I know more than a few people who think I’m out of my mind for claims of being able to feel differences in my mental activity based on the stimulants I’ve inflicted upon my brain. Honestly though, I’ve been pretty sensitive about my brain for a very long time. After a doctor prescribed too much Ritalin leaving me a shaky 10-year-old for a few days, or my experimentation with spicy food before bed after discovering its connection to extremely lucid dreams, the effects of food and drugs on the brain has always been a source of fascination for me.
Over the past year and a half more than a few things have been sacrificed in effort to speed up performance in thinking and general living. The first to go was coffee. The motivation behind such an ultimately difficult decision was based primarily on the research of scientists into the effects of stimulants on the brain. Having struggled for a long time with ADD, or as researcher John J. Ratey defined it, Motivational deficiency syndrome, and wondering what caused this behavior, personal experimentation with alternative behaviors seemed completely reasonable.
The problem with coffee – the only problem as far as I’m concerned – is with the caffeine content. Caffeine is not a negative substance in moderation, but in large quantities effects the inner workings of the limbic system – the brain’s reward system. For every action you perform your brain releases a small amount of a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine, when absorbed into the brain and blood stream create a positive, happy feeling – a mild high. When someone wrestles with ADD essentially their brain is not releasing enough dopamine to keep motivated to perform the task. The brain, essentially, looks for behaviors and actions that will allow for the steady flow of dopamine. That’s why something so stupid as checking your personal email is easier to do than a simple assignment. You just need something a little more interesting to increase the flow of this happy drug.
The caffeine contained in coffee, much like the effects of nicotine and alcohol, is a stimulant, which unnaturally boosts the dopamine levels in the brain much, much more than you would naturally experience. This helps the user perform tasks they would normally find difficult to stay motivated in performing. Basically, you self medicate your problem. The body finds the easiest way to adjust. Sounds great in theory. The downside is that you can become a stimulant junky. Consuming that much caffeine and the resulting dopamine is not a good thing. Just like in physics, what goes up must come down. Even though caffeine stays in the system for 48 hours, after the initial effects wear off the user feels they need to get more to get to that level. The result is unnatural ups and downs that effect even the emotional state of the user. Why do people get moody when they quit smoking or if they don’t have coffee one morning? Dopamine effects the pleasure they feel for life in general. Being addicted to caffeine or any other stimulant hijacks the brain.
Having replaced three cups of coffee from my diet (Starbucks Grande x 3 = 540 mg of caffeine) with 6 cups of Green or White tea, two of which are caffeinated (total of 140 mg of caffeine) I am sleeping great and am feeling more consistent throughout the day. A little caffeine can be a good thing, especially in tea, as it carries GABA, an extremely positive chemical, straight to the brain where it can be used the most. I can honestly say I feel the effects deeply at work, home, and in my head. After the first few weeks I began to focus throughout the day, rather than for three hours a day. I felt more in control of my self, and with added sleep, was more rested which lead to better concentration.
I just started my second phase yesterday – running. Touted by leading researchers to be the very best way to get your brain in shape. Honestly, and perhaps strangely, this is more for my brain than anything else. After just two days I feel a little tired but pretty crisp. After years on the bench it will take time to build up to something very beneficial. For now, though, running for 30-40 minutes is enough to get my endorphins humming with production and dopamine pumping. My mood is positive and I have a good amount of energy. I walk a fair amount on a daily basis, but with the addition of a dedicated running schedule I’m hoping to get to the next step. My brain is very important to me. As many neurologists have said, the average person knows a good deal about the body – the heart, kidneys, and liver especially – but very few people know about the organ that keeps the others going. After noticing the drastic effects of removing one object from my life I am a believer. I have had one soda in 6 months and occasionally have a small cup of coffee or a beer. However, if I over do it even by just a little I notice the effects for days after. A brain is a terrible thing to waste.