What your morning coffee really does to your brain

Your morning coffee is good for you - if you drink it at the right time.

hand holding coffee cup
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
  • Caffeine, the main stimulant found in coffee, works on a chemical level to give you energy by replacing the biochemical adenosine, which makes you tired.
  • There are many health benefits to caffeine, such as a boost in metabolism and an increase in physical performance/muscle strength.
  • To get the most positive impacts of your daily caffeine intake, drink coffee between 10 in the morning and 12 noon or between 2 in the afternoon and 5 in the evening.

According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), the world pours about 1.4 billion cups of coffee per day. This might explain why you rely so heavily on your Keurig every morning or why you stop at Starbucks on the way to work even though you're already running late.

How does your morning coffee really impact your brain? Most importantly, are there certain times of the day where your latte-caffeine boost is better for your health?

    Your brain on coffee

    Caffeine, the main stimulant in coffee, works on a chemical level to give you a boost of energy. However, caffeine is structurally similar to another chemical naturally created in the body, called adenosine, which makes you tired.

    Some substances imitate natural neurotransmitters and can take their place in receptors. For example, morphine can bind to the receptors in the brain meant for your endorphins (which is a natural kind of 'morphine' produced by your brain).

    Caffeine replaces adenosine, which builds your adrenaline and causes dopamine to linger longer.

    Similar to how morphine binds to endorphin receptors, the caffeine in your morning coffee binds to your brain's adenosine receptors, preventing the biochemical from making you tired.

    Caffeine also builds your adrenaline supply which increases your heart rate and allows blood to pump faster. At the same time, caffeine prevents dopamine from being reabsorbed into your system, which allows it to linger in the brain for a longer amount of time, causing you to feel it's positive effects (such as happiness) for a longer amount of time.

    This lingering of dopamine is what often triggers the brain to crave more caffeine. After all, while dopamine itself isn't inherently addictive, it does play a large role in many addictions.

    More coffee means more adenosine receptors which means more coffee...

    The brain is a complex and intricate system. The more coffee you drink, the more adenosine receptors are formed, meaning it can take more coffee to keep you awake now than it did when you started drinking coffee as a young adult.

    According toresearch, caffeine has a half-life of around 6 hours.

    Within the first 10 minutes, the caffeine enters your bloodstream and is pumped throughout your body, causing an increase in blood pressure and heart rate.

    Up to 20 minutes after intake, caffeine binds to the adenosine receptors, neutralizing fatigue. Dopamine levels increase and linger, which provides the drinker with an alert and focused feeling.

    Within 30 minutes, your adrenal glands shift into high gear and begin producing more hormones. During this time your vision may become sharper due to your pupils dilating.

    Within 40 minutes, your body begins producing more serotonin, which improves the neuron function within your spinal cord - this leads to improved coordination and muscle strength.

    After 4 hours, your metabolism increases, which is why you burn energy faster. Your body begins to break down stored fats during this time.

    Within 6 hours, the liquid coffee has gone through your system and you will likely feel the urge to urinate, during which time approximately half the caffeine you consumed is expelled.

    How to make your coffee habit benefit you

    concept of coffee time coffee cup on blank background with clock

    What time of day you drink your coffee can mean the difference between a good habit and a bad habit.

    Photo by bluehand on Shutterstock

    Of course, with anything caffeinated, moderation is key. When consumed in excess, caffeine can cause anxiety, heart palpitations, and sleeping problems.

    According to Consumer Reports, up to 400mg of caffeine per day (which equals two to four 8 ounce cups) can be part of a healthy diet, however anything over 600mg per day is too much.

    What are the health benefits of coffee?

    Despite what you may have been told, there are several ways your daily caffeine intake is good for you. Not only can coffee improve your energy levels, but it can cause your brain to function at optimal levels, making you smarter.

    Some other health benefits of coffee include:

    • Boosting your metabolism
    • Improving your physical performance
    • Helping you with your nutrient intake (the vitamins B2, B3, B5, manganese, and potassium are all found in coffee)
    • Lowering your risk of developing type 2 diabetes
    • Helping fight depression symptoms and make you happier
    • Providing a source of antioxidants

    Consuming caffeine when cortisol levels are high decreases the health benefits.

    Cortisol, a naturally-occurring stress hormone, has a very distinct circadian rhythm that is regulated by the brain's central pacemaker. Interrupting this rhythm can lead to metabolic abnormalities, fatigue, and poor quality of life, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

    Consuming caffeine when your cortisol levels are at a natural peak can lead to interference in the production of cortisol and an increase in your tolerance, which can impact your response to stress and will cause to you need more and more caffeine as time goes on.

    When is the best time to drink coffee?

    The cortisol levels in your body are at a natural peak three times per day, one of which is in the early morning. According to this article in Time Magazine, the best times to drink coffee (or ingest caffeine) are between 10 in the morning and 12 noon, and then again between 2 in the afternoon and 5 in the evening.

    This will allow your brain to make the most of your caffeine surge, as it's not replacing any other important functions, such as the cortisol release that naturally happens several times per day.

    A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

    An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

    Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
    • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
    • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

    The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

    Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

    "It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

    The Barry Arm Fjord

    Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

    Image source: Matt Zimmerman

    The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

    Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

    Image source: whrc.org

    There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

    The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

    "This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

    Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

    What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

    Moving slowly at first...

    Image source: whrc.org

    "The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

    The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

    Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

    Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

    While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

    Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

    How do you prepare for something like this?

    Image source: whrc.org

    The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

    "To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

    In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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