Updated: May 7, 2019
Do you love your Starbuck's caramel latte or mocha latte? Do you drink RedBull, Mother, Rockstart, Coke, or Diet Coke? Ever wondered why you are frequently told not to smoke or drink alcohol? I'm not here to simply advise "just say no!", I'm here to tell you the impact of these substances on your developing brain, so you can make up your own mind about what to do and when.
Your teenage brain is glorious - if you didn’t know that already. Neuroscience has shown that the brain goes through critical periods of growth and development - while in the womb, the first year of life, and the early years, right into adulthood. What scientists have more recently discovered is that the brain undergoes a 'secret mission' of change during the period between the ages of 12 to 19 years that is truly unique.
The most widely used psychoactive substances are caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and cannabis. Some substances have a minimum age requirement and others do not. Many people wrongly assume that some psychoactive substances are benign with minimal impact on the teenage brain. Neuroscience has a unique perspective to offer on understanding how your teenage brain is affected by these psychoactive substances. The brain responds differently to different types of psychoactive chemicals. Caffeine and nicotine function primarily as brain stimulants, alcohol as depressants, opioids as pain relievers, and cannabis as a hallucinogen.
In this blog post I will focus on caffeine, so you can make an informed decision as to how much or how often you have a drink with caffeine in it. The psychoactive substance caffeine is naturally occurring in coffee, tea, soda (including diet soda) and cocoa (chocolate). It's also added to energy drinks such as RedBull and Monster.
Caffeine is quickly absorbed in the stomach as it is a fat-soluble molecule and permeates cell membranes easily. As such caffeine is able to reach the brain quickly via the blood stream. Caffeine functions as a stimulant in the body as it increases heart rate, blood pressure.
Caffeine affects the brain's neurotransmitters and endocrine signaling pathways. In the brain of adults' caffeine has been found to facilitate alertness, processing speed, and concentration. Caffeine consumption has also been linked to irritability, restlessness, and insomnia.
Caffeine is known to have a half-life - that's the time it takes for your body and liver to process the chemical - of about 6 hours. In other words, if you drink a Starbuck's mocha latte or a RedBull drink after school - you will still have 50% of that caffeine in your brain and blood stream at 10:00pm that night when you are trying to get to sleep. The presence of caffeine in the brain has a direct impact on sleep onset. Teenagers that consume caffeine are more likely to have disrupted sleep and be shorter in height. The long bones (arms and legs) primarily grow during stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle and bones need calcium to develop. Caffeine has been associated with reduced calcium absorption and increased calcium excretion. Caffeine also reduces the length of stages 3 and 4 (sleep has a total of 4 non-Rapid Eye Movment [REM] stages) leading to decreased bone growth in adolescents and overall cellular repair that occurs during the latter sleep stages.
A single can of an energy drink may contain as much as 500mg of caffeine, about as much caffeine as about 14 cans of soda. Energy drinks contain a chemical called taurine known enhance the effects of caffeine. Together caffeine and taurine are a very powerful stimulant, with strong impacts on the sleep cycle. Energy drinks have a strong negative impact on the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and have been associated with poor decision making and increased risky behavior.
Your brain and growing body will thank you for avoiding caffeine in sodas or coffee, and the taurine in energy drinks. We will discuss the other 3 psychoactive substances: nicotine, alcohol, and cannabis on other blog posts. Now that you understand the impact of caffeine on your glorious brain and growing body, you can decide when you next have a mocha latte, a soda or an energy drink.
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