Coffee is a staple in many people's lives due to its "pick-me-up" qualities and reported health benefits. What you may not know is that when you drink coffee, dopamine levels increase in your brain, leading to a better mood and feelings of wellbeing.
According to the National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine, caffeine increases dopamine release in the striatum by acting on adenosine A1 receptors. The striatum, a nucleus in the forebrain, controls the motor and rewards systems.
The Caffeine-Dopamine Effect
Harvard Medical School defines dopamine as a neurotransmitter linked to love, pleasure and motivation. It plays a key role in the brain's reward system and supports everyday processes, such as motor control, learning and memory. Several factors, including what you eat and drink, may affect dopamine levels— which is often why people talk about the coffee-dopamine effect.
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According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, healthy adults can have about 400 milligrams of caffeine per day without any dangerous or negative side effects. That's about four to five cups of coffee. A small study published in Translational Psychiatry in April 2015 states that caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, leading to an increase in dopamine signaling. When dopamine is released, it makes people feel good, so they reach for another cup of coffee.
This neurotransmitter also enhances mental focus and attention. This can explain why you feel alert when you drink coffee. According to a December 2016 research paper in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, caffeine may improve cognition even when consumed in small doses. Furthermore, it has positive effects on reaction time and physical performance.
Read more: How Many Cups of Coffee Can You Drink a Day?
The Effects of Caffeine
There's a lot of debate on whether or not caffeine is beneficial for human health. A March 2019 study published in Nutrients aimed to analyze consumers' perceptions of coffee health benefits, consumption and purchasing motives. Evidence shows that drinking coffee is acknowledged as a pleasure, but consumers are not completely aware of its health benefits.
However, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration states that some unpleasant side effects may occur if you consume more caffeine than you can tolerate. These typically include insomnia, jitters, anxiousness, fast heart rate, upset stomach, nausea, headaches and feelings of unhappiness. Sleeping disorders may be a side effect of caffeine, but there are side effects of not getting enough sleep as well.
As the U.S. National Library of Medicine notes, caffeine is a diuretic, so it helps your body get rid of extra salt and water. It may also increase the release of acid in the stomach, which may lead to heartburn.
Additionally, caffeine may not be safe for some people. You should check with your doctor to see if you're one of them. People who may need to limit or avoid caffeine include pregnant and breastfeeding women, individuals with sleep disorders and high blood pressure, and people with anxiety.
Read more: Long-Term Effects of Caffeine
How to Cut Caffeine
With 95 milligrams per cup, coffee has one of the highest dosages of caffeine that's readily available to everyone, according to the USDA. If you experience any side effects from caffeine or feel that you're becoming too reliant on it, there are some ways to cut back and substitute.
Remember, it's important to cut back slowly rather than quit cold turkey. Instead of drinking coffee to boost your energy, try the following options:
- Decaf coffee does provide a small amount of caffeine (2 to 5 milligrams per 8 ounces) — so if you can't kick that coffee habit, then this is a great substitute.
- Instant tea offers a healthy alternative to coffee. With 26 milligrams of caffeine per cup, there's not as much as in coffee but just enough to get you through the day without experiencing shaking or anxiety.
- As opposed to green tea, with matcha tea, you're consuming the whole leaf, which provides more antioxidants and caffeine. One tablespoon of the organic matcha brand Encha provides about 60 milligrams of caffeine, depending on the brand,
- Some breakfast cereals can give you an extra boost in the morning and may contain up to 11 milligrams of caffeine.
- Harvard Medical School: "Zeroing In on Dopamine"
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Spilling the Beans: How Much Caffeine is Too Much"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Caffeine"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Beverages, Coffee, Brewed, Prepared With Tap Water"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Beverages, Tea, Instant, Unsweetened, Prepared With Water"
- Mayo Clinic: "Caffeine Content for Coffee, Tea, Soda and More"
- Encha: "Encha Ceremonial Grade Pure Organic Matcha"
- The National Academics of Sciences Engineering Medicine: "Caffeine Effects on the Central Nervous System and Behavioral Effects Associated with Caffeine Consumption"
- US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: "Caffeine Increases Striatal Dopamine D2/D3 Receptor Availability in the Human Brain"
- Translational Psychiatry: "Caffeine Increases Striatal Dopamine D2/D3 Receptor Availability in the Human Brain"
- Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews: "A Review of Caffeine’s Effects on Cognitive, Physical and Occupational Performance"
- US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: "Consumers’ Perceptions of Coffee Health Benefits and Motives for Coffee Consumption and Purchasing"
- The National Sleep Foundation: "Surprising Foods That Contain Caffeine"
- The Partnership at Drugfree.org: Caffeine