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How does caffeine keep me awake?

Caffeine falls into the category of a psychoactive stimulant, which works by crossing the blood-brain barrier and binding to adenosine receptors, which are sleep inducing neuro-transmitters in the brain.  Caffeine actually decreases the amount of these neuro-transmitters.  Some research has shown that there are 2 types of adenosine receptors (A1 and A2A). A1 are thought to be wake promoting and A2A are thought to be sleep promoting. Thus the relationship is quite complicated.
By understanding caffeine's actions in the body you can see why it's used so much.

While it may sound like advanced science, it's really pretty simple. As the brain creates adenosine it binds to adenosine receptors. That binding of adenosine causes drowsiness by slowing nerve cell activity. The adenosine binding also causes the brain's blood vessels to dilate, most likely to let in more oxygen during sleep.

Caffeine looks just like adenosine to a nerve cell. Caffeine therefore binds to the adenosine receptor. But unlike adenosine, it doesn't slow down the cell's activity. As a result, the cell can't identify adenosine -- the caffeine is taking up all the receptors. Instead of slowing down because of the adenosine's effect, nerve cells speed up. The caffeine also causes the brain's blood vessels to constrict. It is, after all, blocking adenosine's ability to open them up. This is why some headache medicines contain caffeine -- if you have a vascular headache, caffeine will close down the blood vessels and offer relief.

Now, you have increased neuron firing in the brain. When the pituitary gland sees all of this activity, it thinks an emergency must be occurring. The pituitary, therefore, releases hormones to tell the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline (epinephrine). Adrenaline, the "fight or flight" hormone, has a number of effects on the body:
  • Pupils dilate.
  • Breathing tubes open (which is why people suffering from severe asthma attacks sometimes can be injected with epinephrine).
  • The heart beats faster.
  • Muscles tighten up, ready for action.
  • Blood pressure rises.
  • Blood flow to the stomach slows.
  • The liver releases sugar into the bloodstream.
This explains why, after drinking a big cup of coffee, your muscles tense up, you feel excited, your hands get cold and you can feel your heart beat increasing.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.