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  • Keys to the Dopamine Factory: Stimulants & the Brain

    Keys to the Dopamine Factory: Stimulants & the Brain

    Written by Elizabeth Schaefer, LPC, CADC

    Part 1: Caffeine

    As my esteemed colleague Sue observed in their recent blog post, for those of us in the middle and upper parts of the Midwest, fall is coming to a close and winter is quickly approaching. This means shorter and shorter days, longer and longer nights, and colder temperatures. It also brings many people up against major human-generated stressors like final exams or end-of-term projects at school, performance reviews at work, and a calendar filled with holiday gatherings. The combination of fewer daylight hours and increased cognitive and social demands can be a serious drain on a person’s energy reserves, especially if you happen to be “solar-powered” (read: sensitive to sunlight levels) like me. Colder weather can also bring a great reluctance to get out of one’s nice warm bed in the mornings. While this is totally understandable, it can become a reason to skip out on self-care activities, such as showering before work, eating breakfast, meditating, going for a walk, or getting to the gym.

    How do we boost our energy levels in those weary, bleary moments? We turn to stimulants.


    Most people are familiar with coffee, tea, and soda as the bearers of one of the milder stimulants: caffeine. (Tea and cocoa aficionados may also be aware that those beverages don’t contain much caffeine, but do have theophylline, which is very similar.) We all know what caffeine does, right? It makes you feel less tired. OK, so how does it do that?

    The human body naturally makes a molecule called adenosine, whose purpose is to relax and dilate blood vessels. This function is part of the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” nervous system. While we’re awake, adenosine gradually builds up in the brain, which is why we get tired after too many hours awake, no matter how our sleep/wake cycles line up with anyone else’s. When adenosine bonds to its receptors, the body’s blood vessels dilate, which lowers blood pressure, so the heart and lungs don’t have to work as hard and can slow down. This happens naturally when we sleep. But at times when, for whatever reason, we can’t or don’t go to sleep, our adenosine levels keep climbing, and we feel more and more fatigued.

    When caffeine gets into a person’s bloodstream, it goes to where the adenosine receptors are — mostly in the brain, heart, and lungs — and boots the adenosine out of the way so that the caffeine can bind to those receptors instead. Your blood vessels contract, your blood pressure goes up, your heart beats faster, your lungs pump more, and with the adenosine temporarily out of the way, you feel less tired. Go go caffeine!

    Have you ever had way too much caffeine and noticed your heart pounding, your thoughts tumbling over each other, and your hands shaking? Whereas adenosine works with the parasympathetic, “rest and digest” nervous system, caffeine works with the opposite, which is the sympathetic, “fight or flight” nervous system. Caffeine makes the brain produce adrenaline, and too much adrenaline brings on the same muscle tension, alertness, twitchiness, and clammy hands as when a person feels like they’re in danger. (It can also bring on rigidity of thinking, which is its own argument against overuse of caffeine. But that’s beside today’s point.)

    It can be tricky to find the right balance of enough caffeine to not feel tired, but not so much caffeine as to bring on these less desirable side effects. Caffeine takes awhile to process out of the body, so an individual who is sensitive to caffeine (like me) may notice that they are still wide awake and full of energy 10 or 12 hours after consuming their morning tea or coffee. The average half-life of caffeine, which means the time for half of the caffeine a person ingested to get processed out of the body, is about 5 or 6 hours.

    To put some numbers on this, let’s say that an 8-ounce cup of coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine. If a person drinks one cup of coffee at 7 AM, they will still have 50 mg of caffeine left in their body at 12 PM, and 25 mg (half of half of 100) left at 5 PM. By the time this person gets to 9 PM, they have only 14 mg of caffeine left in their body.

    Now let’s say that a second and third person are both very used to caffeine, and they start feeling tired when their caffeine level reaches 75 mg. That happens in just 2 hours. So then they both have another 8-ounce cup of coffee, and their caffeine levels go from 75 mg to 175 mg. At that point, their caffeine levels won’t reach 75 mg again for 6 hours. That’s at 3 PM. Let’s say the second person stops with that second cup of coffee. If the third person has one more 8-ounce cup of coffee at 3 PM, they will get back down to 75 mg of caffeine again, and start feeling tired, at 9 PM. However, their body has 5 times as much caffeine in it as the first person’s body does, and more than 2 times as much as the second person’s. They may have a much harder time getting to sleep, and staying deeply asleep, than either of the other two.

    If someone suddenly quits caffeine, they may go into caffeine withdrawal. The biggest complaints from caffeine withdrawal are fatigue, for obvious reasons, and headaches, because caffeine is no longer artificially contracting the blood vessels in the brain. Because caffeine also jump-starts adrenaline, people may also complain of lack of concentration, overall low energy, and a bad mood. However, there’s more to that bad mood than adrenaline alone can explain.

    Caffeine also works with dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter concerned with perceived rewards and the satisfaction we feel when we get those rewards. The ability to find reward and satisfaction in small things, like a lovely sunrise or sunset, a good meal, or a hug from a friend, is a key player in day-to-day good moods. Unlike drugs such as cocaine, ingesting caffeine doesn’t result in a huge flood of freed-up dopamine floating around in the brain, although this may occur to a lesser extent — the most up-to-date science we have is still figuring out exactly what is going on with that. Instead, caffeine’s main effect with regards to dopamine in the brain seems to come from making the brain more sensitive to whatever dopamine is already there by up-regulating dopamine’s receptors. Thus, caffeine makes us a little more likely to notice the positive “rewards” in our environment, which helps prevent irritability and depression. When we go off caffeine, we are likely to be a little more grumpy. For this reason, if your sleep is messed up because of caffeine, you might try cutting back rather than going off caffeine altogether. The people around you, and the parts of you that don’t like being in bad moods, will thank you.

    If you’re looking to better understand the complexities of your own brain and self, Mind Body Co-op’s Medication Management with Dr. Luke Swift, Neuropsych Assessments with Dr. Beth Elia, and Addiction Recovery with Addictions Specialist, Elizabeth Schaefer, might be a good fit for you. Learn more about these services here!

    Stay tuned for future posts from me that get into my personal “dopamine factory” metaphor and explore the effects of other stimulants (nicotine, mental health medications, amphetamines, and cocaine) on our bodies and brains!

    Written by Mind Body Co-op Psychotherapist & Addiction Specialist, Elizabeth Schaefer, LPC, CADC. Elizabeth was born and raised in Chicago, got her Masters degree in Clinical Professional Psychology at Roosevelt University, and then added a certificate in Addictions Studies from Harold Washington College. She is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), a certified alcohol and drug counselor (CADC), and a proud member of Kink and Poly Aware Chicago Therapists (KPACT). For the last 8 years, Elizabeth has been doing a mix of psychotherapy and addictions counseling. This has ranged from once-a-month individual therapy to daily sessions on inpatient detox units – she has been around awhile and seen a fair bit. She has also had years of experience working with trauma and helping people get to a point where their past doesn’t run their lives anymore. Elizabeth is currently working towards her certification in EMDR Therapy and is already healing trauma through EMDR with her clients.

    Mind Body Co-op is Chicago’s only space for individuals to discover, explore, and heal what is occurring internally at the cognitive, emotional, and physical levels. This unique, holistic approach to treatment and wellness is born out of the belief that examining the cognitive, emotional, and physical pieces and how they intersect helps lead to uncovering your full potential by providing thoughtful, collaborative, and complete integrative mental health care. We offer a variety of clinical services, including individual psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, psychological/neuropsychological assessments, medication management, CPT (comprehensive transitional program), somatic mindfulness, somatic groups, DBT, adventure therapy, therapeutic yoga, and more. We provide culturally competent services in English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Russian & Arabic.



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