A woman drinking pour over coffee out of a yellow mug with a Chemex on the kitchen table.

Here's What Coffee Does to Your Brain

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What Happens to Your Brain on Caffeine?

We all know caffeine is the best part of our morning coffee, the fuel that gets us through our daily grind. Caffeine also happens to be the most widely used mind-altering drug in the world. It's no wonder that the majority of Americans are hopelessly dependent on their coffee in the morning—and proud of it.

A woman pouring Death Wish Coffee into a yellow mug from a Chemex.

Caffeine is a psychoactive drug, classified as a psychostimulant. But don’t freak out—caffeine is a mild stimulant, so it's not considered a drug of abuse like some of its friends. After all, you don't have a coffee problem. You just have a problem without coffee. Other drugs that fall under the same category of other psychostimulants are:

  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Ritalin

So how did caffeine get this classification as a psychoactive drug? As most Americans are more than aware, coffee makes us feel awake and ready to take on the day—that’s because it’s a stimulant that increases activity in the brain and the central nervous system. 

But how exactly does it do this? Well, buckle upit’s going to get a bit technical. Caffeine binds to the “adenosine” receptors (aka what usually signals sleepiness) and blocks these adenosine receptors in the brain. Ultimately, it doesn’t allow us to feel sleepy but makes us feel more alert and awake instead, which is what we all desperately need in the mornings to keep us from crawling right back into our nice, warm beds. 

How Does Caffeine Affect the Brain?

Now for the fun part. What does caffeine do for you—other than making the morning just slightly more bearable? Caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant by promoting the release of noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. This can lead to feelings of alertness and focus, with links to improving mood, cognitive function and reaction time.  

As you continue to consume more caffeine, you'll feel jittery and experience an increased heart rate. The caffeine stimulates our brain cells, telling our pituitary glands (hormone control) that there is a problem. These pituitary glands then pass this information to the adrenal glands, activating our fight-or-flight response. During fight or flight, we become more irritable and more emotional. So, that one time you lashed out at your boss—go ahead and blame all that coffee you consumedthat day.   

Is Coffee Good for the Brain?

Since coffee contains hundreds of bioactive compounds, like antioxidants, coffee consumption has been linked to powerful health benefits. Caffeine, or more specifically caffeinated coffee, has been known to protect against many health concerns like:  

  1. Reducing the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s 
  2. Protecting against the signs of aging 
  3. Improving memory function and attention in older women  

Your daily cup of joe might be even better for you than you previously thought, so go ahead, use that brain of yours and have another cupyou deserve it.

RELATED: Do Coffee Drinkers Live Longer?