Breaking Down Caffeine Intake

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Breaking Down Caffeine Intake

Breaking Down Caffeine Intake

By Henry Toraño


If you’re anything like me, every morning you’re looking forward to that cup of coffee. Even before you take that first sip, you’re already getting all sorts of signaling towards the start of another day by the smell and even the sound of brewing. Actually, if you’re anything like most humans you enjoy or at least consume a daily dose of caffeine. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s population consumes the naturally occurring drug. This is where we begin to get conflictive opinions on whether or not we should be taking the substance. As in most cases, there’s two camps. One that raves about the health and performance benefits and another that insists that its negative side effects far outweighs the benefits. So let’s discuss some of the pro’s and con’s of caffeine to help you make better decisions on if, when, and why you should be consuming it.


According to Wikipedia, 

“caffeine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant of the methylxanthine class. It’s the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug. Unlike many other psychoactive substances, it is legal and unregulated in nearly all parts of the world”

I honestly do believe that caffeine started getting a bad rap right at this definition. We hear the term “psychoactive drug” and immediately start thinking about crack, cocaine, and others. Fact is, just like the aforementioned examples, caffeine does indeed impact perception, mood, cognition, and even behavior. This is a non-debatable reality. However, we shouldn’t overlook the benefits that can come from this, as well as other components in its chemical makeup.


The Stimulant

Without a doubt caffeine’s used primarily as a stimulant. Starting the instant we wake up in the morning our bodies begin to use adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for fuel. Increased activity levels means higher ATP use. When ATP is broken down, it degrades to adenosine molecules. Adenosine begins to build up throughout the day and eventually signals the brain that there has been enough activity for one day and that rest (sleep) is required for recovery. In other words, the more adenosine, the more we start feeling drowsy. 

Caffeine counters this by binding to adenosine molecules and blocking receptors. This results in a delay of its signaling to the brain. It has also been proven that it promotes the flow of dopamine to the brain. So not only is it preventing drowsiness, but it makes us feel good.


Brain Booster

Besides providing a jolt of energy, there’s several other positives both on the daily and further down the road. Several studies heavily associate between caffeine intake and learning ability. Not only that, but they even suggest that they can lessen cognitive decline as we age. We also know that at a biochemical level, caffeine slows down the production of beta amyloid which over time clump together and in excess are perhaps the primary cause of Alzheimer’s and deaths from the disease.


Nutrition Supplement

Caffeine’s properties extend way beyond what we feel. It’s actually jam packed with nutrition. It is rich in vitamins B2, B3, and B5, manganese, potassium, and magnesium. It’s also a rich source of hydrocynnamic acids and polyphenols. Hydrocynnamic acid is very effective in neutralizing free radicals and preventing oxidative stress. Polyphenols have been highly touted for its disease prevention benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.


Inside the Hood

Caffeine also induces certain physiological responses of positive impact. For one, it elevates heart rate and production of adrenaline. This results in an increased metabolic rate that could promote fat metabolism and weight loss. Also, many people are familiar with its headache reducing effect. Many of the minor, everyday headaches we experience are mainly due to increased blood flow to the brain. Since caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, it reduces this circulation just enough to relieve the symptoms.



Nowadays, it’s no secret that caffeine provides sports performance benefits. This holds true to the point that up until 2004 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) included it in its list of banned substances. It was removed under the premise that it’s use is so widely accepted and common everywhere in the world. As I’ve already mentioned, caffeine enhances alertness, vigilance, arousal, wakefulness, and cognition. These are all characteristics that undoubtedly increase performance. Also, it is well known that adrenaline is a very powerful anti-inflammatory. Increased production of the hormone due to caffeine interferes with feedback mechanisms between skeletal muscle and the brain, resulting in reduced sensation of pain and rate of perceived exertion.


What’s the Problem Then?

As is the case with most things in life, excess brings consequences. Caffeine is no different. We could actually consider it to be even more sensitive to this rule. This is why you may have heard contradictory information on whether it’s healthy or not. Let’s discuss some of the potential issues that could be associated with it. 


As you already know, there’s several physiological effects caused by caffeine intake. We talked about how it may help deal with headaches by constricting blood vessels. This comes with an inevitable rise in blood pressure. Hence, for people who are on medication for high blood pressure or have a history of heart disease, it may be advisable to restrict or at least limit caffeine intake. Also, the interplay between caffeine and adenosine brings the benefit of high energy levels. But this also comes with potential risk of experiencing sleep issues. The more energy you have late into the day, the more you lose your ability for hormonal signaling that is required for restorative processes of sleep. Melatonin production is one that could be severely impacted by the stimulant effects of the drug. Increased adrenaline may produce certain characteristics that increase physical and mental performance, but too much adrenaline may also result in anxiety, agitation, restlessness, and rambled speech. Perhaps the biggest impact by this up-regulation in adrenaline can be felt in glucose (sugar) management and insulin regulation.

You see, adrenaline is released when your body is in “fight or flight” mode. When this happens our brains shut down all body functions that are not essential to preserving life. The  most commonly used illustration of this is the effect that our ancestors would have when they were chased by a lion across an open field. In times like those, human beings are able to accomplish unbelievable physical feats thanks to the power of adrenaline. But if adrenaline is too high for too long, that means that a lot of these metabolic functions are prevented from happening. Not only does high adrenaline production limit glucose absorption at a cellular level, but it may also impair insulin production. This can bring about a world of problems, as the more glucose we have in the blood, the more insulin we need to process it. The most obvious of these scenarios would be for individuals whom are diabetic or pre-diabetic, as it makes an existing problem even worse. But it doesn’t stop there. On the flip side of increasing metabolism and facilitating fat loss, poor glucose/ insulin regulation will have the exact negative effect of promoting fat storage. Not to mention what could happen in cases where sleep patterns are altered, another big player in the way that we process sugars.

Let’s not forget that caffeine is considered a drug. Like every other drug, there is such thing as addiction when it comes to caffeine. For one, the more exposure we get to it, the more resilient our bodies get. This means that to feel the same effect that you once got with a cup of coffee, you may now need two cups. Hence, two times the endocrine response and the effects downstream. Also, it is not uncommon at all to experience withdrawal symptoms when one begins to reduce caffeine intake. The most common, get this, is massive headaches. One of the very things that it may had been helping with in the first place.


So, is Caffeine Good or Bad???

By now, you should have a pretty good understanding of both positive and negative effects of caffeine. However, you may be feeling a little torn as far as whether you want to consume it or not. The answer to that dilemma lies in how, when, and why you’re taking caffeine. I’ll explain, but first, let’s be clear. What follows are my personal thoughts on caffeine intake and operate under the assumptions that there are no existing conditions that may contraindicate caffeine use.

First, we must consider quantity. It is fairly well accepted that most healthy adults operate well with up to 400mg of caffeine daily. To put that in context, see the table below, provide by the Mayo Clinic:

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This will put some perspective on how much is too much. Of course, these are huge generalizations, different coffee beans or coffee shops may have slightly different values in caffeine content. Perhaps the biggest thing to consider relates to timing. A high dose of caffeine, by itself, on an empty stomach will have a much greater physiological response. Meaning that 400g worth of caffeine in espresso shots will induce a bigger response than the same amount of caffeine, mixed with heavy cream, after a meal. I will not get too deep into this, but recommendations vary for children and pregnant women. Studies suggest that during pregnancy, daily caffeine intake be limited to under 200mg a day. For children between the age of 12 and 18, sub 100mg per day. For children under 12, it is highly recommended that no caffeine be taken. I prefer to err in the side of caution and completely restrict caffeine intake under any of the three mentioned conditions.


Another important point is to consider timing, as in time of day. One characteristic that is used to measure a drug’s potency is what is known as its “Half-Life”. This refers to the time it takes for the body to eliminate 50% of the substance. The half-life of caffeine varies widely between people, depending on factors such as age, body weight, pregnancy status, medication intake and liver health. In healthy adults, the half-life is approximately 5 to 6 hours. This means that of you have a cup of joe at 4:00pm, 50% of it may very well still be in you by the time you’re trying to fall asleep at 10:00pm. Hence, my general recommendation is that caffeine intake, at least in high concentration sources such as tea, coffee, and energy drinks, be limited to before noon. You’ll note that I’ve made a disclaimer there, it’s because there’s others food that contain caffeine but we tend to overlook, such as chocolate and soda, amongst others.

Lastly, the reason why you may be using caffeine cannot be overlooked. Yes, there’s ways in which the drug can be taken very safely. As I’ve already discussed, there’s even health benefits associated with its usage. But I’d caution against using it if it gets to the point where it feels like you absolutely need it. The reason being that at this point, you’ve lost control and there’s most likely underlying health or behavioral issues that require attention. For example, if you can’t possibly bring yourself to work out without a caffeine hit, I would argue that your training program may be too intense, or there’s too much volume, or you need a de load, or perhaps your nutrition and lifestyle don’t support it. If you can’t possibly get yourself up and ready to tackle your work obligations without pounding several coffees in the morning, you really need to make adjustments to daily rhythm and quality of sleep.


I hope this has served as somewhat of a guide to make a more informed decision on caffeine intake. To summarize, there’s many benefits associated with it. However, it can turn south quickly under several conditions or in excess. There’s ways in which you can use it to your advantage, I’ve provided some pro tips in that department. As always, all the coaches at OPEX San Juan and I are well equipped to answer questions lifestyle and nutrition related. Caffeine usage is not an exception to that. If you have any doubts, feel free to reach out, we’re here to help.

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