Caffeine is the most popular and the most widely used psychostimulant. Caffeine works actively in the central nervous system and facilitates the activation of several neurochemicals. On the positive side, it gives a person the illusion that they are awake when in fact they may be tired. It can increase alertness to a degree, and like other stimulants, it can help some people for a short time focus on some tasks. As clumsy as that last sentence seems, it is a fairly accurate appraisal of some of the effects of caffeine. The bottom line is that while the coffee bean has natural “organic” alkaloid origins, caffeine is a chemical nonetheless and it affects the brain.

Coffee does not wake you up. If you are tired, you will remain tired but the chemical serves to distract you from your fatigue for a while. Often, once the caffeine has drained out of your system, you will be twice as tired—tired from the original need for sleep and tired from the activity you engaged in while under the influence of caffeine. That later-in-the day increased fatigue may lead to yet another cup of coffee.

You may have noticed that waking up is hard to do when you’ve had a lot of coffee previously and when you begin your morning with coffee. In short, caffeine has some addictive-like properties, and when you crave it, your body and brain feel the withdrawal in the form of tension, agitation, restlessness, irritability, and moodiness. The greater the caffeine intake, the less time it takes to feel the withdrawal and the more frequently one has to use it, which leads to increased cravings. With time, you may notice that you savor it less yet need it more. That is habituation, an addiction-like experience.

Now, caffeine has some positive properties. In small amounts, it can help manage some milder forms of depression. It can reduce the urge to engage in some compulsive behaviors and help self-inhibit select impulses. Part of the problem with caffeine is that people drink more than the brain requires to achieve its maximum beneficial effects, and people drink too frequently throughout the day. For many people, a portion of one small cup in the morning yields optimal results and more than that may lead to agitation and distraction. Drinking a small amount of coffee and waiting a while, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes, can bring the same effects that you may associate with drinking a full cup, when in reality, the 10 to 20 minutes during which you consumed the full cup of coffee was actually the time needed for those first ample sips of caffeine alone to go to work in the brain. So, a smaller cup may suffice.

Overloading the brain with more caffeine than it needs can promote habituation and also generate the unwanted effects described earlier.

Coffee may not technically wake you up, but it will most certainly keep you up. That is, drinking coffee in the morning may perk you up to face the day, but drinking in the afternoon or evening might interfere with restful sleep. Caffeine remains at work in the brain even during slumber, so you might have a fitful night, you might perspire more, and might wake up slower and crankier than if you had allowed your brain and body to settle into their natural sleep rhythm as the evening progressed. Drinking coffee, tea, or cola later in the day will interfere with sleep patterns in most people.

In addressing younger caffeine users, coffee drinks saturated with sugar as well as sugar-stocked cola beverages and energy drinks are very popular among children. The addictive-like problems, the overstimulation, the withdrawal, and the draining of attention, focus, impulse control, anxiety, and mood destabilization are very pronounced in young ones whose morning begins with caffeinated treats and whose daytime, afternoon, and evening are punctuated with even more caffeine and sugar. Schools are seeing an increase in attention deficit, hyperactivity, distraction from learning, depression, and even oppositional behavior in elementary as well as secondary education. This is not to say that every student who struggles in these areas is overusing caffeine, or that all behavioral, learning, and mental health conditions are caused by caffeine intake. There is, however, a relationship between the use of caffeinated beverages in children who display these conditions yet otherwise have had uncomplicated prior medical and psychoeducational histories. Caffeinated beverages that also include other chemicals and additives, including flavored coffees or synthetic caffeine used in cola are more difficult for the brain to integrate and to withdraw from, usually giving a rapid boost followed by a rapid crash.

The point is, parents and teachers: brush up on your research. Consult a pediatrician. Review your young one’s “drinking habits” and their day and nighttime routines. Caffeine is a good chemical with many positive properties, but our children (and their bodies and brains) need to be our most precious property. n


Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is a forensic and clinical psychologist, and director of Chai Lifeline Crisis Services. To contact Chai Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis helpline, call 855-3-CRISIS or email Learn more at


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