Is Coffee a Drug? Caffeine, Your Genes, and Science

That morning cup of coffee is more addictive than it seems. Is coffee the last acceptable drug? What are its health effects?

12 Jan, 2018





There’s been plenty of research into common substances and their health effects. We know that drinking too much alcohol is bad for us. Smoking cigarettes is really bad for us. On the other hand, coffee (or caffeine) is one of life’s last acceptable vices. Should coffee be considered a drug?

In Australian cities, a morning cup of coffee is a sacred ritual. People think nothing of waiting ten minutes for their daily hit and walk proudly through the streets brandishing their cup.

Is it possible that your daily coffee intake is having a greater effect on you than you realise?

A quick burst of science: how caffeine works on the brain

So is coffee a drug? Let’s take a look at the science.

Adenosine is a substance that builds up in the brain over the course of a day. It slows down how quickly neurons fire and makes you feel sleepy.  Because caffeine and adenosine share a similar molecular structure, caffeine can step into the brain and stop adenosine from making you feel drowsy.  This is what makes you feel perky and ready to face the day.

a barista pouring milk into a coffee cup to create a pattern on top
Sounds great – what’s the problem?

So, if coffee makes you feel more alert, surely that’s a good thing? It can be, but the risk is that coffee (or caffeine in general) is having other unintended effects.

One well-known risk of coffee is simply that if you drink it too late in the day, you won’t be able to fall asleep at night. Or you might be able to sleep, but only lightly, and you may not feel as rested afterwards. Feeling groggy after a bad night’s sleep, you might reach out for more coffee, and before you know it, you could end up in a caffeine-fueled downwards spiral.

Another effect to consider is that caffeine might make you feel anxious. This can be predicted by your genes. Anxiety is a growing problem for many people these days. But if you’re an anxious person who doubles down on coffee or caffeinated energy drinks, and you have genes that mean caffeine is likely to make you anxious, it might be worth seeing how you feel when you cut it out.

Caffeine improves some people’s reasoning skills, but for others it can be damaging. It’s worthwhile knowing which camp you are in, based on your genes. There’s no point in using caffeine to help you feel alert at work if it’s also undermining your ability to think clearly.

How genes affect the speed of caffeine

Caffeine travels at different speeds in different bodies. The speed that it travels at is affected by a genetic marker, called CYP1A1-1A2. Some people process caffeine quickly. It acts on the brain, making them feel more awake. Then it clears quickly from their system. Other people process caffeine more slowly. For them the effect can last much longer. This genetic marker also affects whether caffeine is likely to keep you awake at night.

Making genes work faster

Some people will be intrigued to learn from a myDNA membership that their gene function is ‘inducible’ which means that they can speed up the rate at which they process caffeine by eating cruciferous (green leafy) vegetables such as broccoli or kale. Eating these vegetables can help their body to clear caffeine faster, allowing for a better night’s sleep. Could the introduction of a side of broccoli alongside that late-night espresso be the next millennial food trend?

Got more questions about how caffeine might affect your brain’s functions? Wondering how your unique genetics might affect the way you react to coffee? A myDNA membership gives you actionable insights on how to work with your DNA.

Also, feel free to reach out on social media! Our qualified, nutrigenomic experts are always happy to help answer questions.

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