Caffeine is somewhat unusual as part of our diets and lifestyles. On the one hand, it is a stimulant that we consume frequently and is strongly associated with mental function and alertness, along with other health benefits and even weight loss.
But, much like coffee, caffeine is often viewed as an unhealthy habit, one that is far more negative than positive. So, which is it?
In many ways, the answer lies in who you are and how you consume your caffeine. This includes the whole idea of caffeine cycling.
Now, the concept here does specifically apply to caffeine but it is also relevant to coffee. After all, most people do get their caffeine by drinking cups of coffee throughout the day – rather than by relying on supplements or other sources.
In theory, caffeine cycling offers you the chance to get the most out of your caffeine (and your coffee). So, this post takes a look at exactly what caffeine cycling involves and whether it is likely to be beneficial for your specific situation.
What is Caffeine Cycling?
Caffeine cycling is based on optimizing the benefits from caffeine. In particular, it focuses on the fact that some caffeine benefits decrease with tolerance. This is a pattern that you’ve probably noticed yourself.
For example, caffeine acts to promote alertness and wakefulness (1). This is one of the main reasons that people rely so heavily on coffee, especially first thing in the morning.
Caffeine cycling is a way around this issue and is supposed to help decrease tolerance and ensure you get the most benefits. The site Examine.com offers extra details about some of the chemistry behind the concept.
Actually Cycling Caffeine
As with caffeine consumption, the exact approach for cycling caffeine is going to depend on who you are and how your body responds. But, the general idea is to simply vary up your caffeine intake.
So, you may choose to skip caffeine entirely some days on a whim or you could follow a pattern. For example, some people have caffeine for three or four days each week and go without it for the rest of the week. Others may skip caffeine every second day.
The idea is that this can help reduce the development of tolerance and make you respond better to the short-term benefits of caffeine. Of course, doing so isn’t always going to be fun because of caffeine withdrawal.
So, if you are skipping some days, you’re likely to find that you have side effects of doing so, including headaches. Those side effects would be more significant if your caffeine intake was high.
Still, some people do find this type of pattern refreshing and it can help reduce tolerance and dependency on caffeine.
Do I Need to Caffeine Cycle?
Caffeine has a wide range of impacts on the human body. Some of these are direct, while others are indirect.
For example, one such role is as an adenosine antagonist, where caffeine blocks the receptor for adenosine (5). Adenosine is a neurotransmitter and it makes you feel tired. By blocking the receptor, caffeine can help you feel more alert and less likely to fall asleep (6).
Likewise, caffeine serves to promote the levels of various neurotransmitters in the brain, which then have their own impacts on function (7).
The presence of various mechanisms means that the implications of caffeine tolerance also vary. In particular, there are some health benefits associated with long-term consistent caffeine (or caffeinated coffee) consumption. Those benefits don’t decrease with tolerance.
As a result, there really is no single answer on whether you should be cycling caffeine or not. But, there are some general guidelines that can help.
In particular, it’s important to consider what benefit you are hoping to get from the caffeine.
When Cycling Isn’t Needed
The various mechanisms behind caffeine mean that some impacts change with tolerance, while others do not. In particular, you don’t need to cycle caffeine if you are looking for long-term health benefits from caffeine.
Coffee, Caffeine and Health
There is a strong behavioral connection between coffee and caffeine, as many people regularly consume coffee in this way. Because of this, much of the research into caffeine has actually focused on coffee, rather than caffeine itself.
Many of the observed benefits can be attributed to caffeine because they were observed only in caffeinated coffee. Nevertheless, some other benefits remain significant for coffee in general. This suggests that both caffeine and coffee are relevant for health and the compounds in each may interact.
Still, there are significant benefits just associated with caffeine and only with caffeinated coffee. So, consuming caffeine in other forms (such as supplements) is likely to be relevant for health as well.
Likewise, many of the health benefits associated with caffeinated coffee are likely to remain significant regardless of tolerance. This includes impacts such as reducing the risk of diabetes (8,9,10,11,12), heart disease (13,14) and cancer (15,16,17), along with extending life in general (18,19).
Indeed, many of these impacts are directly connected to regular consumption of significant amounts of coffee and/or caffeine. So, general health benefits aren’t connected to the tolerance mechanism and are unlikely to be affected by caffeine cycling.
For that matter, the nature of these benefits means that you may get fewer long-term health advantages if you cycle caffeine, simply because your average daily intake would tend to decrease.
Likewise, caffeine cycling isn’t needed to help reduce headaches, because this impact is associated with blood pressure reduction and is not affected by tolerance.
When Cycling May Help
The process of cycling caffeine is worth considering for any reactions that are mediated by adrenaline. These effects tend to decrease with caffeine tolerance, although they do not disappear entirely.
Such outcomes include appetite suppression, fat burning and increased focus (not wakefulness). In practical terms, this means that caffeine cycling is particularly relevant if you plan to rely on caffeine for weight loss.
When Cycling is Important
Caffeine cycling is strongly significant for anything that is related to dopamine signaling. From a general perspective, these are the outcomes that result in increased mood and locomotion, which includes higher levels of energy (20).
Indeed, these are the effects that you will notice yourself.
So, caffeine cycling is would be particularly relevant if you wanted to get more energy from caffeine or if you wanted it to significantly boost your mood.
The Implications of Caffeine Tolerance and Cycling
Caffeine cycling can sound like a great idea, especially if you want your caffeine to start having a stronger impact again. But, there are some interesting implications of doing so.
For one thing, caffeine tolerance will often decrease the side effects of drinking coffee, as many of these are associated with the impacts of adrenaline. In particular, issues such as an increased heart rate, jitteriness and sleeping problems all tend to get less significant as your caffeine tolerance grows.
As a consequence, cycling caffeine may serve to increase the side effects of caffeine for some people. Whether or not this is an issue for you is likely to depend on the side effects that you experience and what your tolerance is.
Finding the Right Dose
In many cases, cycling caffeine isn’t necessary to get the benefits that you’re looking for. This is because we tend to fall into a ‘sweet spot’ with caffeine consumption. This is related to the idea of a partial tolerance (21).
This means that as we drink caffeine, we tend to find a level of intake that acts as a good balance between tolerance and outcomes. This is why people often drink a similar amount of coffee each day and do still see benefits from doing so.
For example, the impact of caffeine on energy and mood is affected by tolerance. But, many people do still find that their first cup of the day boosts both of these areas. Likewise, they may feel sleepy if they decrease their intake.
Precisely what this looks like varies from one person to the next. Genetics and metabolism play a role in this pattern, as does gender, weight and a range of other factors. Medications like The Pill and some antibiotics also affect caffeine absorption.
The end result is that figuring out your ‘sweet spot’ tends to come down to trial and error.
But, eventually you would find a level of intake that works well for your metabolic needs. For that matter, this is something that most people determine without really thinking about it.
The site Lifehacker also talks about approaches that you can take to enjoy coffee again and to get short-term benefits from it. For many people, this would be a better alternative than cutting coffee out entirely and really, this idea does work better.
Resetting Your Tolerance
It is also possible to reset your tolerance entirely. This idea might be desirable if you find that you are taking in a high amount of caffeine just to feel normal. Alternatively, you may want to cut caffeine out of your lifestyle entirely.
There is only one way to do this, which is to dramatically reduce your caffeine consumption. To do so, you may taper it back over time, such as by halving it for a few days and then halving again after that (and so on). Alternatively, you may just choose to cut caffeine out cold turkey.
Regardless of the approach, it takes around a week to get rid of all the caffeine and ‘reset’ your tolerance. And, as you can probably imagine, that week isn’t a fun one.
Indeed, the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal can be severe, including irritability and a lack of focus. These may be particularly pronounced if your intake tended to be high beforehand.
Whether or not the process is worth it is going to depend on who you are and how you tolerate withdrawal symptoms. But, regardless, resetting your caffeine tolerance is no easy feat.
You can find more information about doing so over at the site Caffeine Informer. This is a powerful resource site for everything related to caffeine and provides detailed information about the topic, including approaches that you can take.
Avoiding Caffeine Headaches
One other thing to note is caffeine headaches. These typically occur because of caffeine withdrawal. As such, they will often happen if you are caffeine cycling or cutting back your intake.
But, the headaches aren’t just associated with withdrawal. Instead, they are related to a change in your intake. This means that you can get a headache from increasing your caffeine consumption as well.
That pattern is particularly bad news for caffeine cycling, as you could end up with a headache on the days when you cut caffeine out and also on the days when you increase it.
Headaches would also be more common among people who consume caffeine sporadically, rather than using a consistent amount each day.
The simple solution to headaches is to avoid caffeine cycling and consume the same amount each day (or, you could avoid caffeine entirely, of course). Doing so means that you wouldn’t get the benefits of caffeine cycling but you would have fewer side effects to worry about.
Both caffeine and coffee are very individualistic habits and their implications vary depending on who you are and how your body responds. Because of this, the impacts of caffeine cycling are different between people as well.
For some individuals, the process may be a good way to ensure that caffeine gives you an energy or a mood boost when you truly need it. For others, caffeine cycling may simply end up promoting side effects, while also being incredibly challenging.
With this in mind, the simple answer is to think about what benefits you want from caffeine and, if it suits, try caffeine cycling out for yourself.
One other thing to consider is the way you want to consume caffeine. For many people the default approach is via coffee. After all, coffee is such a common habit.
But, many people turn to caffeine in supplement form. This is particularly relevant if you're wanting to use caffeine as a nootropic - which is a type of product that helps boost brain power, cognition and memory.
For that matter, some people rely on supplements that use a combination of caffeine and L-theanine (such as Smarter Energy), an amino acid. Research indicates that the combination can improve attention and alertness (22).
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