America’s drug; caffeine has undeniably become engrained in today’s culture and our daily lives – and for quite a few good reasons. Sharing a cup of coffee over a first date; that second Starbucks run of the day (an earned right); programmers and bankers chained to their desks at 1AM with Red Bull cans overflowing from their bins. For some, it’s a day starter. For others, it’s fuel, lifeblood, the Goblet of Fire.
Regardless, caffeine is an important part of today’s society and, surprisingly, many of us don’t know how it works or how to optimize it to maximize effectiveness and minimize addiction and tolerance. In this post, I give my take on how to game caffeine to take full advantage of its benefits while minimizing tolerance and diminishing returns.
What it Does
Let’s start with what caffeine actually does (it affects our bodies in more ways than most realize). You’re probably familiar with caffeine’s biggest claim to fame – its ability to reduce sleepiness and increase alertness. But it doesn’t stop there. Caffeine can:
- Increase physical performance by masking muscle pain and boosting energy reserves (regular gym-goers are likely familiar with this)
- Increase mental ability by focusing concentration and temporarily improving your memory creation and retention (your working memory – the kind you use for straightforward work or studying, not for learning radically new things)
- Increase your resting metabolic rate (RMR) – the speed at which your body burns through calories (and ultimately one of the biggest drivers of weight-loss)
- Helps alleviates headaches (your blood vessels expand during a headache; caffeine can partially counteract this)
All beautiful things. That being said, excess consumption can eventually lead to anxiety, irritability, nausea, heartburn, insomnia, and way more. Everything in moderation, as we’ll get to a little below.
How it Works
Now, let’s break down how caffeine does all that (in very simplified terms). From the moment we wake up in the morning, the neurons in our brains begin firing away at a higher pace and producing more of a neuromodulator called “adenosine” as a byproduct. One of the functions of adenosine is to act as a sort of “sleep regulator.” Now over the course of the day, as your body begins to accumulate and detect higher levels of adenosine, it triggers a drowsy feeling letting you know it’s probably best to consider bed shortly.
Ain’t nobody got time for that. Enter caffeine. Caffeine is able to molecularly mimic adenosine – so when you dose yourself with the right amount, it floods in and sneakily binds with your adenosine receptors, blocking the flow of actual adenosine – preventing its absorption and the onset of groggy feelings. But the effects don’t stop there. In blocking the flow of adenosine, caffeine ultimately allows the brain to more efficiently release adrenaline and dopamine, both imparting stimulate effects on the body. That’s where the jolted, alert feeling comes from, not from the caffeine itself interestingly enough.
Now, those stimulating effects can begin taking place almost immediately, but usually peak at around one hour from ingestion and begin residing after that. Caffeine has a half-life of anywhere from three-to-seven hours, depending on a multitude of factors. As it begins exiting your system, the reserves of adenosine that have been building up begin flooding back through your central nervous system. This explains the caffeine crash felt by some at the end of the day as the drug begins wearing off.
Of course, there’s always a caveat. As with many drugs, our bodies develop a gradual tolerance to the effects of caffeine over time – diminishing its effects and requiring us to periodically increase the dosage to achieve the same levels of stimulation. Most of us have encountered this; I remember when a tall blonde roast from Starbucks (that’s a small coffee, for you neophytes out there) was enough to keep me jolted for the afternoon. Eventually, if left unchecked, those wondrous effects of caffeine can get washed out entirely – leaving you with nothing more than a dependency requiring regular consumption just to feel normal.
Caffeine tolerance actually begins building up at a very quick rate – anywhere from a week to 12 days before requiring an increase in dosage. You can see how this can easily snowball if left unchecked. Thankfully, the inverse is also true – your body is able to shed its tolerance to caffeine rather quickly. In fact, withdrawal effects can be felt almost immediately after your last use, all depending on your regular level of consumption (the heaviest of users can start experiencing hell in as little has half a day from their last sip of coffee). The length of time it takes to reset will vary based on your level of tolerance, but for most users, about ten days to two weeks of caffeine abstinence is enough to significantly reset built-up tolerance (and far fewer for less frequent consumers, as we’ll soon get to.)
Dosing Caffeine (Not All Coffee is Created Equal)
Caffeine is almost always measured and displayed in milligrams. Your coffee, energy drinks, and pills all publish their caffeine content in milligram form. This is relevant for anyone wanting to compare various available sources of the drug and keep track of their intake (which includes anyone who wants to game caffeine for a long, sustainable period of time without developing significant tolerance.)
So – how many milligrams of caffeine does it take to feel the effect? As we’ve discussed, obviously that answer will differ based on a person’s tolerance, genetics, and a multitude of other factors (smokers, pregnant women, etc.). Effects from caffeine can be felt at doses sometimes lower than 25mg in a non-tolerant user. However, more formidable and hardened consumers will require a substantial amount more. The best way to gauge your current tolerance would be to compare the caffeine content in the beverages or products you ordinarily consume (and the quantity of which you consume them) to the feeling you get after consumption.
As a starting place, let’s look at the world’s favorite sources – coffee and tea. The average 8oz cup of coffee carries anywhere from 95-200mg of caffeine, and the average 8oz cup of tea can contain 14-70mg. Those are some seriously wide ranges. The level of caffeine can vary tremendously not only between different types of beverages, but within the different varieties of those beverages themselves. Take a look at the below infographic capturing the caffeine content of the standard black coffee between your favorite coffee shops.
I see you, Starbucks. Let’s do some quick math. A large black McDonald’s coffee contains 145.6 mg of caffeine. Let’s compare that to a venti black Starbucks brew. That beast packs 412 mg of caffeine. Some of you might be thinking, no sweat, I’m used to crazier ways of getting my fix – Redbull, Rockstar, Nodoz, pre-workouts – whatever. Well:
- Red Bull Energy Drink (standard can) – 80mg
- Cellucor C4 Extreme Preworkout Powder (per scoop) – 135mg
- NoDoz Caffeine Pills (per pill) – 200mg
- 5-Hour Energy Shot (per bottle) – 200mg
- Rockstar (2x Strength) (standard can) – 250mg
That 20oz cup of Starbucks coffee is packing over five times the caffeine in your Red Bull (there are other stimulants involved in these drinks, but my point still stands). My point is, caffeine content can be incredibly deceiving and it pays to do a little research on your regular sources of intake if you are going to try to regulate your tolerance and optimize your use of the drug. A good source to search for caffeine content in your favorite products (other than Google, if you’re incapable of thinking on your own) can be found here.
Now that we understand measuring caffeine and comparing its sources, we can finally discuss how to game it.
My opinions begin here. I’m of the mindset that while coffee should be enjoyed, caffeine is still a drug and a tool – and I use it as such – carefully. That’s not to say I use a little bit of it, but what I’m advocating here it smart, cognizant use to minimize tolerance buildup and keep your body as receptive as possible and exactly when you need it to be. How does one go about doing that? Here’s what I do.
Caffeine cycling. Earlier in the post, I noted that for almost all regular users, it would take about 10 days to 2 weeks to shed tolerance and leave your body fully receptive to caffeine. I also said that number is far less for some. By some, I was referring to almost all non-habitual users. In fact, a 2001 study found it took approximately 72 hours of withdrawal to eliminate the effects of adenosine receptor blockade on the individuals tested. That’s three days. Let’s call it half a week.
Think about your week – at what point are you struggling the most? For me, my morning workouts start taking their toll and making me sleep deprived and drained by Wednesday morning, as I head bob on the Orange Line for forty-five minutes until the god awful conductor breaks too hard and my head inevitably hits a pole. That struggle continues through the workweek until I’m able to recuperate on sleep come Friday night. It’s this period of time I take my caffeine. From my first sip of that beautiful liquid gold that is Starbucks come Wednesday morning – through the rest of the week, up to my last sip of pre-workout come Saturday afternoon, caffeine has my back when I need it most. It lets me continue destroying the gym when fatigue would otherwise start creeping in and it keeps me focused at work when I would otherwise be fighting like an animal to keep my eyelids from closing on themselves. I depend on it and I’m not ashamed, because I do it wisely and cognizant.
Half a week – that’s 3.5 days on, 3.5 days off – enough time for your body to reset its tolerance, and to continue doing so on a weekly basis (that’s assuming you’ve already taken the initiative to clear yourself of any existing tolerance if you’re a seriously habitual user, of course). For me, those days fall between Wednesday morning and Saturday afternoon. For you, it could be whenever, it’s totally your call. Half the week on, half the week off – it’s as simple as that. Just be sure not to cheat too hard, because your body (and your adenosine receptors) are smarter than you, and will develop tolerance. And don’t go gorging down more than you need, because you’ll find you’ll need a much smaller dosage to get a substantially greater jolt. A venti will take you miles, and actually following the dosage on the back of your pre-workout won’t be pussy material anymore (and will keep your wallet fatter, too).
I’ve found this method manageable, sustainable, and most importantly, incredibly effective. Caffeine can feel like it did that first time you had coffee – every time you use it. Days without it will still suck, yes. But I argue they’ll suck a hell of a lot less than that mild, dull buzz your body adapts to after months on end of continuous use. Which sounds more effective?
So ask yourself why you take caffeine. If you enjoy the taste of coffee every morning, keep on keeping on my friend – you’ll find no argument here. But if you depend on caffeine like I do to survive the brutal reality of the 21st century workweek – and are tired of chasing an ever-increasing tolerance with no real avail – consider cycling your intake.
Here’s my routine, if you’re interested:
5:30AM – 2 Crystal Light Strawberry Energy (caffeinated crystal light) – 240mg
11:00AM – Starbucks Venti (20 oz) half-caf* (~220mg)
4:00PM – Starbucks Venti (20 oz) half-caf* (~220mg) (only if I really need or want it)
*I get half-caf to spread out the intake over a longer period of time. I almost always take my coffee hot with one Splenda per size (3 for my venti). I’ve considered adding butter or cream to slow the metabolization, but I usually still abstain.
1:00PM – 1–1.25 scoops C4
Sunday – Tuesday
No caffeine (with the exception of a little decaf here and there, which still carries trivial amounts of the drug)