Caffeine And The Brain: Part 1

Before switching to a Paleo Diet, many of us drank coffee on a regular basis. If not coffee, maybe an energy drink, espresso, or a diet or regular soda. All of these beverages have one thing in common: caffeine. Caffeine is the world’s most popular psychoactive drug. Though a small amount (about 10%) of humans do not consume any of the stimulant, worldwide consumption is enough to make the average caffeine intake equivalent to about one drink, per person, per day. With over 7 billion people in the world – that’s a LOT of caffeine.

Caffeine is derived from plants, and acts as a pesticide. If that’s not disturbing enough, it’s also one of the most heavily sprayed crops, pesticide-wise, in the world. However, while pesticides can be destroyed in the roasting process, I would argue that anything sprayed heavily with pesticides, is not something worth consuming. Still feel comfortable nursing that cup next to you? Below, is a pest which burrows into and lays its eggs in coffee berries. It has genetically adapted from bacteria (via lateral gene transfer) which enables it to continue to invade coffee crops.

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Mar 13, 2012; 109(11): 4197–4202. Published online Feb 27, 2012.

Since caffeine is so widely consumed, it is in the public’s interest to know exactly it is doing to your brain. Caffeine, chemically, is a member of the xanthine and alkaloid family. Other members of these families include cocaine, nicotine, morphine, psilocin, and codeine, to name but a few. Starting to second-guess that cup of coffee yet?

Caffeine, unfortunately, is one of the elements of “fast food America,” along with processed foods, added sugar, and television. A Paleo Diet is superior to this widespread way of living, in every single category. By taking time to savor your food, eating foods which make you healthier, and avoiding stimulants, you’ll maximize your own potential to be healthy.

caf-fig2

Here, we see the biosynthesis of caffeine. What we ultimately must understand from this process, is that theobromine is an important precursor to caffeine. Besides caffeine, theobromine itself has been studied to be the other psychopharmacologically active element in another, as-yet unnamed, caffeine-containing substance – chocolate. Beyond the psychopharmacological effects of theobromine, it also has been shown to be the main constituent that we come to crave when we eat chocolate. The other? Caffeine itself.

Caffeine Figure 3

Since we are all composed of different genetic and molecular material, our brains respond to caffeine differently. In these diagrams, we see how different regions of the brain are affected and impacted by merely the sight of chocolate, which contains caffeine and theobromine. Some will immediately have activity in brain regions such as the pregenual cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex. Others, will not.

Since chocolate is a multivariate compound, we must look at pure caffeine, to see what its effects are on your brain. Perhaps most alarmingly, caffeine restricts blood flow to the brain, by about 25%. This is not good. In the below two images, we can see the effects of reduced blood flow, graphically, in those who drink caffeine, and also the increase in blood flow, in those who are going through caffeine withdrawal.

Caffeine Figure 4

Hum Brain Mapp. Author manuscript; available in PMC Oct 1, 2010. Published in final edited form as: Hum Brain Mapp. Oct 2009; 30(10): 3102–3114.

Besides these disturbing effects (cerebral blood flow is most definitely something you want more of, not less of), caffeine disrupts the ends of our DNA, causing aging. This process happens via telomeres, which normally protect the chromosome ends from degradation. Another suspect on this list? Alcohol, which shouldn’t be a surprise. A Paleo Diet removes these common vices, and instead offers healthy fats, nutrient-rich foods, and choices that help make you healthier. By taking time to savor your food, eating foods which make you healthier, and avoiding stimulants, you can reap the plethora of benefits offered by a Paleo lifestyle!

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This article originally appeared on The Paleo Diet.