The guide to effective caffeination

Drinking [insert favourite caffeinated beverage here] to become an invincible essay-writing machine.
Written by: Sunny Liu
Edited by: Livvie Hall

We’ve all been there. Your essay (or, for some, thesis) is due in 12 hours. Well done Sunny, you just had to go to Loop last night looking for your sugar mommy, only to find yourself making out with yet another G&T. You wake up in your sheets the morning after, hungover, broke, and alone.

Panicking, you stumble into Print Room Cafe, order a quadruple shot of espresso. Just like the tequila from last night, you down it all (this is clearly someone exhibiting highly questionable behavior around substances).

But wait! Is that the most effective way to caffeinate yourself?

That’s why I’m here today. I’ve looked at the biochemistry behind caffeine. I have had some coffee, did the math, and drew some pretty graphs for you. Welcome to my guide to effective caffeine-dosing!

First off, this is a relatively qualitative study, meaning that my numbers are gross estimates. Caffeine is measured in cups of coffee. A cup of filter coffee is equivalent to 2.5 cups of tea, or 1.5 shots of espresso for the fancier students out there. I will state now that I strongly discourage the use of caffeine pills as they simply aren’t as great as a hangover cuppa’ cappuccino.

I will examine the major biochemical and neurological effects of caffeine, typically at safe dosages (my editor mentioned something about “responsibility”).

When you drink coffee, the caffeine absorbed binds to the Adenosine receptor, a protein that typically binds to Adenosine (, a neurotransmitter). By binding to the Adenosine receptors, caffeine prevents Adenosine molecules from kickstarting a series of chemical reactions that end up making you sleepy. In other words, caffeine makes you feel more awake by reducing sleepiness for a period of time. Unfortunately, this process leaves ”leftover” Adenosine molecules that readily bind to the receptor the moment caffeine exits your system, eventually making you even sleepier. This explains the highs and lows from coffee consumption. In theory, we need to consume increasingly larger doses of caffeine to prevent fatigue from these “lows”.

Thus, in theory though perhaps not in reality, to maintain alertness, one must simply never stop drinking caffeine. However, to pace ourselves (and prevent the caffeine jitters), we need to understand caffeine movement in and out of the body, so as to manage our dosage properly. Our body is rapid at caffeine uptake, absorbing nearly 99% of it within 45 minutes. Caffeine also has a half-life of 2.5hrs to 4.5hrs, meaning that half of the caffeine is filtered out of the blood within 2.5hrs to 4.5hrs. At high doses (such as when one decides to take a quadruple shot of espresso), blood caffeine levels will lower the threshold of excitability of your nervous system – i.e., they fire a lot more easily. This explains caffeinism, commonly known as “coffee jitters”, a condition characterized by nausea, tremors, and heart palpitations, among other symptoms (such as an increased need for the bathroom).

What blood caffeine level should we maintain then? In terms of cognitive performance, caffeine is dose-independent at lower doses (defined as <1 cup of coffee). In other words, as long as there’s a little caffeine in your system, you will work more effectively.

At higher doses, caffeine’s effect on cognitive performance is dose-dependent. So the more caffeine you’ve had, the better your performance….until the inevitable coffee jitters!

This taken into account, I have designed two regimes – the “Low Dose” and the “High Dose” approaches. Unless absolutely necessary (i.e. thesis is due in 12hrs), caffeinate yourself via the “Low Dose” approach.

Here’s the life hack everyone’s been waiting for:

Fig. 1: Low Dose (when you aren’t trying to give yourself a heart attack). Dotted lines show the range of blood caffeine level, while the triangles show when to “top up” your blood caffeine level. The triangles are at slightly different times (as outlined in the guide above) since it wouldn’t make sense to remember the exact times.

In the low dose approach, each dose is equivalent to approximately ¼ cup of coffee (with the exception of the first dose, which is half a cup). There is no need to chug or finish quickly, as long as you’re done within 15 minutes or so. After the first ½ cup of coffee, have a quarter cup at the 3rd hour mark. After that, on average, have a quarter cup every two hours.

However, sometimes even the best of us need to get a lot done in very little time.

[Before I begin on the high dose approach: know that if you have pre-existing heart conditions, or do not typically caffeinate yourself, tone down the dosage, and keep monitoring yourself.]

For the high dose approach, each dose is equivalent to a full cup of coffee. Drink slowly, you don’t want to push your blood caffeine levels too high. Have another cup of coffee after the first hour and then have a cup every 2 ½hrs.

Here’s a graph plotting the blood-caffeine level in this high dose approach:

Fig. 2: High dose.

A health professional might disagree with the latter guide. I concur, it is rather extreme.

Ultimately, I advise you to stay safe and drink responsibly (both caffeine and its degenerate cousin, ethanol)!

Happy grinding! #TheGrindNeverEnds

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s