Humans drink about two billion coffee cups a day, which is a bit ironic considering that the plant developed caffeine as a way to prevent itself from being consumed by pests. But mankind’s appetite for caffeine seems to be continuously on the rise — and that may not be a bad thing.
In addition to helping us face tough mornings, coffee may actually help our brains stay in shape. In fact, according to a number of studies, there are some reasons to start looking at coffee as a type of mind-enhancing drug.
Coffee as a (good) drug
Initial studies seemed to suggest that coffee has a dark side, noting that coffee is associated with a range of health problems, both physical and mental. But newer studies seem to have found more positive effects, and fewer negative effects. An important reason for this is controlling for other factors, particularly smoking (smokers tend to drink more coffee) and sedentarism.
This is not to say that all the recent studies on coffee are good, there’s still a lot of contested science about coffee, but the trend seems to have changed. In fact, published scientific studies are increasingly starting to address coffee as a psychotropic drug (a drug that affects behavior, mood, thoughts, or perception).
“Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychotropic drug in the world, with numerous studies documenting the effects of caffeine on people’s alertness, vigilance, mood, concentration, and attentional focus,” write the authors of a recent study on coffee’s effect on problem-solving.
The study found that participants who consumed 200 mg of caffeine (approximately one cup of coffee) showed significantly enhanced problem-solving abilities compared to a placebo. While it was a small study with only 88 participants, the findings are consistent with other recent reports.
Notably, a 2016 analysis found that around 1-2 cups of coffee per day “enhance a wide array of basic cognitive functions with minimal side effects by preventing alertness and attention decrements associated with suboptimal arousal.” However, the study notes that the effects of caffeine on higher-order executive skills, complex judgments, emotional discernment, and decision-making are “unclear and require further study.”
Coffee may also be good on your body. A large review of previous studies found that coffee can help you live longer, noting that previous inconsistencies were once again linked to failing to correct for smoking.
“Consuming 1–5 cups of coffee per day was related to lower mortality among never smokers, in studies that adjusted or pack-years of smoking, and in studies adjusting for healthy and unhealthy foods,” the analysis reads.
How to use coffee as a mind-enhancing drug
By now, this is probably starting to sound like an article written by the coffee lobby, but rest assured, this is not the case, and we will shortly go through the downsides, uncertainties, and potential negative effects associated with coffee.
But if you do want to harness the power of coffee and “biohack” yourself, there are some ways to try and be efficient. For instance, one tip is to drink coffee just before a (short) nap. Yes, you read that right: have a coffee before a nap.
There’s an actual study about this, and the idea is that short naps (even naps as short as 10 minutes) are the most efficient when it comes to restoring alertness and vigilance. So taking a pre-nap coffee can help make sure you do wake up after not-too-long (long naps were found to be associated with a decrease in attention and alertness).
If you want to take things to the next level, Defense Department scientists have made a free web tool that builds on existing research to help you dose your coffee and reduce impairment. The interface takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s not hard to navigate. The core idea is that you get a temporary improvement in alertness.
There’s also more than one way to make coffee — in fact, looking at the menu of most cafes these days, it appears there are almost endless ways to make coffee. But one way is notably less popular, although it may be healthier: cold-brewed coffee.
Cold-brewed coffee isn’t hot coffee that you cooled down or put ice over, it’s coffee that was brewed at room temperature. Basically, if you put ground coffee into water, it will gradually release its caffeine and antioxidants into the water. The major downside is that you need about 24 hours for the coffee, but the upside is that cold-brewed coffee has significantly more caffeine, and may therefore offer more of the mind-enhancing abilities. However, as this is still a relatively unpopular style of brew, there are not too many studies performed with this type of coffee.
Also it has to be said that many (but likely not all) of the benefits of coffee come from caffeine, so would therefore, in part, also translate to other coffee-based drinks (like black tea, for instance).
Coffee still carries significant potential health risks, mostly due to its caffeine content — which is also what gives it most of the positive effects. It can temporarily raise blood pressure, especially if you drink several cups per day, which is why it’s not recommended for people with high blood pressure, although it’s not generally linked to higher cardiovascular issues (always consult your doctor, ask if you should reduce consumption of caffeinated beverages).
In addition to increasing cognitive performance, caffeine increase the perception of alertness and wakefulness — but it can also cause anxiety, especially at high doses. Furthermore, as caffeine is a stimulant, it can trigger seizures in some people. Coffee is also linked to cerebral vasoconstriction. Other side effects, like heartburn, nervousness, or insomnia, have also been reported.
However, while this is still a hotly debated topic, most of the downsides of coffee seem to appear at large doses (>4 cups per day), and large doses of coffee can harm your brain instead of helping it. However, if you don’t drink your coffee with sugar, cream, and if you filter it (unfiltered coffee is associated with higher “bad” cholesterol), then there’s a good chance you can include some amount of coffee into a regular diet.
“The overall evidence has been pretty convincing that coffee has been more healthful than harmful in terms of health outcomes,” said Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an April 5, 2021, article in Discover. “For most people, moderate coffee consumption can be incorporated into a healthy diet.”
However, it should be said that even the cognitive enhancement properties of coffee are still under discussion, especially as studies are new and still relatively few. Some researchers note that the cognitive benefits of caffeine are mostly associated with relief from withdrawal symptoms rather than “true” cognitive improvements.
Ultimately, the science on coffee has changed in recent years, and may change again. As with all things, balance is key — and while it seems that coffee can have some positive impacts on your mind, and if you’re smart about it, you can harness them, it always pays to keep an eye on any new studies.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.