But what does it really do…


Jack Russells are what happens when an upholstered rat swallows your stash of NoDoz and trips out on caffeine.

Ours was the same.

Including running on only three legs, which is totally odd, which I never understood, but which is, apparently, normal for Jack Russells.

Told you they’re odd.

For us, rather than NoDoz, caffeine usually comes in coffee.


I like mine milky, easy on the fluff.


Caffeine is a bitter, white, crystalline alkaloid that’s derived from coffee and tea. Officially, it belongs to a group of compounds called xanthines. A close relative is theophylline, also found in coffee and tea, which is used as a medication for asthma and COPD.

Caffeine is an interesting little guy.

A central nervous stimulant.

A psychoactive substance.

A drug.

Soooooo, might have to wake up and smell the coffee.

You might be a stoner.

Yep, at your age.

Am I really a stoner?

If you have a regular coffee habit, which engages you in drinking coffee before work, when you get to work, on break, over lunch, on break, plus one or two for good measure, and one to be social, and then maybe one, or even two, once you get home, then, it’s true, you’re probably a waster.

At least you might be according to current psychiatric criteria.

You might also notice that you get headaches on Saturdays. This is your body and brain going into withdrawal. They’re expecting their regular, work-routine dictated hit of caffeine and you’ve deprived them by sleeping in or doing some other thing.

To get back at you, your brain and body develop symptoms as a result. If this is you, and you get headaches on Saturdays, it could well be because you’re out of your caffeine routine.

And because you’re a stoner!

So here’s a pop quiz for you

Okay, it’s actually a checklist of psychiatric symptoms for caffeine withdrawal, but pop quiz sounds better.

See how you stack up.

The most commonly reported withdrawal symptoms are:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Drowsiness/sleepiness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Work difficulty (such as decreased motivation for jobs)
  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood
  • Anxiety
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Impairment in psychomotor (coordination), vigilance and cognitive performance

If that sounds like you on a Saturday morning, well, you know where I’m going with how much coffee you’re drinking… especially as most of us underestimate how much we drink. It takes only 12 to 24 hours for withdrawal symptoms to appear.

Caffeinism is the dependency.

And caffeine does some interesting things to the brain and, therefore, behavior.

Come with me to NASA.


In 1995, a bunch of NASA scientists started playing with drugs. Truth be told, it probably wasn’t the first time, but that’s another story.

In actual fact, what they did was to replicate an experiment first undertaken in, when else, the 1960s. The experiment completed by Swiss pharmacologist Peter N Witt tested the effect of various substances on spiders.

Ostensibly, he was looking for changes in when they spun webs.


Sounds legit.

But the results may surprise you.

Or, if you drink coffee or drop acid, they might not.

A little clarification

Broadly, drugs are classified into one of three categories:

  • hallucinogens (those that distort your senses and perceptions)
  • stimulants (such as amphetamines, that rev you up, not called ‘speed’ for nothing)
  • depressants (those that depress the central nervous system, knock you out, shut you down)

Some have more than one effect, and so don’t fit tidily into only one category, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

Back to the spiders

You’ll see in the picture below that there are five webs. The bottom picture is a normal web spun by a normal garden spider. The remaining webs shown have been influenced by the ingestion of various drugs.

  • LSD (also called acid; hallucinogen)
  • Speed (amphetamines; stimulant)
  • Marijuana (weed and many other names; primarily hallucinogenic)
  • Caffeine (stimulant)

So a quick glance at their respective performance will tell you

  • LSD. Beautiful, but missing some key elements
  • Speed. 60% there
  • Marijuana. Starting to fall away. 
  • Caffeine. Well. What do you say?

In 1995, it was NASA‘s Dr David Noever from the Marshall Space Flight Center who did it again.

Same experiment, slightly different set of substances. Benzedrine (also called ‘Bennies’) is an amphetamine and thus a stimulant. Choral Hydrate is a sleeping tablet (depressant) used for insomnia, as an anti-anxiety agent and sometimes in surgery.

Let’s review.

The normal web is obviously our control sample. 

The marijuana spider started well and the web is recognizable, but this took him all day. He clearly got a little lost, couldn’t remember what he was supposed to do, found the cognitive effort too much and gave up. He was probably distracted by a sudden huge appetite and the fez-wearing whale he saw floating through the sky.

The benzedrine spider started at the same time as the marijuana spider. He did this in three seconds flat, decided he’d spring clean the entire forest, got into a fight, got arrested, spent time in the slammer and still got home before the marijuana spider had finished. Overall, though, only moderately effective.

The choral hydrate guy got started, but was asked to count backwards from 10 and clearly never got past 6. He fell asleep, and fell off the web. The marijuana spider ate him.

The caffeine spider. What a crazy web. Notice that it lacks the basic elements required in Web 101. Notice too, that this may not have taken long, but he’s all over the place.

We’re not spiders, but the effects are similar.

What does it mean for us?

Increasingly, caffeine is in medication, bottled water, soft drinks, weight loss programs and, for obvious reasons, energy drinks.

Caffeine crosses easily into the brain from your bloodstream. You do have a layer or protection called the blood-brain barrier, but caffeine gets through it easily.

In small doses, caffeine is effective at increasing our mental alertness. We can concentrate better, think faster and perform better. It works well as a pick me up, but its effects are short-lived. By the way, it’s a diuretic, which means that it we dehydrate and want to use the bathroom.

Smokers process caffeine at about twice the rate of non-smokers, perhaps explaining why they may drink more coffee. Pregnant women process caffeine at half the rate of non-smokers.

Caffeine itself doesn’t actually stimulate us. What it does do is bind to the brain’s numerous adenosine receptors. It’s a good fit, and the brain thinks its loaded with adenosine. What this does is allow the natural stimulants like dopamine and glutamate to run wild.

They do the stimulating. Caffeine prevents the brain from putting the brakes on.

It’s not that you have more power or control, but that you have more speed. That’s how caffeine affects us.

So here’s the take home bit

While drinks range in caffeine content, here’s a guide;

  • Full-strength brewed coffee             100mg
  • Instant coffee                                      75mg
  • Tea                                                       50mg
  • Same volume of many soft drinks   50mg
  • Recommended daily maximum       500mg

Interested to hear your thoughts.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Adenosine, dopamine, glutamate

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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3 Responses to Caffeine!

  1. Really interesting topic Thank you for the input

  2. Pingback: Want an effective nap? Start with a coffee. | Bite sized brains

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