optimizing your coffee consumption

We live in an era where students, shift workers, and scientists increasingly consume drugs that modify brain activity in order to enhance cognition. Ethicists are right to fret about this as the number of addictive substances with some ill effects proliferates (DeJong et al. 2008). People will use these things regardless whether or not some condemn the phenomenon, so it is important that information is out there about how best to use them.

Caffeine is probably the most widely-used drug for enhancing cognition and productivity. However despite its long history, I have not been able to find a good manual or user’s guide! By a manual, I just mean a description of on what kind of schedule it is best used, given caffeine’s tolerance profile, acute effects, withdrawal symptoms, etc. Here I’ll report a few things I found in the scientific literature, in relation to my own experience.

When I first drank coffee, the effects were perhaps too strong to help me much, because I got some ‘jitters’ and had trouble focussing. But as I gained a bit of tolerance to caffeine’s effects, the jitters faded and the arousal effect became milder but more conducive to productivity. This tendency has in fact been reported in the scientific literature, as a rapid tolerance selective to some negative effects even while positive effects can continue (Evans & Griffiths 1992; Schuh & Griffiths 1997). However after many months of judicious usage during which an afternoon coffee was effective in heightening and prolonging my workday productivity, I gradually became a daily user. After approximately a year of this, my tolerance to the arousal effects became great enough that I needed a daily coffee simply to feel normal. It still provided a boost, but only to what a year ago I would have considered baseline. In contrast to this important slow rise in tolerance, the academic literature focuses on the very rapid increase in tolerance during the first several days of caffeine consumption. Usually this is measured by decrease in effect of caffeine on blood pressure elevation. Not very useful for understanding how to best enhance cognition.

My situation, in which caffeine no longer had its productivity-boosting effects, must be a very common problem. To solve it, one might either increase one’s dosage, or try to regain the original effects by going off caffeine for a while. I decided to try the latter.

Arvind says that science indicates one can restore complete sensitivity to caffeine after only 5 days of abstinence (or 10 days of gradual abstinence), however I haven’t been able to find a study that documents this. A blood pressure study estimates that only 20 hours of abstinence (Shi et al. 1993) will restore total sensitivity to caffeine on the blood pressure response. But the subjective withdrawal effects don’t peak until nearly 48 hours of absence! Apparently, for different caffeine effects, different amounts of time are required to restore sensitivity. So what about the positive subjective and arousal effects the average person is most interested in?

I decided to go nearly cold turkey for 7 days, with only one or two decafs in that interval to blunt my withdrawal-effect blues. Fortunately, I had only mild headaches, but did have significant lethargy and loss of mental focus. After seven days, I think I have regained most of my caffeine sensitivity. But I’m only on day one of using again, so not certain how close I am to the sensitivity I had 6 months or a year ago. I hope to share Arvind’s experience of increased productivity for a long period before needing to abstain again to restore sensitivity.

Are there any scientific papers on the topic, or lacking that, further personal reports to certify that this works? I worry about chronic tolerance effects that might not dissipate even after prolonged abstinence, but haven’t seen a shred of relevant science. To bring us closer to having a real user’s manual for both caffeine and other cognitive enhancers, those already using should report the results of their self-experimentation!

DEJONGH, R., BOLT, I., SCHERMER, M., & OLIVIER, B. (2008). Botox for the brain: enhancement of cognition, mood and pro-social behavior and blunting of unwanted memories Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32 (4), 760-776 DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.12.001

Shi J, Benowitz NL, Denaro CP, & Sheiner LB (1993). Pharmacokinetic-pharmacodynamic modeling of caffeine: tolerance to pressor effects. Clinical pharmacology and therapeutics, 53 (1), 6-14 PMID: 8422743

Update: this post provides related info in the same spirit.

10 thoughts on “optimizing your coffee consumption

  1. […] optimizing your coffee consumption « ceptional alexholcombe.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/optimizing-your-coffee-consumption – view page – cached We live in an era where students, shift workers, and scientists increasingly consume drugs that modify brain activity in order to enhance cognition. — From the page […]

  2. I wish I’d posted the links to all the papers I consulted when I wrote that essay. I don’t have them any more.

    One additional change I’ve made since then is to switch to pills. This way I know exactly how much caffeine I’m getting. I’ve gotten the broad strategy I wrote about to work rather well, and consistently, and I’m able to optimize at a finer level these days.

  3. Alex, FYI, Dale Pendell’s ‘Pharmako/Dynamis’ (vol. 2 of a brilliant trilogy on drugs) has great insight/history on caffeine.


  4. You might also check out Shep Siegel’s work on situational specificity.

    Rather than increasing the dosage or going cold turkey, you could simply change the cues that are normally associated with the caffeine hit.

    To boost it’s effects, you could:

    1. Change the form of the caffeine: Remington, Roberts, and Glautier (1997) demonstrated that the same amount of alcohol induced less impairment when college students consumed the alcohol in an alcohol-associated beverage (beer-flavored beverage) rather than a liquid that had not previously been associated with alcohol (a blue, peppermint-flavored beverage), (Siegel, 2008). The same should hold for caffeine. A cold, caffeinated drink (e.g., red bull or V) ought to enhance the effect compared to the usual hot cup of coffee that tends to accompany your hit.

    2. Change the medium: Similarly, tolerance to the cardiac effect of caffeine is more pronounced if the caffeine is administered in the context of the usual caffeine-administration cues (i.e., consumed in coffee) than if the same blood level of caffeine is obtained with an administration procedure that does not incorporate these gustatory cues (i.e., intravenous administration; Siegel, Kim, & Sokolowska, 2003). So take it intravenously or in pill form.

    3. Change the time of consumption: Presumably, any disruption to your normal schedule will enhance the effect given Shep’s conditioned compensatory response explanation. If you set the caffeine hit to random, you can’t anticipate it, and thereby enhance the effect.


  5. Jason: good ideas. Indeed, who could forget Siegel et al. 1982!—where a usually-tolerated dose of heroin administered in an unfamiliar context can result in fatal overdose, due to the conditioned tolerance associated with the context. Unfortunately your suggestion #3 won’t work for me, because administration time is already tightly constrained by my daily cycle and sleep considerations. #2 or #1 might be ok but unfortunately there is another factor that pushes me towards using coffee: the good taste.
    Steve: Thanks I’ll have to check it out.
    Arvind: That’s good news, I hope cycling on and off will continue to work for me too.

  6. we’ve peandered drugs for centuries.. e.g. khat, chewing caffeine is considered a prized pastime in some countries. try leading a healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, healthy eating, herbal laxatives, green tea, juice, lots of vegetables, do some yoga, regular sleep pattern etc.

    sounds like y’all work-stress constipated. breathe, relax, walk in the park, take it easy. if withdrawal concerns are such an issue, mix black coffee (no milk-milk is used to flush caffeine from body, no sugar) dunk in a tea bag (can be abit potent mix) then transition to just tea.

  7. Veritas – how about you let other people decide for themselves what their goals in life are?

  8. I drink about one 8 oz cup of green tea Monday through Friday when I think that I might need it most, early in the morning or mid afternoon, and I drink coffee on the weekends. However, I try to avoid any type of caffeine at night because it leads to restless sleep. I’ll move to my question, now that I have obliterated your coffee buzz with the wandering tale of my addiction. If my memory serves me correctly, I believe that tea has more caffeine in it than coffee. Yet, for some reason, I tend to experience a stronger jolt to the system with coffee. I am wondering whether anyone is aware of a study that explains why my body’s response to coffee and tea does not seem commensurate with the amount of caffeine they contain.

  9. Hi April, at last an easy question- coffee usually has more caffeine than tea.

  10. Hey AH, there’s a ton of stuff from the early 90s on caffeine tolerance and withdrawal. It’s not better investigated (IMO) for a fairly simple reason – it isn’t likely to kill you, or even hurt you, and neither is overdose / ‘caffeinism’. It, like alcohol, is harmless and complicated compared to meth & heroin which are (proportionally) dangerous and simple.

    A few things we can throw into the mix:

    1) twin studies show initial sensitivity to caffeine has a fat genetic component. Borne out by observation: I have watched a single can of Coke give people the shakes.
    2) expectation effects aren’t particularly tops (there is a crap study by Kirsch from about 1993 on it) but conditioning is pretty possible – a very distinctive substance (i.e. smell/taste ) usually makes a good CS. This is the obvious explanation for why decaf works.
    3) withdrawal symptoms are real, but as the general and receptor pharm. is so complicated, I don’t think anyone’s got much of an idea how they work yet. Review paper you want is Juliano and Griffiths, 2004 (I think in psychopharm.)
    4) withdrawal will start from fairly low doses – http://jpet.aspetjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/289/1/285

    “try leading a healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, healthy eating, herbal laxatives, green tea, juice, lots of vegetables, do some yoga, regular sleep pattern etc.”

    Or you could try drinking whiskey, beef jerky, working all night, being awesome, lifting jagged concrete boulders and not being a big tepid schoolgirl that thinks iced water and rice cakes is a treat.

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