Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Coffee, Tea or Me?

Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to gradually phase out my caffeine intake, but it’s been a spectacular failure.

I was actually doing okay for a few days. Despite getting up before dawn and the soporific effects of my long, boring commute, I fastidiously avoided coffee and Diet Coke. Until today.

Today started with a particularly brutal workout, and after getting ready for work, I had back-to-back meetings pretty much from 8 a.m. until now. I’m dead tired, and not looking forward to battling the bumper-to-bumper traffic back home. Before I knew it, I was down in the company café, cradling a big-ass caffeinated beverage.

I guzzled it before my brain even registered any guilt. And I feel better.

But it got me thinking: What exactly does caffeine do to us? Does it impact physical performance, fitness or weight loss?

The “experts” are all over the place on this one.

Some believe that caffeine is an unmitigated disaster. They point out that when caffeine is consumed, it wreaks havoc on your system by:
  • Triggering the production of adrenaline, giving you a temporary spike in energy (but causing you to crash later);
  • Inhibiting the body’s absorption of adenosine, a hormone that calms your body;
  • Increasing your body’s levels of cortisol – the “stress hormone” – which can sabotage your weight loss and other health goals;
  • Increasing your dopamine levels, making you physically dependent on the substance.
Mark Sisson has sounded the alarm as well:
As a stimulant, caffeine offers the temporary benefits of improved concentration, enhanced memory and an extra bit of energy. However, this “heightened” state has some unappealing physical effects as well. Obviously, there are the proverbial caffeine jitters and, for a few people who are either caffeine sensitive or who regularly overindulgence, even heart flutterings. But there’s more. Recent caffeine consumption can reduce blood flow to the heart during exercise.

And, apparently, some of us are “slow caffeine metabolizers” (who knew?). Being part of this crowd and partaking of caffeine, some research shows, puts us at increased risk for non-fatal heart attacks. Caffeine has been shown to also raise blood sugar levels in those with type 2 diabetes.

Additionally, caffeine induces heartburn in many people. Given that prescriptions targeting acid reflux are so common these days, we often wonder how much caffeine plays into many people’s symptoms. At a certain point for certain people, caffeine probably isn’t worth it just from that standpoint alone.
But others have staked out the opposite side of the argument, and claim that caffeine actually enhances endurance and helps drive weight loss. According to The London Times,
researchers investigating caffeine’s influence on fitness and sports performance are discovering that an amount considered acceptable by most health experts — only a cup or two a day — is needed to get better results at the gym. They have shown that there are substances in caffeine which trigger the release of body fats into the bloodstream during activity.
Plus, as we all know, caffeine can help stave off fatigue:
A study at the University of South Carolina, published in the American Journal of Physiology (2003), revealed that one or two cups of coffee up to an hour before a gym session can delay or prevent post-exercise tiredness by up to 60 per cent: “People seem to be able to work harder without realising it when they take caffeine before a workout,” says Louise Sutton, the principal lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition at Leeds Metropolitan University.
And the American Journal of Cardiology published a study purporting to show that
caffeine may help to boost nitric oxide (NO) levels, resulting in increased blood flow to muscles. According to a study done by Japanese researchers, when young, healthy males were given 300mg of caffeine pills, the dilation of their forearm blood vessels increased as a result of greater production of NO. As a result, some have taken this to mean that “drinking caffeine before a workout will not only give you a boost in stamina and strength, but it may also lead to a better muscle pump and, over time, greater muscle hypertrophy (growth).”
Who to believe? The more I look into the question of whether caffeine is bad for you, the more I’m convinced that the answer is a resounding “maybe.”

As Robb Wolf explained in one of his Paleolithic Solution podcasts, the answer depends on the dosage of caffeine that’s ingested, as well as the individual’s response to the caffeine’s effects on his/her central nervous system. While caffeine intake may negative affect some folks’ hormone levels and lead to diminished performance and addiction, it may have little effect on others – aside from providing some of the benefits described above.

In other words, I just wasted a crapload of time trying to hunt for an easy answer that doesn't exist.

Oh, well. I've decided to once again try to abstain from caffeine – not because I’ve concluded it’s evil, but because I can save a ton of money by drinking water instead.

Plus, I have a headache now, and caffeine will only make it worse.