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E41: The Intellectual Domain of Caffeine

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E41: The Intellectual Domain of Caffeine

Jan 26, 2024

For some people, caffeine can be a reliable source for promoting wakefulness, sharpening attention, and refining motor coordination. However, its effects aren't universally positive, as others may experience jitteriness and anxiety in response to caffeine consumption. Dr. Kirtly Jones talks to Scot Singpiel, host and producer of Who Cares About Men's Health, about the complex relationship between caffeine and cognition, highlighting caffeine's intellectual consequences on different individuals.

Episode Transcript

This content was originally created for audio. Some elements such as tone, sound effects, and music can be hard to translate to text. As such, the following is a summary of the episode and has been edited for clarity. For the full experience, we encourage you to subscribe and listen— it's more fun that way.


 



 

Dr. Jones: Welcome to the "7 Domains of Women's Health," the caffeine edition. I'm going to focus my caffeine-enhanced attention on the intellectual domain.

Certainly, my own introduction to the effect of caffeine on a caffeine virgin's brain was my and my brother's ability to read a topographic map, the elements of that map to the landscape to find uranium exploration drill holes. Now, this sounds pretty exotic, but we were in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming and we were trying to plug these holes.

And it actually takes a lot of focus to be able to read a topographic map. I was 18 and my brother was 16, and we just couldn't find things in our post-lunch slump in the wilds of Wyoming. We discovered NoDoz, which at the time was the only source of caffeine that wasn't in a cola or coffee or tea, and we became champions of caffeine.

Now, there are many studies that confirm that caffeine enhances focus and can enhance cognitive function. And after my summer experience with NoDoz in the field, I used it to help me solve physics problems in the evening.

As a morning person and a procrastinator, I would save my physics problems for the night before they were due. And as anyone in my family can attest, I am not the sharpest tool in the shed after 9:00 p.m. at night. So I turned to coffee to help me solve the problems.

And in both cases, the caffeine is decreasing sleepiness through its action to block adenosine, a molecule in the brain that could promote relaxation and sleep. It didn't make me a super physics student. I could just focus and get the problems done, and I was hooked.

Med school and residency with 100-hour weeks and 36 hours on call every third night made caffeine part of my life.

So caffeine promotes wakefulness, attention. It decreases reaction time and it increases motor coordination in small doses. It usually takes about an hour and the effects decrease after three to four hours.

"An hour?" you say. "But I feel activated in a minute." Well, a recent study that made all the news looked at people who were coffee drinkers and gave them coffee or just caffeine, and coffee activated the parts of the brain that affect working memory and goal-directed purpose immediately. In other words, drinking coffee wakes you up and makes you pay attention, but the caffeine pills took an hour.

So just the smell of coffee activated the brain in coffee drinkers. This is the magic of our brains. It remembers states of being under certain circumstances, for better or for worse, and activates those states when something has activated the memory, like a sip of coffee or the smell of coffee.

Morning coffee drinkers know that the smell of coffee early in the morning can activate you in a positive way to get out of bed. However, the dose of caffeine and which brain it's on, so both the dose and the person, may be important.

One old study looked at people who were given coffee or decaf, and then a word-based test, kind of those SAT English tests. People who were extroverts performed better on coffee and placebo, but people who were introverts did worse. So for some brains, at some doses, caffeine makes them jittery and anxious and unable to focus.

So it's who and how much and how old. Many people as they get older curtail their caffeine use because it makes them jittery or sleepiness.

Now, in the virtual Scope studio with me today is Scot Singpiel, producer of The Scope Radio podcasts and the energizer bunny when it comes to transmitting energy over sound waves. He taught me how to sit up straight and raise my voice and sound like I'm awake. Well, I am awake.

He's the lead in the men's health podcast on The Scope called "Who Cares About Men's Health," and he has his own experience with coffee and caffeine.

Welcome to the "7 Domains of Caffeine," Scot.

Scot: Dr. Jones, thank you.

Dr. Jones: So tell me your first experience with caffeine when you were a caffeine virgin. Tell me about your first time, honey.

Scot: My first time would've been in high school and it would be just on weekend occasions before I was old enough to drink. We'd go out to this all-night diner and we'd drink coffee and eat mozzarella sticks with ranch dressing. A lot of bad things happening right there, but I was young, so I could handle it.

Dr. Jones: So this is important because you were young, you were with your buds, it was a social thing, and it was associated with something that was kind of nice, being awake late and eating yummy things.

Scot: I guess. When I think back at it, I don't know why I chose to drink coffee on those nights. But coffee was not really a regular part of my life. That was just kind of my first experience with it.

I had done morning radio for a long time. Everybody at the radio station that came in at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning would drink coffee, and through my whole career I didn't.

So I came to it in about 2018 when I was having a hard time waking up in the morning. I would hit the snooze alarm like 15, 16 times in the morning and I was like, "This is ridiculous. I can't do this."

I had read about creating a morning routine. So you get up in the morning and maybe you journal. One of the things of the morning routine says to turn all your lights on in the house to just really wake you up. And I decided I was going to enjoy one cup of coffee every single morning. So that's what I did.

And I did pour-over, so not just the cheap Keurig cups. I do pour-over and I buy it from this fancy roasting place in Chicago, and I really enjoyed the experience. So I always just limited myself to that one cup every day.

Dr. Jones: Yeah, one cup.

Scot: And then I started my master's program.

Dr. Jones: Okay. That's kind of like me doing my physics at 10:00 at night.

Scot: Yeah. And about halfway through that with late nights, I was having a hard time concentrating and focusing, and also just trying to stay awake became a factor. So I started drinking coffee during those time periods as well because I had read some of the same studies, that it can help concentration and focus.

I don't know that I actually experienced it the same way. So it was really great to hear you say that it really kind of depends on the person.

Dr. Jones: Yeah.

Scot: I can tell you from the intellectual domain, though, if I drink too much coffee, I feel like the universe is giving me all the answers to the questions anybody had except for I don't know what the questions are. I don't know if you've ever felt like that. But it just feels like you're so hypersensitive to everything, but you don't know what's going on.

Dr. Jones: So back up a little bit. Would you call yourself an introvert or an extrovert? I would have said you were an extrovert, but maybe you're just a little bit of a . . . Are you a guy who loves stimulation or you don't like stimulation?

Scot: I think I'm an introvert. I think I like downtime to recover. Now, if that's definition of introvert or extrovert . . . There are a lot of definitions out there, right? But I've always taken it as I need quiet time to energize. I do not energize well around people. That does drain my energy even though I do love being around people, right?

Dr. Jones: Yeah. So then you're drinking more coffee to try to get through your master's, which was . . . You've kind of attested in other podcasts it was kind of a complex and difficult time. Of course, you're running The Scope at the same time, right?

Scot: Yep. So I was working, doing my master's program, and we had COVID.

Dr. Jones: Okay. So you'd upped your caffeine consumption. And then what happened?

Scot: When I finally finished my master's program . . . again, I said I didn't really notice an increase in concentration, and I started noticing some other things I didn't like. So I started thinking, "Well, maybe my focus and attention, maybe there's something else going on there." And I think you hit it, right? There were so many other things going on in my life. I was staying up late. I was stressed.

I did eventually go back to that one cup every single morning, but I would experience these moments where around 2:00 in the afternoon I'd just crash for no apparent reason whatsoever. I couldn't really put my finger on if it was my diet or the night's sleep before.

And that's when I learned that caffeine doesn't actually give you energy, which I think is a huge misconception. I think people think it energizes you, but as you mentioned in your introduction, it just blocks where the chemicals that tell you you're tired would normally cling to, right?

Dr. Jones: Yeah. The chemicals that tell you that you're sleepy.

Scot: Yes, exactly. I was actually afraid on the other side of things that maybe coffee was actually a cause of my lack of concentration. And then these crashes that I'd have at 2:00, I was like, "Could that be coffee-related?"

I had read some information that said that that could happen. What happens is as that caffeine stops blocking those receptors, then all of a sudden you get this flood of chemical that's been there the whole time and it just makes you tired all of a sudden, right?

Caffeine has a half-life of what? Like six hours, eight hours. So you'd start experiencing those around 2:00, given when I was drinking my coffee.

And I was not enjoying the flavor anymore. That was a big part of it for me. I was just like, "Well, why am I doing this?" So I thought, "Well, let me see if that's causing my focus issues, my sleep . . ." I didn't really have sleep issues, but these crashes I was having at 2:00. So I just quit.

Dr. Jones: Well, did you get a headache?

Scot: No, believe it or not.

Dr. Jones: So you just quit. Tell me what happened.

Scot: Again, this is very unscientific, but in my personal experience, those 2:00 crashes have gone away. I can't say for sure that coffee . . . It never really made me jittery. I can't say for sure that it had any impact on my concentration. That's still something I'm working on. I personally think that that was just a little PTSD from that time in our lives, right?

Dr. Jones: Yeah.

Scot: I think I was just a little over the top. But one of the things I do love about not being on caffeine now is I don't have that crash. And I think I like the fact that if I'm tired, my body can now tell me.

Dr. Jones: So how's your sleep now? When you go to bed, how's your sleep now?

Scot: Sleep is great. It always has been. Even when I was drinking coffee first thing in the morning, it was never a problem. But I come from a group of people that would drink coffee with dinner or they'd drink coffee before they'd go to bed, and it never impacted their sleep. So perhaps, again, that's a physiological thing.

Dr. Jones: Well, it's important for listeners to know that my husband, who ran a sleep lab and is a caffeine . . . How do you say someone who would never drink any caffeine ever of any kind? He would say, "You can't whip a dead horse." So if you're really, really sleepy, caffeine does not enhance your performance. In fact, it just makes you jittery and you really need to go to sleep. If you had enough sleep, it might be helpful.

Scot: Sure.

Dr. Jones: You probably are like many people who, as they get a little bit older into their middle years, realize that you need to listen to your body a little bit more and say, "Well, if I'm sleepy, then maybe I need a nap, or maybe I don't want to be jazzed up in the morning. I'm just going to try to flow."

Scot: I agree with that 100%. Or maybe it's just like as you get older, you start to realize you don't have infinite resources in concentration or mental capacity, right? So even that can make you tired. And I think if you have caffeine kind of disguising that, you don't act accordingly.

Dr. Jones: So if you go out with people, if you meet someone, do you say, "Hey, let's go get a coffee, or let's go meet for coffee"? What do you say now?

Scot: I don't meet people.

Dr. Jones: Oh, great. You don't meet people.

Scot: I don't know. I have a couple of friends that we go out to lunch. So that's kind of the fallback, I guess.

Dr. Jones: Okay. I mean, people meet to eat. They meet to drink alcohol, or they meet and if it's in the morning, if it's between eating times, and it's not drinking alcohol time, people would often say, "Oh, let's grab a coffee, or let's meet for coffee."

Scot: I did transition to tea. So I've become quite a fan of loose-leaf teas, herbal teas, non-caffeinated teas. So I guess if I was in the situation where I'm like, "Hey, let's meet somewhere," I'd probably just have a tea or probably a decaf.

Dr. Jones: Well, Scot, I think that your story is an important one because not everyone responds to caffeine the same, and over time, our needs for stimulation and for awakeness are different. It's being aware of what your situation is so that you don't drink too much or don't drink it when you don't really need it. Pay attention to how it's affecting your body and think about abstaining.

Scot: Yeah.

Dr. Jones: There you go. Going caffeine-free.

Scot: And that can be tough in today's society because, like you said, things are built around, "Hey, let's have a cup of coffee." People are into gourmet coffees.

Dr. Jones: Oh, yeah.

Scot: There's a whole culture built around it, right? So it can be really challenging.

Dr. Jones: Yeah. Of course, there's always a decaf option, but for me, I don't really like the taste of coffee and I don't want to doctor it up with a whole lot of calories. So mostly I'll say, "Oh, a tea is a good thing," because tea is good.

Scot: And I will add as just kind of a final thought that I can still get up at the same time without coffee. So it was a good tool, I think, for a period of time in my life, and as with so many tools, it can kind of become habit. We don't question, "Well, why am I still doing this?"

It got me through that point where I have to hit the snooze alarm all the time. Now I wake up, I'm fine. I'm refreshed. If I'm not, I know that I didn't go to bed early enough, or maybe I should sleep in a little extra.

Dr. Jones: Right. Thank you. And I think it's a good lesson for us to be paying a little bit more attention to what our bodies really want.

Well, as 90% of North Americans have their own relationship and personal history with coffee, for our listeners, what's yours? And as you share a cup with your friends, part of the social domain, you can have a chat about what your relationship is with this remarkable chemical in each of the 7 Domains, and pay attention to if it's really serving you right now.

And if you're listening to this as the first of the 7 Domains of Caffeine, check in with some of our other 7 Domains on the caffeine topic. And thanks for listening to us at the "7 Domains of Women's Health." Thank you, Scot.

Scot: You're welcome. I hope I lived up to the intellectual standard.

Dr. Jones: You did. You were perfect. Just perfect.


 


Relevant Links:

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The Scope Radio: https://thescoperadio.com 
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