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Is Coffee a Nootropic?

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Is coffee a nootropic? If you’re reading this in the USA, it might seem like coffee is the most popular non-water drink in the world.

That’s true in the United States, where Americans drink more coffee than tea, soda, and water combined. About half of all Americans drink coffee every day – 400 million cups all told, making the US the leading consumer of coffee in the world.

In the rest of the world the beverage of choice is tea (in various forms), but the common thread across all, aside from the bitter flavor of both imparted by high polyphenol content, is caffeine.

In that light it might be said that through a certain lens, caffeine is the most popular beverage in the world. That’s caffeine as a ‘drink’ in the same way that we refer to all spirits as alcohol.

Both coffee and tea impart likely health benefits because of the antioxidant activity of those polyphenols – the same that cause the bitter flavor of the drinks, and any who try caffeine immediately recognize the potential benefits of its stimulating effects.

From the way caffeine from coffee and tea is commonly used — to enhance focus and alertness — we all assume it works as a cognitive enhancer, if not a nootropic. As we’ll find out later in this article, the answer may not be so simple.

The use of caffeine as cognitive enhancer can feel like a double-edged sword for some, which explains the steadily-rising interest in nootropics as an alternative to caffeine. Nootropics, if you’re not familiar, can be simply described as supplements with benefits to memory, learning, and focus.

To be considered a nootropic, a substance must also provide resistance to ‘injuries’ to the brain of the sort that can come from stress, fatigue, and aging.

Many nootropics also confer some kind of boost to energy, often in the form of increased alertness, resistance to the effects of sleep deprivation, and/or added focus. Sounds a little like what we like about coffee, right?

But is caffeine a nootropic? Or is coffee a nootropic? If not, how do coffee and nootropics differ?  In this article, we’ll examine the similarities and differences between coffee and nootropics, and discuss how, in some cases, the combination of certain nootropics with coffee can be more than the sum of its parts.

What does coffee do to the brain?

According to Shuhan He, MD, an Emergency Medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Founder of Conduct Science and MazeEngineers (both of which are super-cool), caffeine is what is known as an adenosine-receptor antagonist. 

Let’s break that down. Adenosine is a molecule that acts as a messenger when it’s released from a nerve cell, or neuron. When adenosine binds to a neuron’s receptors, the receptor gets blocked, cell activity slows down, and you get sleepy. Caffeine can inhibit this process by taking adenosine’s ‘spot’, binding to a neuron’s receptors where adenosine would normally bind.

When this happens, the cell no longer identifies adenosine and doesn’t slow down as it usually would, instead speeding up some of its processes.

In addition, caffeine causes blood vessels to constrict in the brain, which explains coffee’s ability to help with headache, and explains the presence of caffeine in some headache and migraine medicines. 

In the presence of all of this increased activity, the pituitary gland causes the release of adrenaline, which is responsible for the increased heart rate and muscle tension we experience when drinking tea or coffee. Adrenaline is responsible for what is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, telling your body it’s in a state of emergency. Sounds relaxing, right?

Anyone who has overestimated their ability to handle a large iced coffee, or too quickly chugged a pot of black tea, knows the jittery, unsettled, nauseated feeling that can come from too much caffeine in the system. It’s not a great place to be, and the line between ‘just right’ and ‘whoops’ can feel like it’s hard to tread sometimes. 

This is an effect common to many drugs known as hormesis, and, as it pertains to coffee, it’s best explained in a chart*:

A humorous line chart plotting mood vs time with landmarks indicated for multiple cups of coffee.
Chart by Wally Pots

* … this is not how hormesis works and we know it, but it’s funny. The spirit of the chart is right but a few details are off, if we’re being pedantic.  Hormesis actually refers to the response curve where things that confer a beneficial effect at low doses can become toxic at higher doses. More on this below.

Given this drastic physical response, you’d be forgiven for thinking drinking coffee should make you feel lousy. So why do we love it? 

It turns out that in addition to blocking adenosine uptake and dumping adrenaline into the system, caffeine causes an increase of dopamine at the same time. 

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for behavior reinforcement in the brain. It’s our body’s way of providing encouragement, the proverbial ‘carrot’, when we do something evolutionarily advantageous – things like eating sugar, exercising, or having sex. 


The problem comes when we use coffee regularly. The result of caffeine’s increase of available dopamine is similar (albeit much milder) to the one caused by heroin and cocaine. This mechanism can cause dependency and result in symptoms of withdrawal bad enough to be recognized as a clinical condition by the American Psychiatric Association. 

On top of that, adrenaline itself has a comedown associated with fatigue, anger, mood swings, and even depression. Does that sound like the caffeine addict in your life when they miss a dose in the morning?

How does caffeine affect mental performance?

With this cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters coursing through our bodies, our heart rates elevated, our muscles tensed, pupils dilated, blood pressure up, what is it that we actually get in the way of a cognitive benefit from caffeine?

Studies have shown that consumption of caffeine can boost athletic endurance, explaining why it’s considered a controlled substance by the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee. It’s been shown to reduce reaction time and improve performance in studies (granted, studies of simulated Taekwondo, but that’s kind of a rad study). 

Caffeine is a controlled substance in the Olympics.

But when it comes to caffeine’s effects on working memory, learning, and mood (specifically anxiety), the results from clinical studies are actually more mixed than you might expect given coffee’s unquestioned reputation as the Official Beverage of Work.

In a meta-study of research done into caffeine’s effect on cognition, researchers at the University of Strasbourg found that while caffeine seems to consistently improve reaction time, for the other categories in which we hope to see a benefit, science says otherwise.

According to the meta-study, caffeine can help with memory when you’re fatigued but has both helpful and harmful effects to non-fatigued working memory, and no effect on long-term memory. 

The study found that can help with learning when passively absorbing information, but when learning intentionally, caffeine seems to have no effect. 

And, as we know intuitively, the study found showed that low doses of caffeine can reduce anxiety, but high doses have the opposite effect (and cause us to freak out) … this is the hormesis curve we talked about above.

That almost amounts to a wash when science is tallying the results, and it points to the importance of objective measurement rather than self-reported subjective observations, especially when we’re dealing with something that triggers a dopamine release in the brain.

Is coffee a nootropic? 

Well we’ve buried the lede here a little bit, admittedly, but let’s tackle the big question: is coffee (caffeine) a nootropic? 

Let’s get technical by defining ‘nootropic’ first.

Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, who originally coined the term nootropic, set forth the following requirements that must be met for a substance to be considered a nootropic.

According to Giurgea, a nootropic must:

  • Enhance learning and memory
  • Enhance resistance of learned behaviors to conditions with the tendency to disrupt them
  • Protect the brain against physical or chemical injuries
  • Increase the efficacy of the tonic cortical / subcortical control mechanisms
  • Not be sedating, possess few or no side effects, if any, and be essentially non-toxic

This is pretty specific stuff, and if you’re paying attention so far, you’ve probably already reached the logical conclusion: caffeine is not a nootropic, and, by extension, coffee is not a nootropic.

Caffeine is not a nootropic, and, by extension, coffee is not a nootropic.

Why? For one, caffeine doesn’t consistently enhance learning and memory. It also doesn’t protect the brain against injuries. On top of those, it’s not non-toxic, as has been quite sadly demonstrated by the few recent cases of mismeasured homemade caffeine pills resulting acute toxicity and death.

If we’re not being pedantic, we might ask a broader question — is caffeine an effective cognitive enhancer? The simple answer to this question is ‘sola dosis facit venenum’, which is Latin for ‘the dose makes the poison’ … an idea you may recognize as related to the concept of hormesis we keep bringing up.

But even if we use an amount of caffeine that feels like just enough to get us into the ‘coffee zone’ without too many negative side-effects, the larger picture shows that the differences between carefully-chosen nootropics and ‘just the right amount’ of coffee are significant.

For one, there’s the effect on sleep. As anyone who’s pushed it with an espresso after dinner knows, caffeine can disrupt your body’s natural circadian clock, resulting in poor sleep quality, which results in fatigue the following day, which causes you to reach for more coffee, a vicious (but delicious) cycle known in one study as the ‘sleep sandwich’. 

While that name could use improvement, the findings of the study are eye-opening (pun intended):

  • Doses of caffeine given as much as 6 hours prior to bedtime still significantly disturbed sleep compared to placebos.
  • Caffeine shifted rapid eye movement (REM) to the early part of the night and stages 3 and 4 to the latter end of the (shortened) sleep period.
  • The presence of caffeine in the central nervous system reduces the gradual onset of drowsiness typically associated with extended periods of wakefulness.

… in short, caffeine is bad for healthy sleep. 

Caffeine has also been shown to exaggerate the body’s stress response, according to a double-blind Duke University study of 47 healthy, habitual coffee drinkers, increasing both blood pressure and stress hormone levels while simultaneously magnifying a person’s perception of stress. 

Compare this to the effects of the popular nootropic L-Theanine, which has been shown to improve sleep quality at doses of 250 and 400mg in humans, while studies of the nootropics Bacopa monnieri, Rhodiola rosea, and L-Theanine (all ingredients in Plato) have shown evidence for reducing blood pressure and symptoms of stress.

How to use coffee to your benefit

Coffee and tea provide much-needed energy when we’re feeling fatigued, but how can we use them for their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses? Can there be a benefit to using true nootropics at the same time as caffeine?

Of this, Dr. Murat Digicaylioglu, MD, a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon, says, “a well-formulated nootropic stack does not need to contain any caffeine and should allow people to have their coffee while they are taking their nootropic supplements.”

Nutritionist and author Lisa Richards has noticed this practice becoming more popular recently. “Many people are beginning to heighten coffee’s nootropic characteristics by combining it with other compounds, like L-theanine, taurine, mushroom extract and other amino acids,” says Richards.

While there are plenty of these types of “smart coffee” products on the market today, Dr. Digicaylioglu reminds consumers to be vigilant when examining all of the ingredients in a given product: “Unfortunately, many times the coffee-based nootropics use caffeine to mask the lack of effectiveness of their overall formulation.” At best, these types of formulations are a waste of money; at worst, they can be dangerous.  

“The worst nootropics are ones that contain an overdose of multiple stimulants, inefficient substances such as GABA (it does not cross the blood-brain barrier), DMAA (which was banned by the FDA but is still present in many products) and illicit substances such as Modafinil, an addicting prescription drug illegally added to some nootropics … In addition, consumers should study the ingredients and never assume that an ingredient is safe because it is listed on the bottle,” says Digicaylioglu.

Caffeine in Supplements 

Physicians have long been wary of supplements that contain caffeine for two reasons: first, they may contain significant amounts of caffeine along with other stimulating substances, and secondly, people who take these types of supplements often fail to consider their overall caffeine intake in a way that includes caffeine they get from other sources like soda, coffee, and tea. This can lead to the aforementioned side effects of mild caffeine overdose.

Consumers who opt for caffeinated nootropics should be especially careful : “Well-formulated, high-quality nootropics are identified by their ingredients. All should be FDA-qualified as GRAS, or Generally Recognized as Safe. Unfortunately, the trend among manufacturers is not to use the proper dosage of well-selected and synergistic ingredients but rather to outcompete each other with useless and often dangerous amounts of components,” says Dr. Digicaylioglu. 

Plato contains only four well-understood GRAS ingredients for exactly this reason. We’ve also deliberately forgone including caffeine in Plato’s formulation because we want you to be in control of whether you get caffeine and how. You might love coffee (in which case you can still take Plato and drink your coffee), or you might be a caffeine teetotaler, but you don’t have to choose between a balanced nootropic and a triple espresso or decaf latte either way.

How does caffeine interact with nootropics?

The best-researched interaction between a true nootropic and caffeine has focused around a non-dietary amino acid called L-Theanine, or Theanine for short. Theanine, which occurs naturally in green tea and some mushrooms, has a mountain of evidence for its benefits as a nootropic on its own, but it really shines when taken alongside caffeine.

On its own, Theanine increases wakeful and resting relaxation while reducing temporary anxiety due to stress. 

Taken together with caffeine, L-Theanine has shown to improve speed and accuracy of attention-switching and reduced susceptibility to distraction in memory tasks better than caffeine alone. 

Adding Theanine to caffeine has also been shown to preserve the benefits of caffeine consumption while further improving alertness, attention, reaction time, and task-switching time.

That amounts to taking the edge off what’s hard to manage about caffeine, at least when you use it in reasonable doses alongside the right amount of Theanine.

Conclusion 

The short answer to the banner question ‘is coffee a nootropic’ is: no, coffee is not a nootropic. Even further, the caffeine from coffee provokes a range of responses from the body that are not all productive or useful for cognitive enhancement, so while there are some beneficial results from caffeine consumption, you may want to reconsider the use of caffeine for focus, memory, or stress.

With that said, there are nootropics that not only provide many of the benefits we associate with coffee, but, properly formulated, a nootropic can work synergistically with caffeine for a more productive, sustainable cognitive benefit of alert, calm focus without having to sacrifice the enjoyment of that delicious, delicious coffee.

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