Midnight coffee shots: Why does coffee keep you up?

By Tharindri Rupesinghe

Coffee always reminds me of college. Each term before setting off from home, I would pack some of the fancy little coffee sachets my uncle used to send from abroad – they were tasty, filling, and most importantly for a hostel-dweller, easy to use. I would squirrel these away at the back of our ‘food cupboard’ in my hostel room. For the better part of the semester, they would lie forgotten. Then study holidays would strike, and they’d suddenly transform into an elixir. Squinting through eyes glazed with fatigue and too many hours of staring at endless Sociology notes, I would stagger to my stash for a hot cuppa at midnight. It would be like a shot of adrenaline (which it technically was) – the caffeine would do a gleeful dance through my nerves and spark off brain cells. Sure, I looked a bit crazy-eyed and wild, but who cared! Not any of my fellow sufferers, hunched over their own textbooks, desperately sipping from their own mugs of over-sweet, steaming coffee. And so we’d study until the early hours of the morning.

Most students and night workers will confess to resorting to this late-night study strategy. Why does coffee always do the trick in keeping us awake through even the most mind-numbingly boring of subjects and tasks? In short, you could think of it as caffeine (the key ingredient in your coffee) ambushing your brain cells, guerilla-style. Drowsiness and sleep are caused by the chemical adenosine, which is produced through our daily activities.  At night, adenosine binds with the adenosine receptors in the brain, resulting in a slowing down of nerve activity and, eventually, drowsiness and sleep. Coffee comes into the picture when you stagger to that boiling kettle and pour it into your mug of instant coffee powder or ground coffee. With your first desperate gulp, the caffeine confuses the receptors, which mistake it for adenosine, and bind with it. However, unlike adenosine, caffeine does not slow nerve activity and instead increases it. This sets off a chain of physical reactions including constricting of blood vessels, release of adrenaline, a faster heartbeat, and an increase in your blood pressure. In other words, your body gets jump started and you’re ready for an all-nighter.

Despite being a great way to keep up and stay productive, drinking coffee should be treated with care. Many people swear by their daily cup of brew, but research suggests that the physical effects of caffeine vary according to the individual. Having said that, I’d be hard pressed to refuse myself a cup of steaming kiri kopi to accompany my nocturnal pottering about, especially on these rainy and cold Colombo nights.

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