Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Nicole Farnsworth, MS, RD, LDN
Caffeine is the most commonly consumed stimulant in the world. Perhaps you are reading this post with your morning coffee or your afternoon pick-me-up and wondering how caffeine affects your body. In the athlete population, caffeine is regularly consumed and is permitted for use in sport with specific maximum concentration limits. So, with its widespread consumption and potential applicability for performance, it’s worthwhile to discuss what caffeine is, where is it found, and what the research says about its potential as an ergogenic aid.
What is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a bitter-tasting chemical that is present naturally in plants such as coffee beans and tea leaves and is synthesized as well. Caffeine stimulates the body via the central nervous system, which can lead to a more heightened, alert state. It can take effect in under an hour and the effects can last for four to six hours. Caffeine can be found in a variety of food and supplement sources, a few of which are described below.
Sources of caffeine
Coffee, tea, soda – Coffee is the most common form of caffeine consumption in the world and the research available suggests that it can be as effective as other forms of caffeine. Coffee’s caffeine content varies based on the coffee bean, it’s preparation, and numerous other factors. Tea and soda similarly have variability in their caffeine content. Therefore, it can be difficult to accurately dose caffeine intake for performance using these beverages.
Anhydrous caffeine – Dehydrated caffeine is a highly concentrated powder that can be easily measured making it useful for clinical research and for inclusion in consumer products. Due to its potency – 1 teaspoon of anhydrous caffeine is the equivalent of 28 cups of coffee – great care should be taken to ensure one does not consume toxic amounts of this product.
Caffeine-containing supplements – There are a number of products on the market today containing caffeine (for example, energy drinks, caffeine gum, and gels). These products may use caffeine or other botanicals and stimulants, such as guarana and ginseng. Energy drinks in particular are marketed to young adults and in the United States 30%-50% of adolescents and young adults consume energy drinks. Caffeine-containing gels are often marketed to endurance athletes in a product that also delivers carbohydrates and electrolytes for sustaining performance. Caffeine-containing gum has been studied in cyclists and shown to improve performance when chewed immediately before cycling.
Caffeine and athletic performance
Research suggests that caffeine will likely have a benefit on athletic performance in adults who regularly consume it. The optimal amount of caffeine for an individual may vary based on their caffeine tolerance, the athletic endeavor, and the caffeine source. One should be cautious of exceeding moderate caffeine consumption due to possible negative consequences, including jitteriness, anxiety, irritability, and gastrointestinal distress. Young athletes should be cautious of high levels of caffeine consumption due to caffeine’s potential interaction on sleep and appetite regulation. Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages caffeine consumption in children and does not recommend energy drink consumption in children or adolescents. Athletes should meet with a sports dietitian if interested in discussing caffeine dosage and sources, especially if the source being considered is a dietary supplement. While the current literature suggests that caffeine is most likely an ergogenic aid, a personalized and tailored approach is the best way to determine if it will benefit performance for the individual athlete.
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