Student Science: Caffeine, man’s best friend

As the deadline season comes into full swing, this week’s Student Science examines how to make the most of that 2am coffee

It’s getting late, it’s just you left in Julian Hodge periodically shifting your weight so the disgruntled cleaners can clean around you. It would have been time to sleep hours ago if sleep weren’t for the weak. You have an exam or a coursework deadline in just a few short days and like so many of us you’ve decided that adequate preparation throughout the year just isn’t the way to go. Caffeine is how the real pros do it.

Whether it’s via the more modern methods of caffeine delivery like energy drinks and pro plus or whether you prefer a good old cup of exceptionally strong coffee, the effect is largely the same; but what does caffeine actually do to your body and how do you make the most of this most helpful of stimulants without getting so jittery you can’t even work the keyboard?

As you go about your daily business of shaking your head at lecture slides you’re sure you must have read and wondering whether resitting a year would really be that bad, your body produces a compound called adenosine. This binds to receptors that are located on nerve cells in the central nervous system, which produces a chemical response in your cells that makes you feel drowsy.  Caffeine interrupts this binding process by blocking the part of the receptor that adenosine binds to which means that you don’t get sleepy. Caffeine also has the added bonus of being able to dissolve in both water and fat, which is part of the reason why its effects are felt so quickly.

One notable thing about caffeine is how some people go completely nuts after a can of coke whereas others seem to require a man-sized mug of black coffee just to resemble a human being in the morning. This is largely down to how different people metabolise caffeine, which is measured in biological half-life, or how quickly you can remove half of the caffeine molecules in your body. In a healthy adult this varies widely from three to seven hours but this can be affected by whether you’ve built up a tolerance or not. You can become less able to metabolise caffeine if you’re pregnant or on the birth control pill because of the different levels of hormones in your body.

So how do you make the most of your late night caffeine dose? One thing that speeds up your metabolism of caffeine and reduces its effects is the presence of nicotine in the body, which means if you’re a smoker who wants to feel the full effects of that 2am coffee, you might need to cut out the stress smoking for a couple of hours before hand.

Another way to maximise the effects of caffeine is with a technique dubbed the “coffee nap”. Researchers at Loughborough University discovered that if you neck a cup of coffee and then take a 15 to 20 minute nap the coffee actually has a much greater effect. This is thought to be because the nap clears out a large amount of the adenosine in your body so the caffeine has less to compete with and can do its job more thoroughly. The only catch is that you need to be able to nod off or at least achieve a peaceful half asleep state before the coffee takes hold obviously.

Finally, to really make the most of your coffee you need to prioritise your work correctly. Though caffeine has been proven to minimise lapses in focus and improve work rate for simpler tasks, more complex problems like synthesis of new ideas don’t appear to be made significantly easier. This means that its best to get the harder stuff like coming up with ideas for your essay out of the way early and save the more straightforward stuff like copying out notes or formatting until later because caffeine can take care of those so you don’t have to.

If you follow these steps then you can make the most of your caffeine intake (small doses every 1-2 hours is best) and avoid taking in too much at once which just turns you into a paranoid, jibbering mess. Not the most productive state to be in. If you keep your caffeine intake to small doses you also avoid the potential health problems linked to large doses like headaches and heart palpitations. Just follow Student Science’s advice and you can use caffeine to your advantage to attain the degree you deserve. Finally, always remember that if you ever start feeling like you’ve spent too long being propped up by Relentless, there’s a species of bacteria that can survive solely on pure caffeine. I bet they never complain about pulling an all nighter.

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