Early peoples realized that certain plants gave them a little extra energy,
stamina and endurance. Humans, always looking to take advantage of a good
thing, sought to isolate the special spark that these plants contained — the
compound now called caffeine. With technology came agricultural practices
that allowed the cultivation of vast fields of caffeine-containing crops and
with selective breeding, the genetic strains could be tweaked to produce plants
with higher levels of this magical molecule.
Also, with the knowledge that it
was the caffeine, specifically, that provided the desired mind and body effects,
isolation of this compound was perfected so that the pure form could be added to
any product to impart that special energy burst.
A vast consumer market now exists for caffeinated products. Four out of five
Americans consume caffeinated products daily, with an average daily consumption
between 100-300 mg. An 8-oz cup of drip coffee contains a little over 100 mg
of caffeine, 8 oz. of tea can have up to 60 mg of caffeine and a 12-oz can of
soda contains about 40 mg. Consider, though, how small an amount, from our
modern super-sized perspective, is this amount of coffee or soda. Also, the
caffeine composition of coffees and teas varies with each batch of beans or
leaves. The cup consumed today will have a different quantity of caffeine than
the one consumed yesterday. It was found that for one major coffee chain,
medium-sized servings purchased from the same store differed by 305 mg of
caffeine! This makes monitoring and controlling your caffeine intake very
problematic. But, should we worry about this at all? Is the black brush
with which caffeine has been painted by a variety of health organizations
Known chemically as 3,7-Dihydro-1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6-dione, caffeine
is a crystal-forming compound that occurs naturally in tea, coffee and mate
leaves as well as guarana paste, cola and cocoa nuts. The most recognized
effects of caffeine consumption are increased energy, endurance and mental
clarity. Many people cannot meet the criteria of "human" without their morning
dose of caffeine and quickly relapse to inanimate object status without
continued caffeine intake. However, a too liberal dose of our preferred
energizer, produces unwanted effects such as sleep disruption, "the jitters,"
heart palpitation and increased diuresis.
The mechanism of caffeine's actions is rather simple. The body normally
produces a substance called adenosine, which binds to body points called
adenosine receptors, and works to slow down nerve cell activity. You get
drowsy. Unfortunately for nerve cells, they don't discriminate between an
adenosine molecule and a caffeine molecule and caffeine will latch onto
these sites like a spinster to a farmhand. Instead of slowing down, the nerve
cells speed up. With increased nerve activity, the pituitary gland (the
conductor of your hormonal orchestra) is tricked into thinking there is a
stress occurring and tells your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline. You
go into "fight or flight" response:
- Dilated pupils
- Dilated respiratory passages
- Increased heart rate
- Increase in blood pressure
- Suppressed appetite
- Release of liver sugars into the bloodstream for energy
- Tensing of muscles
Sound familiar? All of these effects are designed to promote increased energy
and readiness to combat the pouncing tiger, leap from the burning car, or flee
the demand-waving tax collector and they have kept us alive and intact
throughout human history. Caffeine also stimulates the production of dopamine,
one of the body's pleasure-stimulating hormones, so we enjoy the increased
energy and receive an additional "happy" feeling from its consumption. We want
more and more and more...
The laundry list of benefits of caffeine is actually quite robust. Caffeine
helps relieve asthma attacks and vascular headaches by dilating blood vessels
and respiratory passages, increases motor activity and short-term memory,
increases focus and concentration and increases tolerance to pain. Many diet
aids contain caffeine or guarana since caffeine can promote fat burning
(thermogenesis) and suppress appetite. And, for athletes, especially endurance
athletes, caffeine has been shown to increase stamina, reduce muscle pain/fatigue
and enhance overall performance. With such a sterling resume, one would think
caffeine to be as important for health and wellness as water, and the populace
should lobby for the addition of caffeine as the official 5th Food Group. However,
if we more closely examine how caffeine accomplishes these supernatural effects,
we see fully why low carb advocates such as Dr. Atkins warn against it for
Caffeine promotes the release of fatty acids into the bloodstream; these are the
components of a fat molecule that the body can use as fuel. This additional
fuel keeps the circulating levels of glucose relatively high and reduces the
body's tendency to dip into muscle glycogen as they normally do during exercise.
For an endurance athlete, this means that the time before "hitting the wall" is
delayed. This phenomenon occurs when the muscles have depleted their store of
glycogen and the mobilization of fat for energy cannot occur sufficiently fast
to keep the muscles fueled. The fatty acid release permits activity for an
extended period of time. Caffeine also promotes the release of adrenaline,
which boosts mental clarity, focus and concentration, release of liver glucose,
reaction times and motor activity. Again, for athletes such as cyclists and
runners, these effects provide significant performance benefit.
For a low carb dieter, though, these effects have a dark and sinister agenda. Consider:
- The release of fatty acids as muscle fuel reduces muscle uptake of glucose.
- At the same time, adrenaline encourages the release of liver glucose into the bloodstream.
- Adrenaline, itself, reduces glucose uptake by cells.
- Glucose levels stay high in the bloodstream, prompting continued release of insulin.
In other words, insulin resistance and all of its fat-storing, health-stealing consequences.
Moreover, these effects have been noted with quite moderate amounts of caffeine, about that of a
mug of drip coffee, and the effects last for hours after the caffeine is administered. To place
another nail in the caffeine-addict's low carb coffin, the greater the caffeine devotion, the more
debilitating the effects. For heavy caffeine users, it has been found that the pancreas becomes
more sensitive and will over-produce insulin in response to the caffeine-elevated blood glucose
level. That great villain, hyperinsulinism swoops in to with its sidekick hypoglycemia and the
other members of its unholy anti-low carb posse.
Caffeine increases the body's overall level of insulin resistance. For an endurance athlete,
this is a good thing and can improve performance. For a low carb dieter, this is the opposite
of the golden goal; caffeine is as counterproductive to low carb weight-loss efforts as hiring
a pig to guard the peaches. Obviously, the degree of impact will vary with individual, but
it is not surprising that many low carb dieters experience stalls or diminished rates of
weight loss when they consume caffeinated beverages. For those who simply cannot function
without a daily caffeine influx, however, there is a mechanism to reduce caffeine's effects
on insulin resistance - exercise. Exercise increases the insulin sensitivity of muscle
tissue. This is the problem encountered by endurance athletes. For the low carb dieter,
though, exercise can be used to counterbalance, to some degree, caffeine's effects.
Plus, one receives all of the health benefits offered by exercise for general wellness
and weight loss. To increase motivation to begin or intensify a workout routine,
consider caffeine a carrot on a stick.
The ideal situation for low carbers, of course, is the avoidance of caffeine in the first
place. It is unwise, though, to completely eliminate caffeine from your diet at one time.
The temporarily increased blood flow to the brain can produce vascular headaches and the
body must adjust to the new, lower levels of adrenaline, which can produce moderate,
unpleasant side-effects such as lethargy, irritability, headache, restlessness and reduced
concentration. Many turn back to caffeine rather than endure the withdrawal symptoms
(people who say caffeine is non-addictive should be banned like asbestos). Slowly decreasing
caffeine consumption will lessen the severity of the withdrawal. Replace a cup or two
of regular coffee or soda with their decaffeinated counterparts. Soy coffee has no
caffeine, but provides protein and other valuable nutrients. Enjoy green tea hot or cold.
Green tea has less than 10% of the caffeine of drip coffee and contains compounds that
appear to boost metabolic rate and provide antioxidant benefits. Regardless of the
struggle required to reduce, then eliminate, the day's caffeine, the health and diet
benefits that await are worth the effort.