Everyone knows someone who can’t function without their morning cup of coffee – honestly many people fall into this category. Coffee and tea are popular beverages all over the world, with most countries boasting a few local varieties. We’ve even seen the popularity of energy drinks like Red Bull or Bang become more commonplace.

But the one thing all these drinks have in common is caffeine.

As we know, caffeine is a stimulant relied upon by many people who struggle with tiredness, lethargy, and motivation. This magic ingredient isn’t just found in coffee, tea, and energy drinks, it’s also found in dark chocolate and sodas. However, traditionally it’s coffee that we tend to turn to when we need a pick me up.

There are many beliefs about coffee and similar drinks, some of which are more accurate than others. The most common include:

  • Keeping you awake
  • Makes you hyperactive
  • Improves concentration
  • Can cause jitters
  • Can be addictive
  • Suppresses appetite

These beliefs hold a grain of truth, and research has shown that coffee (and caffeine in general) can both be beneficial and harmful to physical and mental health.

The science of caffeine

Caffeine is a potent natural stimulant. Scientifically, it falls into the category of psychoactive substances: stimulants that affect the nervous system, causing changes in mood, consciousness, perception, and behavior.

Consuming caffeine causes changes in central nervous system (CNS) function and also affects other body systems such as the digestive system, circulatory, and respiratory systems. Excessive caffeine consumption can have damaging effects on the body, including impacting the skeleton and muscles.

The relationship between caffeine and your brain

When it comes to the brain, caffeine affects adenosine and the function of adenosine receptors. When adenosine receptors in the brain bind with adenosine, it leads to drowsiness. However, the receptors can’t tell the difference between adenosine and caffeine and can bind to both.

Close up of brain neurons that are stained pink.
When caffeine binds to adenosine receptors, it stops you from getting drowsy.

When you drink a caffeinated beverage, adenosine receptors bind with caffeine, resulting in increased wakefulness instead of tiredness. Caffeine also causes adrenaline levels to rise, triggering the “fight or flight” response – increased heart rate, more blood flow to muscles, and a spike in energy.

While this has immediate benefits on your ability to study, spending a long time in fight-or-flight can lead to burnout. Not at all helpful for people trying to understand or memorize information.

Coffee, tea, or energy drinks, despite their ability to give you a boost in energy, aren’t a long-term solution for sleepiness, lack of motivation, or difficulty concentrating. Caffeine reaches maximum levels in the body an hour after it is consumed and wears off after four to six hours. While it can offset tiredness temporarily, your body and brain still need adequate rest in the form of sleep.

Proven benefits of caffeine

In moderate amounts, caffeine can boost mood, energy, and concentration.

Research has shown that drinking coffee increases mental alertness and reduces tiredness – a huge help to those trying to study. Coffee also has long-term health benefits, including increased protection against Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, strokes, and even some types of cancer.

Tea also has positive effects. This study found that black tea improved both alertness and awareness for participants completing a self-reported attention test.

A popular misconception about coffee is that it leads to a superhuman-type state of industriousness. This is, however, not the case. Trying to avoid having to rest by bingeing on caffeine leads to compounded fatigue, which makes learning extremely difficult.

How to use coffee to your advantage

Students often battle with balancing life, work, and sleep. This lack of balance causes them to suffer from a lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating, procrastination. and general tiredness. Although coffee isn’t a cure-all, a moderate amount is both healthy and a great study aid.

1. Consume the right amount

As mentioned earlier, caffeine in excess can be harmful. At the same time, consuming too little won’t result in the desired effects.

Research suggests that up to 300mg of caffeine a day is safe, and often beneficial. But more than that can cause side effects like anxiety, insomnia, elevated blood pressure, and digestive issues.

The average 8-ounce cup of coffee delivers between 95 and 200mg of caffeine—more than enough to make you more alert. For tea, an 8-ounce cup can range from 19 to 50 mg of caffeine.  Seventy-five milligrams of caffeine has a positive effect on alertness, according to the European Food Safety Authority.

2. Time it right

Drinking caffeine too late in the day can make dropping off to sleep more difficult. While students might want to work late into the night, keeping yourself awake with caffeine doesn’t negate your need for sleep.

A cup of tea or coffee will boost your energy temporarily, but the benefits won’t last long if you try to use it in place of downtime. There is a general consensus that beginning your day with a jolt of caffeine can help you wake up, but science suggests otherwise.

Cortisol levels (a hormone that increases wakefulness) are at their peak first thing in the morning, and adding coffee to that is neither necessary nor extremely healthy. For those willing to try something different, delaying your first cup until mid-morning can maximize its energy-boosting effects.

3. Harness your physical energy

Caffeine doesn’t only improve your mental alertness; it can help you get more out of your workouts by boosting energy levels and delaying fatigue afterwards. While this doesn’t help with studying, spending time being physically active is highly beneficial to your mental health in terms of concentration, alertness, and mood.

A word to the wise

There are people whose physical and mental response to caffeine is neither pleasant nor helpful in terms of aiding concentration and increasing alertness.

For the average person, more than 300mg of caffeine a day can cause anxiety, agitation, and other unpleasant side effects. But for those with certain illnesses, just a fraction of that could exacerbate symptoms.

Those with anxiety disorders can experience heightened agitation, while people with bipolar disorder can be sent into a manic episode – a state that is further compounded by a lack of sleep. On top of this, there are several medications and supplements which don’t interact well with caffeine. Some examples being ephedrine, most stimulants, Fosamax, and some anti-depressants.

So, Does Caffeine Really Work?

Caffeine can definitely contribute to your ability to study—when consumed sensibly. However, the stimulant effect of caffeine, while offering immediate mental and cognitive benefits, isn’t a sustainable replacement for recharging your batteries with rest and sleep.

By all means, have a cup or two of coffee or tea, but do so in a way that benefits you!