination and increases arousal, vigilance, while reducing fatigue, to name a few effects. Anyone who has used straight caffeine knows the stuff works, which is why the military, for example, adds it to gum as well as other things like bars and such. We all know the “energy drink/shot” category is all the rage these days even outside the gym setting. Although caffeine is not for everyone to be sure, it’s amazingly non-toxic. OK, so users of caffeine either know all this, or have at least experienced it, and don’t need much convincing it’s effective stuff for its intended uses. Let’s move into the more interesting info of this article, shall we?
Coffee Vs. Caffeine
Here’s where things get interesting, at least to science nerds like me. Most people think of coffee and caffeine as essentially interchangeable terms with the same effects. However, caffeine and coffee have very different effects and when we discuss the various positive effects of caffeine on performance or mental acuity, we are in fact talking about straight caffeine vs. coffee. That reality often comes as a surprise to many, but it’s true. Caffeine and coffee have different effects and it’s straight caffeine that has the pronounced effects on performance, mental acuity, and others briefly outlined above.
Studies have been carried out that used coffee matched for caffeine content vs. pure caffeine, and find it’s the straight caffeine that has the major impact on what we all generally associate with caffeine. Probably the most extensive study that compares coffee to caffeine was entitled Metabolic and exercise endurance effects of coffee and caffeine ingestion (1). This study found in a nutshell:
“…This study was designed to compare the metabolic and exercise endurance responses to the ingestion of the same amounts of caffeine as a coffee beverage and as pure caffeine with water. The caffeine was consumed in the same volume of coffee or water in the same period of time. It resulted in very similar plasma concentrations of plasma methylxanthines [meaning the caffeine appeared to be absorbed equally from the different sources], but only when it was consumed independent of coffee was there an enhancement of endurance. In addition, in this trial the initial impact on circulating epinephrine [adrenaline] concentration was greatest. Thus it appears that some component(s) in coffee interferes with the normal ergogenic response of caffeine.”
So for the non-science readers, what does the above mean? Essentially, coffee matched for caffeine content to caffeine capsules failed to have the same effects on adrenaline response (feeling “jacked up”) and endurance as straight caffeine. “Why is that, Will?!” is the obvious thought you have! No, I’m not a mind reader, just the obvious question.
Coffee is a complex biological substance with literally hundreds of compounds that are dissolved along with caffeine during the brewing process, all of which ends up in your coffee mug. Some of these compounds have effects completely separate from caffeine, and more important to this article, effects that appear to counteract the effects of caffeine, which is a positive or a negative depending on how you view it. Besides the more obvious stuff found in coffee (e.g., lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins) you find compounds of potential metabolic importance, such as nicotinic acid, opiate-receptor antagonists, and cholinomimetics (agents that exert an effect “opposite” to adrenaline). Interestingly one group of researchers isolated a cholinomimetic compound from both regular and decaffeinated coffees that, when injected into rats, resulted in decreases in heart rate and blood pressure. Thus, a compound that has direct counter regulatory effects to that of caffeine (and adrenaline). Coffee has all manner of potential health benefits, while caffeine has unique effects when taken in isolation as it pertains to performance.
Additional support for that is the fact these researchers also added pure caffeine to decaf coffee matched for dose to straight caffeine, and the effects were still inferior to caffeine alone on performance as well as other effects one usually associates to coffee vs. caffeine. According to the researchers from the above paper, “One possibility to account for this difference is that one or more of the multitude of compounds in coffee beverages antagonize the actions of caffeine, resulting in a reduced response.”
We know what the caffeine antagonist is in tea (from Camellia sinensis—the leaves that make white, green, oolong, and black teas). It is called L-theanine and you can buy it as a stand alone dietary supplement, and it’s also in some “relaxing” drinks and supplements. L-theanine combined with caffeine reduces both the blood pressure elevation and the alertness boosting effects of caffeine alone (2).
Caffeine Content of Coffee
As the previous section outlines, if you want to enjoy your cup of coffee because it tastes good, and gives you a coffee buzz – that’s likely due to a variety of naturally occurring compounds in the coffee in addition to the caffeine – go for it. Of course, I and others prefer to follow the Bomb Proof Coffee recipe, which makes a mug O coffee go from good to great…I won’t be giving up my mug of strong morning coffee any time soon. However, if you are looking specifically to get the known effects of caffeine on performance, increased alertness, etc., use straight caffeine.
Even if you are attempting to drink coffee for its caffeine content, that’s a hit or miss strategy. Researchers visited a variety of specialty coffee store for 6 consecutive days and tested a wide range of coffees and found the caffeine content varied considerably (3). According to these researchers:
“There was a wide range in caffeine content present in caffeinated coffees ranging from 58 to 259 mg/dose. The mean (SD) caffeine content of the brewed specialty coffees was 188 (36) mg for a 16-oz cup. Another notable find is the wide range of caffeine concentrations (259-564 mg/dose) in the same coffee beverage obtained from the same outlet on six consecutive days.”
So the same cup of coffee purchased from the same vendor (Starbucks) over six consecutive days ranged from 259 to 564 mg of caffeine!!! That’s like power gulping 3.2 to just over 7 small cans of Red Bull®—over 15-30 minutes (see below). If you want to try and experiment to confirm what the earlier mentioned study found regarding the different effects coffee has from straight caffeine, try 600mg of pure caffeine some time. Your head may explode, but you will never doubt again what an equal amount of caffeine feels like that can be found in a really strong cup of coffee.
So What About the Energy Drinks?
The “energy drink” category is all the rage these days, and cans of Red Bull and others of the ilk fly off the shelves. This has proven to be a very profitable market segment for sellers of these products. There’s nothing inherently problematic with them, but to get your 80mg of caffeine (the dose listed for Red Bull for example) you have to ingest additional stuff you may not want, be it sugar, various synthetic sweeteners, etc. and you are paying an exorbitant amount per serving compared to what you get from them. Bang for the buck, these products are generally a poor deal in my view.
The same researchers who measured the caffeine content in coffees did a separate study and examined the caffeine content of a variety of sodas and energy drinks. Sodas such as Coke Classic had similar caffeine content to those energy drinks at the lower end of their caffeine content, such as KMX, which had 33.3mg of caffeine to Coke Classic’s 29.5mg but the caffeine content could vary. Interestingly, they found just 67mg of caffeine in a small can of Red Bull, a drop from the 80mg that is claimed to be inside (4) They summarize their findings:
“The caffeine content of 10 energy drinks, 19 carbonated sodas, and 7 other beverages was determined. In addition, the variability of the caffeine content of Coca-Cola fountain soda was evaluated…The caffeine concentration of the caffeinated energy drinks ranged from none detected to 141.1 mg/serving. The caffeine content of the carbonated sodas ranged from none detected to 48.2 mg/serving, and the content of the other beverages ranged from < 2.7 to 105.7 mg/serving.”
Take home is, I don’t have any beef per se with the energy drink/shot category of products, but I also don’t see them as a value for the money spent considering what you get, and I don’t like the taste of most of them (which admittedly is a subjective experience) and for me, they don’t make sense to spend money on.
Cost effective Caffeine
OK, so coffee is great stuff, but does not deliver the true caffeine experience, and energy drinks are, in my view, an overly expensive and unneeded method of getting caffeine. What next? A product called Fein came on my radar a while back while at a show. I asked for some samples, tried it, and liked it It’s simplicity at its best: an inexpensive, essentially tasteless, easy to use way of getting pure caffeine when I want it—and it has zero calories and no artificial ingredients. It comes in a tiny packet of powder which can be used when and where I need it, and it was inexpensive to boot. Unfortunately, Fein is no longer for sale it appears, but there’s other caffeine products out there for cost effective caffeine.
Effective doses of caffeine varies widely with people, so some experimentation is needed. One study showed that a dose of pure caffeine as low as 12.5mg—in regular caffeine users—improved mental function. Generally speaking, for those who have been exposed to caffeine before – which is most human beings on the planet – 75 to 100mg is a good starting dose in my experience. Those particularly sensitive to stimulants, might try 25-50mg to start.
Obviously caffeine is a stimulant and, as with all stimulants, has its possible drawbacks, like insomnia if you take it too late in the day. Although caffeine has been shown to be exceedingly non-toxic, general warnings apply (like check with your doc before you take it if you have high blood pressure, are taking psychiatric drugs, or are pregnant), so make sure caffeine is right for you before proceeding.
Many make the mistake of viewing coffee and caffeine as interchangeable, and that’s clearly not the case. Caffeine appears superior when mental focus and performance is the goal, coffee the better choice for overall health benefits and a smoother experience, not to mention it tastes great. Those who already love a good mug of coffee, will find they’ll never go back to regular coffee once they start drinking Bomb Proof Coffee.
See you in the gym!
(1) Graham TE, et al. Metabolic and exercise endurance effects of coffee and caffeine ingestion. J Appl Physiol 1998;85:883-9.
(2) Rogers PJ, et al. Time for tea: mood, blood pressure and cognitive performance effects of caffeine and theanine administered alone and together. Psychopharmacology 2008;195:569–77.
(3) McCusker RR, et al. Caffeine content of specialty coffees. J Anal Toxicol 2003;27:520-2.
(4) McCusker RR, et al. Caffeine content of energy drinks, carbonated sodas, and other beverages. J Anal Toxicol 2006;30:112-4.
(5) Smit HJ and Rogers PJ. Effects of low doses of caffeine on cognitive performance, mood and thirst in low and higher caffeine consumers. Psychopharmacology 2000;152:167–73.
Will Brink is the owner of the Brinkzone Blog. Will has over 30 years experience as a respected author, columnist and consultant, to the supplement, fitness, bodybuilding, and weight loss industry and has been extensively published. Will graduated from Harvard University with a concentration in the natural sciences, and is a consultant to major supplement, dairy, and pharmaceutical companies.
His often ground breaking articles can be found in publications such as Lets Live, Muscle Media 2000, MuscleMag International, The Life Extension Magazine, Muscle n Fitness, Inside Karate, Exercise For Men Only, Body International, Power, Oxygen, Penthouse, Women’s World and The Townsend Letter For Doctors.
He’s also been published in peer reviewed journals.
You can also buy Will’s other books on Amazon, Apple iBook, and Barnes and Noble.