Caffeine and sugar: a match made in heaven

| February 14, 2011

Several mornings per week, I watch from the services desk as my fellow library employees and dozens of patrons stride, dash, or shuffle into the library with coffee and muffins or croissants in their hands. After all, who can resist the allure of bakery products and caffeinated goodness in the morning? We’ll eat healthy and lay off the caffeine for the rest of the day, right?

As it turns out, science vindicates these cravings: you want sugar and caffeine not just because you suffer from serious weakness of will, but because your brain loves them:

How Coffee and Donuts Enhance Memory

Upon waking, your brain really needs a burst of sugar to get back up to speed:

Your neurons can only tolerate a total deprivation of sugar for a few minutes before they begin to die. Therefore, as blood levels of sugar decrease with the passage of time since your last meal, you begin to experience a craving for food, preferably something sweet…

Once inside the brain, sugar is also used to produce a very important neurotransmitter chemical call acetylcholine. Acetylcholine allows you to learn and remember, to regulate your attention and mood, and to control how well you can move. Your brain makes acetylcholine from choline, which is obtained from the diet, and from acetyl groups that originate from the metabolism of sugar.

That’s right, sugar apparently helps you to learn and remember! However, all this brain activity has side effects:

While we were busy thinking and learning all day another neurotransmitter chemical was increasing in concentration and it has slowly and powerfully begun to turn off our acetylcholine neurons. This chemical is called adenosine. Adenosine inhibits the function of acetylcholine neurons our brains and the longer we are awake the more persuasive is its influence. The caffeine in our coffee is able to prevent the actions of adenosine and release our acetylcholine neurons from their chemical shackles; our attentiveness improves and we are ready for anything – at least until the caffeine effect wears off.

However, as the author of the original post reminds us, our brains’ and our bodies’ needs may be at odds with each other. Don’t count on a diet of caffeine and sugar to do wonders for your physique or to fuel your muscles adequately through your evening workout. But some morning treats, in moderation, may not be cause for major guilt, if they are in fact contributing to your intellectual productivity.

So feel free to stop by the cafe on your way in for a study session, or remember to bring your caffeine and sugar from home. My personal recommendations? Cafe Bustelo Instant Espresso and Duane Reade Maple Leaf Creme Cookies. Enjoy!