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Davis, California

Friday, May 17, 2024

Column: Caffiend

Excuse me if I ruin your morning, but let me remind you that finals week is fast approaching. This can only mean one thing: caffeine, and lots of it. As you pull each subsequent all-nighter for the paper, exam or project, sleep becomes a necessary sacrifice.

But these aren’t your grandmother’s exams, and coffee is no longer the only energizing option. It represents one of many weapons in the modern college student’s arsenal, which also includes energy drinks and prescription brain boosters. Of course, some methods are healthier than others. Some don’t work at all. Let’s go through them here.

Coffee: The line in front of the CoHo every morning suggests that there’s something to this liquid fuel.

Coffee works as a stimulant through caffeine, which blocks the uptake of adenosine in the brain. Adenosine is an amino acid that works on the brain when you’re getting ready to sleep. When blocked, the brain fires neurons, which alarm the nervous system. The pituitary gland then releases adrenaline to spark a flight-or-fight response. Like prey being stalked by a predator, your eyes dilate to take in more visual data, and your heart beats faster to agitate movement. For more energy still, caffeine signals the liver to release more sugar into the blood stream. Finally, caffeine affects the pleasure center of the mind for its effect on dopamine. Together, these factors combine to create the energizing feeling.

When it comes to your health, coffee has been both heralded and demonized. Studies show that it can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Because coffee has antioxidants, it can prevent cancer too. But caffeine has been shown to spike blood pressure, although it’s unclear whether this is an effect associated with soft drink caffeine as opposed to coffee caffeine. Coffee, like alcohol, is also a diuretic, which pushes fluid out of the kidney. This, however, just means that you have to balance your coffee with water, or run the risk of dehydration.

The real issue with caffeine is the crash. The fight or flight responses wear off. The liver stops pumping sugar into your blood. Dopamine only lasts so long. When each of the energizing factors disappears, you experience what is sometimes an abrupt loss of energy. If you’re studying with coffee, you need to take the crash into account. Instead of starting your study session with a cup of joe, pour yourself a cup halfway in. This way, you can coordinate the crash with your sleep.

Energy Drinks: Monster, Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy all claim to have these special ingredients to further increase your energy and mental performance beyond the simple effects of caffeine. While guarana, taurine, niacin, and B-complexes all sound pretty cool, most of the effect comes from caffeine. Unfortunately, nobody really knows how these chemicals interact in the long run, which is cause for some concern.

The difference with energy drinks is that they tend to have more caffeine than a single cup of coffee. If Red Bull gives you wings, it’s from the flight present in the flight-or-fight response, not necessarily the special powers of extra ingredients.

Adderall: Addy is one hell of a drug, and studies show that nearly one in five college students have used it. As a study buddy, evidence suggests the stimulant delivers. Of course, it’s a felony to possess Adderall without a valid prescription. But as so many students use, have used, or will use it, it’s worth considering the risks.

Adderall, taken moderately under the close supervision of a doctor, presents very little risk and almost no long-term harm. The problem is that nobody takes it that way. Most people don’t consult with their doctor before (and certainly not after) buying a pill off the dorm market. Apart from catalyzing a productive study session, addy can cause psychosis, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and schizophrenia if the person taking it does so incorrectly or has a certain genetic predisposition.

To be sure, there’s a placebo effect difficult to account for. And of course, there’s no telling that more energy necessarily means more productivity. The point of energy is just that – to enhance activities reliant upon energy. What you use the energy for is another matter altogether.

RAJIV NARAYAN has slept 10 hours in 6 days, so buy him a cup of coffee if he’s in line with you at the CoHo. Or e-mail him your tricks for keeping up the energy levels at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.


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