You know, my father had this crazy mnemonic device for remembering all the exceptions to the “I before E except after C” rule, but I don’t think “caffeine” appears anywhere in it. Maybe they didn’t have caffeine back when he was learning it? It was only isolated as a chemical substance in 1820, after all.
But however you spell it, caffeine is the lifeblood of many writers. For some it’s the only way to meet multiple deadlines. For others it extends productivity beyond an eight-hour work day and a four-hour evening with a spouse, creating a third time window to get personal projects done in. And some people just like being wired. So let’s talk a little bit about caffeine — what it is, where it comes from, and how you should be using it for maximum effectiveness.
Some Basic Chemistry
First thing to understand, caffeine is a poison, specifically a naturally-occurring herb/pesticide. Coffee seedlings produce caffeine naturally as a way of killing both insects that might eat them and sibling-seedlings that might outgrow them. So you’re ingesting a chemical designed to aggressively fuck with the body chemistry of its victim when you have a cup of coffee or whatever.
Fortunately, stuff designed to kill tiny insects and vulnerable baby plants isn’t all that effective against grown human beings. Instead of paralyzing and eventually killing us (well, maybe it will some day), caffeine gives our central nervous system a kick in the pants that we feel as increased alertness and wakefulness. This happens because most of our bloodstream flows through things big and heavy enough to completely ignore the chemical; the exception is the brain, which soaks up the caffeine like a sponge and attaches fiddly little bits to it in a weird chemical process that, let’s be realistic here, you don’t care much about.
And after that happens you wake up. Simple, right? If only. Actually getting an effective night’s work out of caffeinated beverages — as opposed to a night of obsessively intense toenail clipping, say — might as well be voodoo prayer for all modern science can guide you. 100mg of caffeine as contained in a cup of coffee hits the body differently than 100mg in a caffeine pill, and that’s not even taking into consideration the way that different people’s metabolisms and tolerances will handle the same dosage. Fear not, we’ll cover it all.
So your first consideration here is how the caffeine is getting into the body. Consumed in a beverage, the chemical caffeine is absorbed into the bloodstream via the stomach and intestinal lining. It’s usually soaking its way through your tissues (including the all-important brain bits) within half an hour to an hour of your first sip. There isn’t a whole lot other chemicals can do to speed this process up, so be aware — energy drinks with an “instant effect” are generally loading your body up with sugar and more exotic compounds to give you a buzz until the caffeine kicks in. If you’re a traditionalist, you’ll want to give yourself a good half-hour plus between the cup of coffee/tea/soda and when you want to be shifting into high gear.
For those looking to shortcut the process a bit, pill-form caffeine comes unadulterated and slips into the bloodstream more quickly. Don’t look for a huge leap in how quickly you feel the rush, though — the pill still has to be broken down by the stomach, the chemical caffeine freed, and the lining of the stomach/intestines penetrated. From there it’s a short trip via the bloodstream to the liver, which breaks the caffeine down even further and reduces the amount affecting the brain — harshing your vibe, man. If you’ve never been in a fraternity, the next alternative is going to sound a little weird.
Yeah, so, as John Belushi no doubt knew (he wasn’t ever in a fraternity, but he sure did a lot of drugs), you can skip around the whole lame filtration thing your digestive system likes to do if you start at the wrong end. Putting coffee straight up your pooper is a sure-fire way to a) wake the hell up, b) burn yourself in a really hard-to-explain place, and c) crap partially-drained-of-chemicals brown sludge back out for the next half-hour. If you’re not catching the editorial slant here, just make the damn coffee a half-hour early. Seriously.
Of course, the demand for energy now (without putting things in your butt) is never going to go away so long as keggers and pop quizzes continue to exist in the same demographic group. The easiest shortcut is the one I already mentioned: most traditional soft drinks combine caffeine-containing substances with good ol’ fashioned glucose for a quick metabolic jolt. The body snacks on the sugars for fast energy, the brain hooks up with caffeine for slower rewards, and everything is smooth sailing. Right?
Well, sort of. The two “buzzes” are totally independent of one another, and depending on your metabolism may or may not complement one another very well. If you have a faster metabolism, you may well find yourself burning through the sugar in well under half an hour and feeling just about ready for a nap by the time the caffeine starts to take hold. Other people with slower metabolisms may get an unpredictable double-whammy of sugar-high and caffeine-buzz, but only after feeling drowsily unaffected for the first twenty-plus minutes.
If you’ve been in a truck stop lately you know the currently-popular solutions: taurine, ginseng, and B-vitamins, predominantly B6 and B12. You’ve probably heard of guarana too, but don’t worry about that — it’s just another seed that contains high levels of caffeine, like coffee but a little bigger and fruitier-tasting. Taurine and B-vitamins, on the other hand, have no stimulant properties to speak of on their own, though people are desperately trying to prove that they do. What they can do — arguably — is speed up the rate at which your body breaks chemicals down, turning coffee and similar steeped caffeine extracts (like the guarana syrups used in energy drinks) into brain-poison that much faster.
Needless to say, this makes dosage a little challenging. If the presence of taurine (just for example) can help shove an energy drink’s caffeine content to your brain significantly faster, does it matter much what the label says the caffeine content is?
Not much, is the overall answer. The additives in the drink-of-choice aren’t the only factor turning your caffiene dosage into a giant crap shoot; what you ate for dinner has just as much effect on how quickly the delivery method (coffee, tea, caffeine pills in your bum, etc.) takes to actually get an effective amount of caffeine to your brain as the other crap you paid to have added. The only way to be sure you’re going to get a good, long caffeine buzz (and an effective dose can last you up to twelve hours, depending once again on all sorts of crazy factors) is to take significantly more than you realistically need. And that has its own negative consequences:
Your brain is one adaptive motherfucker. Caffeine works because it latches onto specific types of receptors, just like the really boring image above showed.
Once that starts happening regularly, your brain compensates by making other shit to latch onto those receptors, the neurochemical equivalent of a wife buying her cheating husband porn so he’ll stay at home. It can take as little as a week to develop a total immunity to the mental (meaning the sleep-replacing) effects of caffeine if you’re seriously overdosing.
So What the Hell Do You Do?
Right, the title of this post sort of implied advice, didn’t it? Well, here’s the poop:
- Stay the hell away from energy drinks. All they do is mess with your internal chemistry to get the caffeine to the brain faster — once it’s there, the massive overdose doesn’t do you any more good than it would have if you’d just had a pot of coffee. It’s actually worse for you, because the more concentrated dose will burn off faster. Sipping through several cups of hot tea/coffee helps spread the load out and makes the buzz last longer.
- Be cautious of anything with sugar in it. Sodas are the worst offenders, but even coffee with sugar risks jump-starting the metabolism so far that it’s moved into its sleepy digestive cycle by the time the caffeine kicks in. You’ll end up feeling simultaneously in need of rest and unable to relax, more commonly known as “jittery.”
- Prepare ahead of time if you do plan on caffeinating. You want to give the caffeine at least an hour to really kick in to be sure of a good alertness when you need it.
- Space your binges out. Caffeine tolerance is built by constant exposure, not extreme exposure; getting seriously wired one night won’t kick your brain into addiction-mode unless you surround it with days of lower-level intake. Try to surround any seriously caffeine-dependent night by at least two days of “cold turkey” on either side to get the most mileage out of your buzz.
Of course, the real caffeine freaks in the audience probably stopped reading two paragraphs in and went back to check their e-mail for the 3,567th time this morning, huh? Congratulations if you made it this far…tell us what your secret is down in the comments section if you like; I’m off to grab a cup of coffee.