Psychoactive Stimulant Drug!!
Wow, sounds like something I could really use at the moment. Oh, wait—I DID have a psychoactive stimulant drug. More than once actually, and it’s still morning!
Psychoactive (affects the mind) + Stimulant (increases level of physiological activity) = Caffeine
How Caffeine Came to Be
Formally identified in 1819 by German chemist Friedrich Ferdinand Runge who called it kaffein for the compound found in Kaffee (coffee).
Actually discovered by Stone Age night owls who needed to wake up early for the morning mammoth hunt. Maybe. But we do know that our prehistoric ancestors chewed plants containing caffeine, and by around 3000 BCE, people figured out that you can get more caffeine by brewing those plants in hot water.
Caffeine stays in our bodies for quite awhile—around 4–6 hours for the average adult but far longer for those on certain medicines, pregnant women (11 hours!), and children, for instance. And no, caffeine will not stunt the growth of children or teens (though there are other problems with excessive levels of caffeine, such as energy drinks).
Reasons to Embrace Caffeine
The Well Known
Yes, those wonderful psychoactive stimulant effects that I depend on every morning!
When we ingest caffeine, it travels throughout our body. In our brain, it binds to the adenosine receptors—essentially shutting down the signal that would normally tell us that we are tired, and stimulating the central nervous system. (Adenosine is released when light dims and we should be getting sleep.)
This stimulation of the central nervous system means heightened alertness and focus and coordination. All helpful, whether hunting mammoth or a parking space.
No wonder that 90% of people ingest caffeine daily. Worldwide.
The Perhaps Less Well Known
Caffeine also reduces inflammation. It is used to treat apnea and irregular heartbeats in babies. It helps with short-term memory and mood. It is a component of many medicines, particularly those for headache (great-grandma was right—the old remedy of drinking coffee for a headache is valid).
Caffeine in Tea: A Bonus
And caffeine has been shown to protect against skin cancer (basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma) caused by ultraviolet radiation (sunlight, tanning lamps). When my grandmother developed skin cancer in the 1970s, few of us knew much about skin cancer and its seriousness. Today, it is a major public health problem, spurring research studies.
There are many stages in the progression of cancer, offering multiple opportunities to target treatment. Tea—with its antioxidant (due to all those polyphenols) and hence anticarcinogenic mechanisms—has great potential in preventing, slowing, or even reversing skin cancer. And indeed, ingesting green or black tea or caffeine alone has been shown to inhibit these cancers in mice.
However, decaffeinated tea had little effect.
It seems that the combination of tea with caffeine is the most effective combination. The properties of tea and caffeine may each work alone, or they may work synergistically to greater effect.
In addition, there is some laboratory evidence that tea polyphenols (by applying tea extracts topically or by drinking tea) may increase the effectiveness of sunscreen, another protector against skin cancer. As Camouse and her colleagues put it:
What is essential is to conduct more scientific studies and controlled clinical trials that would translate the promising data obtained from in vitro and animal model testing into human application.
My next post or two will delve into some other common questions:
Is the caffeine in coffee the same as that in tea? What about chocolate and yerba mate?
Can you know how much caffeine is in your tea, and can you do anything about it yourself? What is the connection between caffeine and flavor?
Meanwhile, enjoy a cup of tea, with or without caffeine!
–”Caffeine,” Science of Food and Cooking, http://www.edinformatics.com/math_science/science_of_cooking/caffeine.htm.
–”Medicines in your home: Caffeine and your body,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Fall 2007.
–”Protective effects of tea polyphenols and caffeine,” by M. M. Camouse et al., Expert Review of Anticancer Therapy 5(6):p1060. December 2005.