It’s the last leg of the quarter, and you’re digging deep for the stamina to cross the finish line of finals. We know you can do it. But first, coffee.
You’ve likely heard plenty about how too much coffee is bad for you. It’s true that excessive caffeine intake can cause a variety of problems. But it’s also true that, in reasonable amounts, coffee can be beneficial beyond just helping you keep your eyes open while you’re finishing that big paper.
Here’s how a cup (or three) of joe can help — or hinder — your study goals.
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1. Coffee tricks your brain into feeling energetic and alert
That’s because the caffeine in coffee blocks a neurotransmitter in the brain called adenosine, which is responsible for signaling sleepiness. As smart as your brain is, it has a hard time telling caffeine and adenosine apart because they have a similar molecular structure. Once caffeine enters the bloodstream and makes its way to your brain (in as little as 15 minutes after your first sip), it tricks the brain into letting it bind to the adenosine receptor sites. With no adenosine to trigger sleepiness, your brain stays active.
2. But you may be drinking it at the wrong time of morning!
Those of us who stumble straight to the Keurig as soon as we wake up may be better off waiting a bit. Since our body clocks time the release of the hormone cortisol to when we wake up, to help us feel alert, we don’t need caffeine at that time. When we could use a little lift is when our cortisol levels naturally start to drop, which for most people is mid- to late morning or after lunch. Here’s a cool video about how our morning coffee affects us.
3. Coffee boosts your brain power (at least for a while)
Caffeine helps mental focus and acuity, says Adrienne Youdim, MD, associate professor of medicine at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine and assistant professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Caffeine is associated with short-term benefits such as wakefulness and [improved] cognitive function.”
4. Coffee may protect your brain from future illness
According to Youdim, “Studies have associated coffee consumption with long-term benefits for the brain, including a reduced risk of cognitive decline and brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
5. Coffee may improve your memory
Johns Hopkins University researchers studying coffee’s effects on memory asked a group of participants to study images of objects. Half the group was then given 200 mg of caffeine (in pill form, the equivalent of about 2 cups of coffee), the other half a placebo. The next day, researchers tested participants’ recall by presenting images of new items, the original items, and items that were similar. The caffeinated group was more likely to recall the original items and more able to discern between the original items versus the ones that were similar.
6. Coffee can improve endurance
While caffeine in a pill form has been shown to enhance training in endurance athletes, not much was known about the caffeine in coffee. So researchers at University of Georgia, Athens, reviewed 9 studies and found that coffee consumption seems to reduce perceived exertion during exercise, and it can improve performance in endurance cycling and running.
7. Coffee might help you live longer
Two large studies recently found that coffee drinkers lived longer than non–coffee drinkers. One study of nearly 200,000 Americans found coffee consumption was associated with a lower risk of death due to heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and respiratory and kidney diseases. A European study of more than 500,000 people showed that higher levels of coffee consumption were associated with a reduced risk of death from all causes, particularly from circulatory diseases and diseases related to the digestive tract.
8. Coffee can make you feel anxious
Caffeine not only increases heart rate and blood pressure, it also elevates levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. For some people, it can cause palpitations, irritability, and jitteriness, which is perceived as anxiety. Plus it blocks a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA. You’re especially susceptible to these physical symptoms if you’re not a regular coffee drinker and you decide to caffeinate before an exam with, say, a Venti, says Youdim. Too much caffeine — defined as 600 mg or more — will not just leave you jittery and anxious but also unfocused — undermining the best study efforts. (For future reference, a Blonde Roast Venti from Starbucks delivers 475 mg of caffeine.)
9. Coffee makes you poop … and worse!
It’s funny, and true — your roommate’s poop-emoji coffee mug that reads Coffee Makes Me Poop! The reason is that the caffeine stimulates muscle contractions in the large intestine, triggering that gotta-go urge. But it also may go a little too far and cause digestive distress, i.e., diarrhea, says Noerper. If you’re experiencing any digestive issues, you might want to lay off the coffee. At the very least, limit yourself to one cup a day and don’t drink it on an empty stomach.
10. Coffee can make you constipated
What? Yes, despite what we just said, sometimes people have the opposite reaction to too much caffeine. “You may become constipated from the diuretic effects of coffee,” says Tracy Noerper, MS, RD, LDN, an instructor in the department of nutrition and food science at Middle Tennessee State University. It leaves less water in the digestive tract to move foods along, so constipation can occur, she explains. The fix? Drink plenty of water throughout the day to combat dehydration and keep the pipes from clogging.
11. Coffee helps relieve headaches …
Before you get a headache or migraine, your blood vessels tend to enlarge. Caffeine’s vasoconstrictive properties, which cause the blood vessels to narrow and restrict blood flow, help relieve headache pain. Add caffeine to a combination of acetaminophen and aspirin, and the pain-relieving effect increases by 40%.
12. … But it can also give you a headache
If you’re a regular coffee drinker, says Youdim, and you suddenly cut back on caffeine, you’re going to experience a withdrawal, which often presents as a headache. The reason for this isn’t fully understood, but you’re most likely to suffer withdrawal headaches if you drink 500 (or more) mg of caffeine per day, equal to about five cups. (And keep in mind, it doesn’t matter what food or drinks the caffeine comes from.)
13. Coffee can make you sleepy
Drink too much from that mug of motivation, and it can backfire. Your body may become immune to coffee’s stimulating effect; then, when the caffeine starts to wear off, you experience signs of withdrawal, which leads to sleepiness. Because coffee is a diuretic (see #10), if you’re drinking in excess you’re more likely become dehydrated, which can also cause fatigue.
14. Dark roast coffee has less caffeine
Even though lighter roast coffees taste milder, they actually have more caffeine, according to Abbe Rivers, co-owner of Empire Coffee & Tea Co. in Hoboken, New Jersey. “The caffeine in the bean lies in its moisture,” she explains. “The longer the bean is roasted, the more moisture is evaporated. Take, for example, an espresso roast. The darker beans roast longer and more moisture burns off, so even though they taste stronger — and these beans taste, look, and smell stronger than ‘regular’ light roast coffee — they contain less caffeine.”
15. You can find good coffee at the grocery store
But if you’re just looking for a convenient, low-cost blend to start your day, the supermarket shelves can be overwhelming. One intrepid connoisseur at the blog ExtraCrispy put 13 coffee brands to the test. The big winner: Maxwell House. Yep, that big blue can that’s in your grandma’s cupboard has stood the test of time.
16. The best ground coffee is …
… the kind you grind at home. The perks of grinding beans right before brewing are most notably the fresh taste. That’s because whole beans retain the coffee’s full-bodied flavor. Once ground, coffee beans begin to oxidize and lose flavor. It’s best to brew your beans within 30 minutes of grinding. Store whole beans in an airtight container at room temperature (not in the freezer).
17. What? Don’t freeze coffee beans?
Nope. At least not the coffee you’re using every day. “The best way to keep ground coffee or whole beans fresh is to store the coffee on a pantry shelf in an opaque airtight container away from light, heat, and moisture,” Scott McMartin, a member of the Starbucks Green Coffee Quality group, told realsimple.com. (If you don’t have a canister, close the top of the bag with a rubber band, then put the bag in a resealable plastic bag.) When you freeze the coffee you use every day, the fluctuating temperatures create moisture in the packet, which can leave your morning cup tasting like cardboard. “The cell structure changes, which causes a loss of the oils that give coffee its aroma and flavor,” said McMartin. It’s fine to freeze whole beans for up to a month, provided you’re not taking them out during that period.
18. There are several ways to decaffeinate coffee
There are a few techniques for decaffeinating coffee, but they mostly work the same way. “Our beans are water processed to decaffeinate them before we roast them,” says Rivers. “The technique moistens the beans, making the caffeine soluble and easy to draw out of the beans.” Similar techniques involve using carbon dioxide or solvents, such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate, instead of water to draw out the caffeine.
19. Here’s the truth about coffee creamer
It’s not poison; it just doesn’t do anything good for you. Noerper recommends passing on the powdered or canned creamer, as it has no nutritive value. Instead, she says, consider milk [or substitutes like almond or soy milk] for your coffee. “Milk provides calcium, vitamin D, and potassium, which most people are low in.” Plus milk, even low fat or fat free, can be steamed or frothed. “Half-and-half and heavy cream are both very high in fat and calories, so use them sparingly.”
20. Coffee has a slightly high pH (and here’s why you should care)
Coffee has a pH of 4.5 (7 is the neutral level between acid and basic). While it’s not as acidic as say, a lemon, the acid in your brew can cause your digestive system to produce more gastric acid — not good if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If you do have GERD, try a low-acid brand of coffee. (Yes, it’s a thing.)
21. Fermented coffee is also a thing
You may have heard that fermented foods are healthy for you (hello, kombucha!) and you know to pop a probiotic to maintain healthy gut flora — but Afineur, a Brooklyn-based company, takes it next level. It recently launched Cultured Coffee beans. The natural fermentation process adds bioactive compounds to their whole beans for what they say is a healthier cup. The process reduces not only the bitterness of coffee but the acid too, making it a good (though pricier) option for those with stomach distress.
22. So is nitro coffee
This cold brew coffee is infused with nitrogen gas to create a creamy beverage, similar to a stout beer. Stumptown Coffee Roasters was one of the first to mass-market nitro coffees with its Nitro Cold Brew. You might enjoy a glass if you prefer ice-cold drinks, you’re looking for a low-acid coffee, or you’re looking to stash a few cans in your dorm room fridge for all-nighters.
23. You can make cold brew in a French press
The French press makes coffee fast — and strong. While making cold-brewed coffee isn’t as quick (cold water takes longer to absorb the flavor of the beans), it’s just as easy. It’s also perfect for the dorm room. Place about ¾ cup of coarsely ground coffee beans in a 32-oz French press carafe. Add 28 oz of cold water, place the cap on top as a cover, and place in the refrigerator or a cool, dark place for 15 hours. When ready, press the coffee and pour into a container.
24. Coffee naps work
Power napping tips
You know coffee perks you up. You know naps restore you. Did you know that together they pack a one-two energy punch? For a coffee nap, or caf-nap, you drink a cup and then take a 25-minute snooze. (Not longer, or you’ll get into deeper stages of sleep and wake up really groggy.) While you’re getting some shut-eye, the caffeine is making its way to your brain. When you wake up, the caffeine effect should be in full swing.
25. Bulletproof coffee is not a magic bullet
You’ve probably heard about this coffee hack: a blend of coffee; unsalted butter from grass-fed cows; and a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, such as coconut oil, that’s meant to help you lose weight, gain energy — basically become superhuman. But as John Berardi, PhD, a founder of Precision Nutrition, wrote on the Livestrong website: At nearly 500 calories, bulletproof coffee is “highly caloric, supercharged with fat, and a little sketchy in the proven science department.” While the ingredients have some nutritional value — grass-fed butter is higher in omega-3s, coffee is rich in antioxidants, and MCT is an easier-to-digest saturated fat — it doesn’t compare to the nutrients you’d usually consume in a regular meal in a well-balanced diet. “Meanwhile,” Berardi wrote, “feel free to keep drinking your regular coffee — in moderation, of course.”