Say it isn’t so
So, my new neuro encouraged me to get off coffee to help my migraines.
Oh, great wailing and gnashing of teeth!!! How can anyone expect me to do away with coffee?! It’s ridiculous. Why would I do away with my last real vice (aside from super-dark chocolate)? It’s the only thing that helps my mood and thinking when I’m dragging — which is a lot — generally within 4 hours of waking up and living my full-tilt-boogie life.
I scoffed at the very thought of it. Give up coffee. Yeah, right. Not gonna happen.
Why would anyone ask me to do such a thing — especially for headaches? I always thought that caffeine helped headaches, since so many headache medicines (including “Migraine formula” versions) have caffeine in them.But apparently, it’s the other way around. It doesn’t help. It hurts.
Here’s how I understand things now, based on what I’ve learned in the past 48 hours.
I found an article over at Lifehacker.com What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain and it was kind of sobering for me.
I’ll quote from the article:
Right off the bat, it’s worth stating again: the human brain, and caffeine, are nowhere near totally understood and easily explained by modern science. That said, there is a consensus on how a compound found all over nature, caffeine, affects the mind.
Every moment that you’re awake, the neurons in your brain are firing away. As those neurons fire, they produce adenosine as a byproduct, but adenosine is far from excrement. Your nervous system is actively monitoring adenosine levels through receptors. Normally, when adenosine levels reach a certain point in your brain and spinal cord, your body will start nudging you toward sleep, or at least taking it easy. There are actually a few different adenosine receptors throughout the body, but the one caffeine seems to interact with most directly is the A1 receptor. More on that later.
Enter caffeine. It occurs in all kinds of plants, and chemical relatives of caffeine are found in your own body. But taken in substantial amounts—the semi-standard 100mg that comes from a strong eight-ounce coffee, for instance—it functions as a supremely talented adenosine impersonator. It heads right for the adenosine receptors in your system and, because of its similarities to adenosine, it’s accepted by your body as the real thing and gets into the receptors.
Update: Commenter dangermou5e reminds us of web comic The Oatmeal’s take on adenosine and caffeine. It’s concise:
More important than just fitting in, though, caffeine actually binds to those receptors in efficient fashion, but doesn’t activate them—they’re plugged up by caffeine’s unique shape and chemical makeup. With those receptors blocked, the brain’s own stimulants, dopamine and glutamate, can do their work more freely—”Like taking the chaperones out of a high school dance,” Braun writes in an email. In the book, he ultimately likens caffeine’s powers to “putting a block of wood under one of the brain’s primary brake pedals.”
It’s an apt metaphor, because it spells out that caffeine very clearly doesn’t press the “gas” on your brain, and that it only blocks a “primary” brake. There are other compounds and receptors that have an effect on what your energy levels feel like—GABA, for example—but caffeine is a crude way of preventing your brain from bringing things to a halt.
So, basically, it’s keeping my body from putting the brakes on, disguising fatigue from the receptors that are built to realize when there’s a bunch of adenosine in my system.
That can’t be good, if I’m running out of steam and genuinely need to rest. Basically, it sounds like caffeine is tricking my body into picking up speed, when it should be doing just the opposite.
I kept reading… and when I Googled “coffee neurotoxin”, I came across this article: Coffee, caffeine, performance and you.
I quote again:
Caffeine is neurotoxin alkaloid. It stops insects eating plants. It works by being a very similar shape to adenosine, a nucleotide which is very important in energy transfer and neurotransmission. Adenosine inhibits nerve firing because it prevents the release of excitatory neurochemicals such as serotonin and acetylcholine.
Caffeine settles into the adenosine receptors in the surface of neurons and in doing so, prevents adenosine itself from getting in there. Therefore no receptor activation can occur and the effect is just the opposite. With no adenosine in place to tranquilise the nerve, excitory neurochemicals will be released. Blood vessels constrict in your head and neck, the rate of nerve firing increases, your blood pressure and heart rate may rise and you experience a renewed interest and vigour when it comes to your Excel document.
Your higher cognitive function is now improved. Even what you can see is enhanced. The stimulation of nerves which use acetylcholine to send their messages affects a variety of areas in the body and brain. The visual cortex is one such area and drinking coffee causes an enhancement in our ability to process the shape, colour and location of visual objects.
So, here’s this neurotoxin getting into my system, pumping me up and cranking out those neurochemicals. It might not seem like such a bad thing, but I’ve also heard that part of the excitory activity actually comes from the body’s defense response to a perceived threat from the caffeine, which some have called a natural pesticide. So, my system is getting a dose of pesticide and going into fight-flight mode to defend itself from this threat I’m introducing on purpose, which then makes me feel like I’m doing better, when it’s really the adrenaline that’s coursing through my veins that’s telling me that.
I don’t actually become better. I just feel like I am.
So, here’s what I take from this whole little 48-hour research investigation of mine:
Caffeine is bad stuff — especially if you have issues with fatigue and TBI. I mean, seriously, when I’m fatigued, I need to rest and recuperate, not push myself through like I always do. That fries my system and makes sure I’m in a persistent state of fight-flight. I know for a fact that that’s no good — it makes it difficult to learn and use higher cognitive functions. And the longer and more intensely I use caffeine, the more I’m stressing my system and whacking it out and jeopardizing my recovery.
In TBI recovery, you need to rebuild connections in your brain and re-learn things your system has (in)conveniently forgotten. Fight-flight marination in adrenaline impairs learning. So, if TBI recovery is dependent on learning, then coffee, tea, caffeine, even chocolate, are all a threat to my successful progress.
I had no idea.
It would have helped, had my neuro actually explained all this to me in a way I could understand. But it really took a passionate raw-food vegetarian fruitarian Australian dude living(?) in Thailand to make it clear. Here’s his expose that started turning things around for me:
Anyway, there it is. More to come on this, but for now, it’s time to seriously cut out the caffeine.