Coffee on the Brain

Two of the most familiar associations that accompany coffee and its culture are the incredible after effects of caffeine and the brilliant excuse to meet up with other people. However, the former is not always a welcomed attribute, especially in light of a late afternoon coffee outing. What is the remedy, you ask? Well, some say that decaf coffee would fit this bill, but how are we to know this for sure? Below we will discuss how caffeine aids the brain in waking up, as well as the truth about decaffeinated coffee.

Coffee on the Brain [C8H10N4O2]

Scientifically speaking, caffeine is a crystalline compound that is found particularly in cacao, tea, and coffee plants, which serves as a stimulant (from the methylxanthine class) of the central nervous system (CNS). By another classification, caffeine is one of the members of the psychoactive drug classification. A functional familiar to caffeine, is the chemical compound, Adenosine. As adenosine is produced in the brain, it searches for adenosine specific receptors. Due to the cohesion of this chemical and its receptor, the brain begins to fell drowsy as the nerve cell activity decreases. This also leads to the dilation of blood vessels, and the introduction of greater amounts of oxygen during sleep. This caffeine look-alike is important to remember because this structural resemblance allows caffeine to bind to the adenosine receptor in place of the adenosine. The difference lies in the fact that caffeine does not slow down the brain’s cell activity; rather, it speeds it up. Additionally, the chemical substitution leads to the constriction of blood vessels. [Pro-tip: This may be the cause of your coffee headache.]

Here is where the after effects of caffeine get complicated. The pituitary gland begins to sense the difference in activity and, theoretically, receives this alteration as a potential emergency. As a result, it releases a grouping of hormones that communicate with the adrenal gland, which creates adrenaline/epinephrine. For those less familiar, adrenaline is the “fight or flight” hormone that causes your heart to beat faster, a muscular preparedness for action, among other things. Although there are a multitude of other pathways, the above information is sufficient for the remainder of today’s discussion.

Decaf: Is this a thing?

Decaf…let’s talk about it. The amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee can vary based on the level of roast selected, but the substance itself is intrinsic to nature of a coffee bean. So, how is it removed? Generally, three methods exist for extracting caffeine. The first is an organic chemical solvent- either methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. Second is the use of carbon dioxide. And finally, a water method. Regardless of the method, the highest removal percentage is 97%. Thus, the short answer is that you can find coffee with a significantly lower level of caffeine, but what you are receiving is just below the margin of a black tea. [Pro-tip: Dark roast coffees contain less caffeine than light roast coffees.] The estimated ratio is 1:5 for the amount of caffeine in decaf to the amount of caffeine in a traditional cup of black coffee. Research from the Journal of Analytical Toxicology would tell you that it is possible for people to develop a dependency on decaf since there is still a measurable level of caffeine.

So, is decaf a thing? Kind of. Dr. Roland Griffiths from John Hopkins School of Medicine says that, “The important point is that decaffeinated is not the same as caffeine-free.” You should also know that the taste of your coffee will also change immensely. As to whether or not it is worth your time, we will let you decide.

Happy (De)Caffeinating!




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