This Is Your Brain on a Frappuccino

With a Starbucks on every corner, America could be headed for a wake-up call when it comes to caffeine's effects.

The U.S. government allocates many billions of dollars a year to the War on Drugs, but it spends hardly a penny on the most insidious, most omnipresent psychoactive drug of all. I refer, of course, to caffeine (C8H10N4O2), the little alkaloid that made Starbucks’ Howard Schultz a billionaire.

Drug? Indubitably: Even before it became endemic in the human diet through use in candy bars and soft drinks, doctors prescribed caffeine as a decongestant and mild painkiller; users discovered its efficacy as an appetite suppressant on their own. But it would be just another minor entry in the pharmacopeia were it not for another aspect: its powerful impact as a stimulant.

That’s where the psychoactive aspect of caffeine kicks in. Unlike most small organic molecules, caffeine slips through cell walls as if they weren’t there. An hour after your cuppa, caffeine’s to be found in every cell in your body, including those of the nervous system; even the famed “blood-brain barrier” is impotent against its stealth attacks.

After more than a century of concentrated study, scientists are still not entirely sure what happens when caffeine hits the brain. The current best guess is that it plugs into receptors in cells that modulate “excitability,” the propensity of neurons to fire, sending messages to other nerve circuits in the brain. Caffeine fits these receptors well enough to prevent their proper trigger (adenosine) from plugging in, but not well enough to mimic the downstream calming effect of adenosine. Result: The brain remains in a state of higher excitability, alertness, and clarity, not to mention irritability, than it would maintain without caffeine’s intrusion.

So far, so good; everybody recognizes the energizing jolt a good cup of coffee delivers. (The size of the jolt depends on the mode of delivery: An espresso contains about a fifth of a gram of the stuff, drip coffee only half as much.) The trouble is that most of us users don’t stop with one cup, and the spread of fancied-up ways of absorbing your jolt—lattes, Frappuccinos, and the like—has made it perilously easy to saturate the system with a drug that, its agreeable stimulation apart, is pretty hard on the nervous system.

Some people can’t even handle that one espresso without experiencing feelings of anxiety. When the dosage rises above 600 milligrams (only about three shots’ worth), a majority of imbibers experience side effects like nervousness and irrita­bility; many also experience higher blood pressure without realizing it. Even if your system is highly tolerant to caffeine, a gram a day can cause irregular heartbeat and ringing in the ears, not to mention insomnia, outbursts of temper, and heightened distractibility. Ten grams of it and you’re dead. Granted, it’s almost impossible to absorb 10 grams of caffeine by the usual methods, but it’s still a little worrisome that the difference between a useful dose and a deadly one is a mere matter of 50 to one.

Another worrisome aspect of caffeine is that many of its users develop a tolerance to its effects—in others words, you start with a single short and eventually only a triple grande will do. This happens with most drugs that interfere with normal neurotransmitter pathways, which are linked in intricate loops of potentiation and feedback. When we block adenosine from its target receptors, the nervous system tries to restore its balance by producing more adenosine to compete with the caffeine that’s blocking it, so over time it takes more caffeine to overcome the additional adenosine’s calming, soporific effect. No two people exhibit exactly the same pattern of tolerances, so there’s no way to establish a “safe” dose except through trial and error, leaving plenty of room for the insomnia, heart flutters, and sour stomach that result from an “overdose.”

Is caffeine a drug of abuse? Americans think of themselves as mighty coffee drinkers, but in fact they swallow less than half as much per capita (around one espresso’s worth) as the Swedes or the Brits, who, counting tea and chocolate consumption along with coffee, are the current world champions, putting away nearly half a gram of caffeine a day on average.

On average—that’s the problem with stats like these. There are a lot of people who don’t drink coffee or tea at all, and averages don’t help to discern how caffeine use differs by age, class, and income group. The most upsetting fact about caffeine is that there is virtually no good information about the impact of caffeine use on children and adolescents, who thanks to soft drinks and chocolate-packed candies have become a major segment of the caffeine market. Kids’ nervous systems are not completely developed until late adolescence, and nobody knows what effect on the final product a dozen-plus years of steady infusion of a powerful alkaloid stimulant may have. On balance, Howard Schultz may be America’s biggest pusher for adults, but one of these days it may turn out that Coke and Pepsi have a lot more to answer for.

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