Where it comes from: Caffeine is a chemical found in coffee, tea, soda, chocolate and other products.
What it'll do for you: Caffeine is mostly known for its ability to provide a boost of energy and increase mental alertness, but a laundry list of other benefits are also associated with the chemical. "Drinking three cups of caffeinated coffee a day may boost brain function with regard to memory and performance by activating dopamine," says Barbie Broschart, RD and a nutritional counselor. And recent research indicates that coffee—both regular and decaf—may reduce the risk of stroke, several types of cancer (including liver, skin, colorectal, breast, oral, pharyngeal and esophageal) and cardiovascular disease. Researchers suspect it's due to its high antioxidant content. Some doctors prescribe caffeine for asthma, migraines, gallbladder disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, low blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
"Drinking a caffeinated beverage before a workout may boost performance," Broschart adds. Caffeine is one of the most commonly used stimulants among athletes. Here's why:
- It increases stamina and physical endurance
Caffeine can increase blood pressure, pulse rate and stomach acid production. "Many athletes associate these effects with a burst of energy and often report feeling less fatigued," Broschart explains. But how does it work? In endurance sports, caffeine helps to mobilize fat stores and encourages working muscles to use fat as fuel, thus sparing glycogen. The glycogen saved at the beginning of a workout is then available during the later stages of exercise and fatigue and exhaustion are prolonged. However, it is important to note that results are unique to the individual.
- It lowers perceived exertion
Other studies have found that caffeine may alter the perception of how hard you are working. Researchers in the UK found that athletes who ingested caffeine had a rating of perceived exertion that was 5.6 percent lower than athletes who were given placebos. The researchers also found that the caffeine improved overall exercise performance by 11.2 percent.
- It decreases muscle pain
In 2009, Robert Motl, a kinesiology and community health professor at University of Illinois reported that caffeine can reduce muscle pain during exercise—due to the chemical's involvement with the parts of the brain and spinal cord that are heavily involved in pain processing. Motl studied 25 fit college-aged males and divided them into two groups: one group of males who nearly never ingested caffeine and another of males who regularly consumed about four cups of coffee a day. After high-intensity, 30-minute exercise sessions and caffeine doses of 5 mg per kg of body weight, both groups reported muscle pain in their quadriceps to be much less compared to when they didn't have the caffeine. Not only did Motl conclude that caffeine helps to reduce muscle soreness; he also found that a pre-established caffeine tolerance has no effect on the benefit.
Suggested intake: There is much debate over the best way to get caffeine into your system. Many experts agree that too much coffee can increase insulin sensitivity, anxiety, the risk of cardiovascular disease and more. Additionally, some studies find that coffee doesn't produce the same performance-enhancing benefits as pure caffeine pills. Yet Broschart doesn't suggest taking caffeine pills: "You can get it naturally through certain foods, coffee, tea and other beverages." Tea is considered much healthier than coffee (it contains more antioxidants) but it also contains less caffeine than coffee.
It is generally agreed that consuming up to 300 mg of caffeine per day is safe. (That's about three cups of coffee or six cups of tea). For athletes, many exercise performance experts suggest a dose of three to six mg per kg of body weight about an hour before exercise. However, this is not recommended for a daily routine, but rather an occasional big race or marathon. Talk to your doctor to see what intake method may be best for you.
Associated risks/scrutiny: Too much caffeine can cause insomnia and anxiety. Caffeine intake may also lead to abdominal cramping and dehydration if proper fluids are not consumed, as caffeine is a mild diuretic. Prolonged use may increase risk for ulcer or exacerbate existing ones.
Caffeine is a stimulant and a dependency can easily be created. "Abrupt discontinuation can lead to migraines and caffeine withdrawals," Broschart warns. Moderate consumption is recommended.