Coffee’s special powers are discovered early in life. Due to its legality and ubiquity, coffee has grown into an uncontested fixture of modern life. Coffee tantalizes the senses, with avid coffee drinkers seeking its sumptuous aroma and smooth taste. Of course, coffee, via its caffeine, also offers some other obvious benefits. Are these gains grounds for coffee being a performance-enhancing drug?
Can you dope with coffee?
How Caffeine Works
First, let’s quickly go over caffeine’s effects on the body. Caffeine enhances the body’s internal systems by preventing the breakdown of cAMP. cAMP, or cyclic adenosine monophosphate, as it’s officially called, is a chemical messenger needed to trigger the actions of several necessary hormones and neurotransmitters. By preventing cAMP’s disintegration, caffeine prolongs its effects, and along with it, its downstream effects. For example, cAMP stimulates epinephrine’s effects on the heart and muscles, increasing heart rate and force of muscle contractions.
Caffeine in Sports
Athletes strategically use caffeine to enhance their performance during competition. One runner, bewildered by his impressive post-coffee time, promised to gulp down a cup of joe right before his races. Caffeine may enhance performance by encouraging the body to use fat for energy instead of first depleting the glycogen (a glucose, sugar compound) stores needed for muscle use. Since more energy is available, the body takes longer to tire and can exercise for longer.
Compared to the potent drugs banned in sport, caffeinated foods are mild alternatives enough to push elite performers onto the podium. So, caffeine probably wouldn’t gift a rusty novice with a gold, but it can help the best get better. According to one systematic study that looked at cycling, running, rowing and cross-country skiing studies, caffeine can boost athletic performance by 3 percent, a small number with a huge impact. However, the amount of caffeine needed for this to be true is about “four strong cups of coffee,” more or less depending on your body type.
Caffeine and the Mind
Caffeine’s effects are popularly explored in the sports world for its ability to improve physical performance. However, coffee drinkers probably also feel the benefits of a sharpened, or altered, mental performance.
To call caffeine a cognitive enhancer may be too generous, but there are small gains to be salvaged from the bean. Caffeine can improve our mental ability in three situations 1) passive learning 2) learning that does not rely on working memory and 3) reaction times.
1) Passive Learning
Caffeine appears to improve learning that happens without intention. This may include “priming” where subliminal cues are unknowingly exposed to the mind and seem familiar upon subsequent observations. When learning with intent, however, caffeine provides no enhancement.
2) Learning not based on Working Memory
Working memory is the temporary memory that is in our present, conscious mind. Think of it like the RAM of your computer, the information that can be currently accessed before it is organized elsewhere in the brain (e.g. trying to hold the digits of someone’s phone number). Caffeine may help learning that doesn’t involve much working memory, but may worsen tasks that rely on working memory.
3) Reaction Times
Simply put, caffeine may improve reaction time.
Caffeine and Pain
Caffeine could be pulling double duty as an analgesic too. In addition to enhancing performance, caffeine may reduce pain. According to one study, both regular caffeine consumers and non-caffeinated individuals felt similar pain reduction effects of caffeine. Another study points out that this hypoalgesic effect could be because of caffeine’s effect on blood pressure: caffeine raises blood pressure, which in turn decreases one’s sensitivity to pain.
Feeling less pain may be one key for unlocking potential. Masking the slight pains of exercise could encourage one to continue exercising. In one test, athletes reported less fatigue when they used caffeine, which may encourage them to work past previously perceived limits and achieve new feats.
Despite caffeine’s accessibility, not everyone will choose to extract its benefits. This is because there are downsides to regular caffeine consumption. Caffeine makes some too jittery and anxious to function comfortably. It could also exacerbate symptoms of those with anxiety disorders, consistently triggering panic attacks and feelings of doom.
Caffeine withdrawal can further negatively impact someone’s daily operations as addictions force reliance on the drug for daily performance. Sleep cycles are no exception as caffeine abuse impairs sleep…and we all know how much more annoying the world becomes without a good night’s sleep.
The ethics around these daily drugs is messy, and frankly, ignored. Ignored because of its overwhelming use around the world and in diverse populations. I wouldn’t yet suggest a blanket ban on coffee (I don’t want to be so unpopular), but this discussion should provoke us to wonder how something becomes an illicit drug or activity.
Is it to reduce harm among performers? Or is it to keep the performance fair?