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Caffeine Consciousness: The Effects of History's Most Popular Psychoactive Drug

Caffeine is a drug that 90% of Americans consume every day. Just because something is common, though, doesn’t mean it’s good for everyone.

While there are enthusiastically-reported studies extolling the many benefits of caffeine-containing substances like coffee, green tea and matcha, there are also studies revealing the adverse effects caffeine can have.

In fact, for some individuals caffeine can be associated with a long list of potential health problems, including sleep disruption, anxiety, menstrual pain, digestive issues, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), rhabdomyolysis (muscle damage), tremors, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, insomnia, headache, nervousness, irritability, frequent urination and more.

Yet at the same time, other people seem to be able to consume caffeine all day and night without any apparent problems and in fact seem to thrive with it.

So is caffeine good or bad? And why does it seem to be problematic for some and such a way of life for others?

The difference has a lot to do with each individual's constitution, including their metabolism, microbiome, activity level and genetic variables, such as the expression of an enzyme in the liver called CYP1A2, as well as a person’s COMT (Catechol-O-Methyltransferase) gene coding.

Depending on these variables and others, one person may process caffeine more effectively than another.

Around half the population has a CYP1A2 expression that causes their body to metabolize caffeine much slower. This slower metabolism can contribute to a negative relationship with caffeine and even be associated with an increased risk of heart disease, heart attacks, hypertension and impaired fasting glucose.

A similar effect is seen in individuals with a certain type of COMT gene expression. In this case, however, the slowed metabolism effect acts upon the hormones released by caffeine, rather than the caffeine itself.

COMT is the main enzyme responsible for metabolizing catecholamines, which are hormones released by the body in response to physical or emotional stress.

Caffeine acts as a chemical stressor to the body, which then stimulates the release of the catecholamines epinephrine and norepinephrine, also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline.

By consuming a chemical stressor––caffeine––we force our adrenals to release adrenaline in response, thus inducing a state of biological stress, which includes an increase in heart rate, respiration, blood circulation, carbohydrate metabolism and muscular exertion.

For those with a certain COMT expression, caffeine can have adverse effects on both the physical and emotional body due to a prolonged hormonal stress response resulting from slowed catecholamine metabolism.

It’s important to understand that when we consume caffeine, it is not the caffeine itself that is fueling us directly. Caffeine is acting as a stressor that initiates a chemical hormone reaction in the body, tapping into our sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response.

This gives our body the impression that there is some imminent threat requiring our systems to be on immediate high alert. We shift into an altered state of consciousness in the form of a visceral stress response.

So, how can someone determine if caffeine is something they should stop consuming?

One place to start would be to check your genetic status with regard to CYP1A2 and COMT, which can tell you how well or poorly you may metabolize caffeine and its effects. Depending on your results, there may be ways to better support your genes through epigenetics, like incorporating nutrients as simple as B-vitamins and magnesium, as well as modifying the foods you eat.

Beyond genetic testing, try independently exploring what your relationship with caffeine is really like. If caffeine was suddenly removed from your life completely how would your body respond? If you wouldn’t miss a beat without caffeine, then you likely have a healthy relationship with it.

On the other hand, if you’d become irritable, fatigued, moody, unfocused, agitated, tired or generally find it difficult to function, then you’re likely dependent on caffeine.

The reality is you may very well be using caffeine to mask systemic imbalances or deficiencies lurking underneath. These hidden issues could be the root cause of health challenges you’re currently struggling with or setting you up to develop new problems down the road.

Is caffeine propping you up everyday while your body is trying to tell you something is wrong?

Ideally, we should feel naturally bright, present, focused and energetic without depending on caffeine or other stimulants.

If that’s not the case, I recommend moving off of caffeine for 60 days and allowing your body to reset itself to a life free of this stimulating drug.

You may want to consider weaning off instead of going cold turkey, as some of the caffeine withdrawal effects can be quite unpleasant, including fatigue, headaches, irritability, anxiety, depression, difficulty focusing and in some cases even tremors.

If you don't believe caffeine is a drug, try taking it out of your life. If you’re a caffeine addict, you’ll know soon enough.

Once you are totally weaned off all caffeine, begin the 60 day countdown and allow your body to adapt to life without caffeine. You will likely be forced to discover new ways to continue functioning at a high level, which is entirely the point of this challenge.

These new healthy habits might include going to sleep earlier, saying no to plans more often, generally slowing down, taking more time to simply rest, drinking more water, eating healthier nutrient-dense foods that nourish your body, leaving toxic relationships or jobs that drain you, spending greater time in the tranquility of nature, exposing yourself to the energy of sunlight more frequently, meditation, breathwork, stretching and lots of other choices that will naturally help you stay present, bright and focused without caffeine.

What will take place is an actual shift in consciousness, away from the caffeinated version of yourself––who is very likely doing more than you should––and a return back to the real version of yourself who is doing only what is most supportive of your body and spirit.

When we remove a crutch like caffeine from our life, we are forced to learn how to walk again on our own. With every step, we become stronger, more resilient and less dependent on stimulating drugs. In doing so, we create space to discover a truer version of ourselves that honors our limits, and in turn, restores our vitality.


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