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Caffeine and college, a healthy relationship?

(James Baker / Flickr)

You may have woken up in the morning to experience grogginess and a sense of disorientation—to then turn to a morning cup of coffee to clear the mental cobwebs. Once you feel awake and ready to go for the day, you proceed on your normal schedule. But after a few hours of sitting in lecture halls, the day is only half over and you feel as if your eyelids weigh 300 pounds. Time to pound another cup of coffee or your favorite energy drink.

And so the day goes as regularly scheduled and you finally sit down at some point after dinner to work on a paper, and that requires another one or two cups of coffee or energy drinks. You claim the caffeine allows you to stay up and do work, but do you know why?

Caffeine works by blocking a molecule called adenosine in your brain that causes you to be tired. Most mornings you wake up to a head clear of adenosine. As the day goes on, adenosine builds up, causing you to become progressively more tired until you feel the need again to sleep.

Caffeine effectively negates the effects of adenosine on the body for a few hours at a time. Molecularly, caffeine and adenosine look very similar and bind to the same molecules in the body. But as adenosine is a depressor, caffeine is a stimulant. Cellular activity in your brain and body continues to run at 100 percent without adenosine there to slow it down.

The science aside, what does this actually mean? By drinking caffeine, you will feel more alert and aware, and be able to focus better than without it. Studies have shown that a moderate dose of caffeine, about one cup of coffee, helps with memory tasks, improves reflex times, and increases your metabolism. There are even some studies that have found correlations between caffeine and staving off Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s!

On top of that, some caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee come loaded with other nutrients and antioxidants that are beneficial to your health.

But beware, the benefits of caffeine seem to be limited to a moderate dose. Ingesting too much caffeine will interfere with a good night of sleep, which is likely to cause chronic symptoms of fatigue, memory loss and an inability to focus. Large intakes of caffeine will also cause your body to become accustomed to it, like any other drug, and more and more adenosine will be produced to combat the high levels of caffeine in your system. As a result, the beneficial feeling of alertness will deteriorate and your body will become dependent on caffeine to function at a normal level. Large doses can also lead to a troubled intestinal system and heart problems.

Okay, now the takeaway. How can a college student optimize the use of caffeine?  The reality of it is not rocket science and can be governed by a couple simple guidelines. Firstly, limit your caffeine intake to three or less caffeinated beverages a day. An average cup of coffee contains between 80-150 milligrams of caffeine, and studies have shown that intakes of less than 400 milligrams per day show little to no negative side effects. Second, do not drink anything with caffeine six hours before planning to go to bed. Even if you are able to fall asleep after drinking caffeine, your sleep is still negatively affected.

Here is a little data to back up these guidelines. A study found two clear correlations between caffeine intake and college student grade point averages. The first was a relationship between high caffeine intake and lower GPAs in contrast with lower caffeine intakes and higher GPAs. The second correlation was found with timing. Students who drank caffeine later in the day reported lower GPAs as compared to students who drank caffeine earlier. These correlations found do not imply causation, but do signify common trends.

Following the two simple guidelines of limiting overall caffeine intake and moderating when you take it will help to keep your body from becoming accustomed to caffeine and will ensure good rest. This way, you will experience both the short and long-term benefits associated with caffeine!

Nicholas Remillard can be reached at nremillard@umass.edu.

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