Caffeine Pharmacology

Global consumption of caffeine has been estimated at 120,000 tonnes per year, making it the world's most popular psychoactive substance. This number equates to one serving of a caffeine beverage for every person, per day. Caffeine is a central nervous system and metabolic stimulant, and is used both recreationally and medically to reduce physical fatigue and restore mental alertness when unusual weakness or drowsiness occurs. Caffeine and other methylxanthine derivatives are also used on newborns to treat apnea and correct irregular heartbeats. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system first at the higher levels, resulting in increased alertness and wakefulness, faster and clearer flow of thought, increased focus, and better general body coordination, and later at the spinal cord level at higher doses. It is eliminated by first-order kinetics. Caffeine can also be ingested rectally, evidenced by the formulation of suppositories of ergotamine tartrate and caffeine (for the relief of migraine) and chlorobutanol and caffeine (for the treatment of hyperemesis).

The half-life of caffeine —the time required for the body to eliminate one-half of the total amount of caffeine — varies widely among individuals according to such factors as age, liver function, pregnancy, some concurrent medications, and the level of enzymes in the liver needed for caffeine metabolism. In healthy adults, caffeine's half-life is approximately 4.9 hours. In women taking oral contraceptives, this is increased to 5–10 hours, and in pregnant women the half-life is roughly 9–11 hours. Caffeine can accumulate in individuals with severe liver disease, increasing its half-life up to 96 hours. In infants and young children, the half-life may be longer than in adults; half-life in a newborn baby may be as long as 30 hours. Other factors such as smoking can shorten caffeine's half-life. Fluvoxamine reduced the clearance of caffeine by 91.3%, and prolonged its elimination half-life by 11.4-fold (from 4.9 hours to 56 hours).

Caffeine is metabolized in the liver by the cytochrome P450 oxidase enzyme system (to be specific, the 1A2 isozyme) into three metabolic dimethylxanthines, each of which having its own effects on the body:

  • Paraxanthine (84%): Has the effect of increasing lipolysis, leading to elevated glycerol and free fatty acid levels in the blood plasma.
  • Theobromine (12%): Dilates blood vessels and increases urine volume. Theobromine is also the principal alkaloid in the cocoa bean, and therefore chocolate.
  • Theophylline (4%): Relaxes smooth muscles of the bronchi, and is used to treat asthma. The therapeutic dose of theophylline, however, is many times greater than the levels attained from caffeine metabolism.

Each of these metabolites is further metabolized and then excreted in the urine.

Mechanism of action

Caffeine readily crosses the blood–brain barrier that separates the bloodstream from the interior of the brain. Once in the brain, the principal mode of action is as a nonselective antagonist of adenosine receptors. The caffeine molecule is structurally similar to adenosine, and binds to adenosine receptors on the surface of cells without activating them (an "antagonist" mechanism of action). Therefore, caffeine acts as a competitive inhibitor.

Adenosine is found in every part of the body, because it plays a role in the fundamental ATP-related energy metabolism and is necessary for RNA synthesis, but it has special functions in the brain. There is a great deal of evidence that concentrations of brain adenosine are increased by various types of metabolic stress including anoxia and ischemia. The evidence also indicates that brain adenosine acts to protect the brain by suppressing neural activity and also by increasing blood flow through A2A and A2B receptors located on vascular smooth muscle. Caffeine also has a generally disinhibitory effect on neural activity. It has not been shown, however, how these effects cause increases in arousal and alertness.

Adenosine is released in the brain through a complex mechanism. There is evidence that adenosine functions as a synaptically released neurotransmitter in some cases, but stress-related adenosine increases appear to be produced mainly by extracellular metabolism of ATP. It is not likely that adenosine is the primary neurotransmitter for any group of neurons, but rather that it is released together with other transmitters by a number of neuron types. Unlike most neurotransmitters, adenosine does not seem to be packaged into vesicles that are released in a voltage-controlled manner, but the possibility of such a mechanism has not been completely ruled out.

Several classes of adenosine receptors have been described, with different anatomical distributions. A1 receptors are widely distributed, and act to inhibit calcium uptake. A2A receptors are heavily concentrated in the basal ganglia, an area that plays a critical role in behavior control, but can be found in other parts of the brain as well, in lower densities. There is evidence that A 2A receptors interact with the dopamine system, which is involved in reward and arousal. (A2A receptors can also be found on arterial walls and blood cell membranes.)

Beyond its general neuroprotective effects, there are reasons to believe that adenosine may be more specifically involved in control of the sleep-wake cycle. Robert McCarley and his colleagues have argued that accumulation of adenosine may be a primary cause of the sensation of sleepiness that follows prolonged mental activity, and that the effects may be mediated both by inhibition of wake-promoting neurons via A1 receptors, and activation of sleep-promoting neurons via indirect effects on A2A receptors. More recent studies have provided additional evidence for the importance of A2A, but not A1, receptors.

Some of the secondary effects of caffeine are probably caused by actions unrelated to adenosine. Like other methylated xanthines, caffeine is both a

  1. competitive nonselective phosphodiesterase inhibitor which raises intracellular cAMP, activates PKA, inhibits TNF-alpha and leukotriene synthesis, and reduces inflammation and innate immunity . Caffeine is also added to agar, which partially inhibits the growth of Saccharomyces cerevisiae by inhibiting cyclic AMP phosphodiesterase.
  2. nonselective adenosine receptor antagonist.

Phosphodiesterase inhibitors inhibit cAMP-phosphodiesterase (cAMP-PDE) enzymes, which convert cyclic AMP (cAMP) in cells to its noncyclic form, thus allowing cAMP to build up in cells. Cyclic AMP participates in activation of protein kinase A (PKA) to begin the phosphorylation of specific enzymes used in glucose synthesis. By blocking its removal, caffeine intensifies and prolongs the effects of epinephrine and epinephrine-like drugs such as amphetamine, methamphetamine, and methylphenidate. Increased concentrations of cAMP in parietal cells causes an increased activation of protein kinase A (PKA), which in turn increases activation of H+/K+ ATPase, resulting finally in increased gastric acid secretion by the cell. Cyclic AMP also increases the activity of the funny current, which directly increases heart rate. Caffeine is also a structural analogue of strychnine and, like it (though much less potent), a competitive antagonist at ionotropic glycine receptors.

Metabolites of caffeine also contribute to caffeine's effects. Paraxanthine is responsible for an increase in the lipolysis process, which releases glycerol and fatty acids into the blood to be used as a source of fuel by the muscles. Theobromine is a vasodilator that increases the amount of oxygen and nutrient flow to the brain and muscles. Theophylline acts as a smooth muscle relaxant that chiefly affects bronchioles and acts as a chronotrope and inotrope that increases heart rate and efficiency.

Effects when taken in moderation

The precise amount of caffeine necessary to produce effects varies from person to person depending on body size and degree of tolerance to caffeine. It takes less than an hour for caffeine to begin affecting the body and a mild dose wears off in three to four hours.

With these effects, caffeine is an ergogenic, increasing a person's capability for mental or physical labor. A study conducted in 1979 showed a 7% increase in distance cycled over a period of two hours in subjects that consumed caffeine compared to control subjects. Other studies attained much more dramatic results; one particular study of trained runners showed a 44% increase in "race-pace" endurance, as well as a 51% increase in cycling endurance, after a dosage of 9 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. Additional studies have reported similar effects. Another study found 5.5 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body mass resulted in subjects cycling 29% longer during high-intensity circuits.

Caffeine citrate has proven to be of short- and long-term benefit in treating the breathing disorders of apnea of prematurity and bronchopulmonary dysplasia in premature infants. The only short-term risk associated with caffeine citrate treatment is a temporary reduction in weight gain during the therapy, and longer term studies (18 to 21 months) have shown lasting benefits of treatment of premature infants with caffeine.

Caffeine relaxes the internal anal sphincter muscles and thus should be avoided by those with fecal incontinence.

While relatively safe for humans, caffeine is considerably more toxic to some other animals such as dogs, horses, and parrots due to a much poorer ability to metabolize this compound. Caffeine has also a pronounced effect on mollusks and various insects as well as spiders.

Tolerance and withdrawal

Because caffeine is primarily an antagonist of the central nervous system's receptors for the neurotransmitter adenosine, the bodies of individuals that regularly consume caffeine adapt to the continuous presence of the drug by substantially increasing the number of adenosine receptors in the central nervous system. This increase in the number of the adenosine receptors makes the body much more sensitive to adenosine, with two primary consequences. First, the stimulatory effects of caffeine are substantially reduced, a phenomenon known as a tolerance adaptation. Second, because these adaptive responses to caffeine make individuals much more sensitive to adenosine, a reduction in caffeine intake will effectively increase the normal physiological effects of adenosine, resulting in unwelcome withdrawal symptoms in tolerant users.

Caffeine tolerance develops very quickly, especially among heavy coffee and energy drink consumers. Complete tolerance to sleep disruption effects of caffeine develops after consuming 400 mg of caffeine 3 times a day for 7 days. Complete tolerance to subjective effects of caffeine was observed to develop after consuming 300 mg 3 times per day for 18 days, and possibly even earlier. In another experiment, complete tolerance of caffeine was observed when the subject consumed 750–1200 mg per day while incomplete tolerance to caffeine has been observed in those that consume more average doses of caffeine.

Because adenosine, in part, serves to regulate blood pressure by causing vasodilation, the increased effects of adenosine due to caffeine withdrawal cause the blood vessels of the head to dilate, leading to an excess of blood in the head and causing a headache and nausea. Reduced catecholamine activity may cause feelings of fatigue and drowsiness. A reduction in serotonin levels when caffeine use is stopped can cause anxiety, irritability, inability to concentrate, and diminished motivation to initiate or to complete daily tasks; in extreme cases it may cause mild depression. Together, these effects have come to be known as a "crash".

Withdrawal symptoms — possibly including headache, irritability, an inability to concentrate, drowsiness, insomnia and pain in the stomach, upper body, and joints — may appear within 12 to 24 hours after discontinuation of caffeine intake, peak at roughly 48 hours, and usually last from one to five days, representing the time required for the number of adenosine receptors in the brain to revert to "normal" levels, uninfluenced by caffeine consumption. Analgesics, such as aspirin, can relieve the pain symptoms, as can a small dose of caffeine. Most effective is a combination of both an analgesic and a small amount of caffeine.

This is not the only case in which caffeine increases the effectiveness of a drug. Caffeine makes pain relievers 40% more effective in relieving headaches and helps the body absorb headache medications more quickly, bringing faster relief. For this reason, many over-the-counter headache drugs include caffeine in their formula. It is also used with ergotamine in the treatment of migraine and cluster headaches as well as to overcome the drowsiness caused by antihistamines.


In large amounts, and especially over extended periods of time, caffeine can lead to a condition known as ''caffeinism.'' Caffeinism usually combines caffeine dependency with a wide range of unpleasant physical and mental conditions including nervousness, irritability, anxiety, tremulousness, muscle twitching (hyperreflexia), insomnia, headaches, respiratory alkalosis, and heart palpitations. Furthermore, because caffeine increases the production of stomach acid, high usage over time can lead to peptic ulcers, erosive esophagitis, and gastroesophageal reflux disease.

There are four caffeine-induced psychiatric disorders recognized by the ''Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition'': caffeine intoxication, caffeine-induced anxiety disorder, caffeine-induced sleep disorder, and caffeine-related disorder not otherwise specified (NOS).

Caffeine intoxication

An acute overdose of caffeine, usually in excess of about 300 milligrams, dependent on body weight and level of caffeine tolerance, can result in a state of central nervous system over-stimulation called ''caffeine intoxication'' (DSM-IV 305.90), or colloquially the "caffeine jitters". The symptoms of caffeine intoxication are not unlike overdoses of other stimulants. It may include restlessness, nervousness, excitement, insomnia, flushing of the face, increased urination, gastrointestinal disturbance, muscle twitching, a rambling flow of thought and speech, irritability, irregular or rapid heart beat, and psychomotor agitation.

In cases of extreme overdose, death can result. The median lethal dose (LD50) given orally, is 192 milligrams per kilogram in rats. The LD50 of caffeine in humans is dependent on weight and individual sensitivity and estimated to be about 150 to 200 milligrams per kilogram of body mass, roughly 80 to 100 cups of coffee for an average adult taken within a limited time frame that is dependent on half-life. Though achieving lethal dose with caffeine would be exceptionally difficult with regular coffee, there have been reported deaths from overdosing on caffeine pills, with serious symptoms of overdose requiring hospitalization occurring from as little as 2 grams of caffeine. An exception to this would be taking a drug such as fluvoxamine, which blocks the liver enzyme responsible for the metabolism of caffeine, thus increasing the central effects and blood concentrations of caffeine dramatically at 5-fold. It is not contraindicated, but highly advisable to minimize the intake of caffeinated beverages, as drinking one cup of coffee will have the same effect as drinking five under normal conditions. Death typically occurs due to ventricular fibrillation brought about by effects of caffeine on the cardiovascular system.

Treatment of severe caffeine intoxication is generally supportive, providing treatment of the immediate symptoms, but if the patient has very high serum levels of caffeine then peritoneal dialysis, hemodialysis, or hemofiltration may be required.

Anxiety and sleep disorders

Two infrequently diagnosed caffeine-induced disorders that are recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) are ''caffeine-induced sleep disorder'' and ''caffeine-induced anxiety disorder'', which can result from long-term excessive caffeine intake.

In the case of caffeine-induced sleep disorder, an individual regularly ingests high doses of caffeine sufficient to induce a significant disturbance in his or her sleep, sufficiently severe to warrant clinical attention. A study in the ''British Journal of Addiction'' concluded that caffeinism, although infrequently diagnosed, may afflict as many as one person in ten of the population.

Effects on memory and learning

An array of studies found that caffeine could have nootropic effects, inducing certain changes in memory and learning.

Researchers have found that long-term consumption of low dose caffeine slowed hippocampus-dependent learning and impaired long-term memory in mice. Caffeine consumption for 4 weeks also significantly reduced hippocampal neurogenesis compared to controls during the experiment. The conclusion was that long-term consumption of caffeine could inhibit hippocampus-dependent learning and memory partially through inhibition of hippocampal neurogenesis..

In another study, caffeine was added to rat neurons ''in vitro''. The dendritic spines (a part of the brain cell used in forming connections between neurons) taken from the hippocampus (a part of the brain associated with memory) grew by 33% and new spines formed. After an hour or two, however, these cells returned to their original shape.

Another study showed that human subjects — after receiving 100 milligrams of caffeine — had increased activity in brain regions located in the frontal lobe, where a part of the working memory network is located, and the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that controls attention. The caffeinated subjects also performed better on the memory tasks.

However, a different study showed that caffeine could impair short-term memory and increase the likelihood of the tip of the tongue phenomenon. The study allowed the researchers to suggest that caffeine could aid short-term memory when the information to be recalled is related to the current train of thought, but also to hypothesize that caffeine hinders short-term memory when the train of thought is unrelated. In essence, caffeine consumption increases mental performance related to focused thought while it may decrease broad-range thinking abilities.

Effects on the heart

Caffeine binds to receptors on the surface of heart muscle cells, which leads to an increase in the level of cAMP inside the cells (by blocking the enzyme that degrades cAMP), mimicking the effects of epinephrine (which binds to receptors on the cell that activate cAMP production). cAMP acts as a "second messenger," and activates a large number of protein kinase A (PKA; cAMP-dependent protein kinase). This has the overall effect of increasing the rate of glycolysis and increases the amount of ATP available for muscle contraction and relaxation. According to one study, caffeine in the form of coffee, significantly reduces the risk of heart disease in epidemiological studies. However, the protective effect was found only in participants who were not severely hypertensive (i.e., patients that are not suffering from a very high blood pressure). Furthermore, no significant protective effect was found in participants aged less than 65 years or in cerebrovascular disease mortality for those aged equal or more than 65 years.

Effects on children

It is a common myth that excessive intake of caffeine results in stunted growth within children, particularly younger children and teenagers. - recently, scientific studies have disproved the notion. Children are found to experience the same effects from caffeine as adults.

However, subsidiary beverages that contain caffeine, such as energy drinks, most of which contain high amounts of caffeine, have been banned in many schools throughout the world, due to other adverse effects having been observed in prolonged consumption of caffeine. Furthermore, in one study, caffeinated Cola has been linked to hyperactivity in children.

Caffeine intake during pregnancy

Despite its widespread use and the conventional view that it is a safe substance, a 2008 study suggested that pregnant women who consume 200 milligrams or more of caffeine per day have about twice the miscarriage risk as women who consume none. However, another 2008 study found no correlation between miscarriage and caffeine consumption. The UK Food Standards Agency has recommended that pregnant women should limit their caffeine intake to less than 200 mg of caffeine a day—the equivalent of two cups of instant coffee or a half to two cups of fresh coffee. The FSA noted that the design of the studies made it impossible to be certain that the differences were due to caffeine per se, instead of other lifestyle differences possibly associated with high levels of caffeine consumption, but judged the advice to be prudent.

Dr De-Kun Li of Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, writing in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, concluded that an intake of 200 milligrams or more per day, representing two or more cups, "significantly increases the risk of miscarriage". However, Dr. David A. Savitz, a professor in community and preventive medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine and lead author of the other new study on the subject published in the January issue of Epidemiology, found no link between miscarriage and caffeine consumption.

Some people metabolize caffeine more slowly than the general population due to variations in a specific cytochrome P450 gene, and there is evidence people with this gene may be at a higher risk of myocardial infarction when consuming large amounts of coffee. For rapid metabolizers, however, coffee seemed to have a preventative effect. Slow and fast metabolizers are comparably common in the general population, and this has been blamed for the wide variation in studies of the health effects of caffeine.

Intraocular Pressure and caffeine

Recent data has suggested that caffeine consumption can raise intraocular pressure. This may be a significant consideration for those with open angle glaucoma.

Further Reading

This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article on "Caffeine" All material adapted used from Wikipedia is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Wikipedia® itself is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

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  1. Kari Luoto Kari Luoto Finland says:

    Caffeine is metabolized mostly to uric acids.

    Caffeine accumulates in the body and if you use it on daily basis, you have caffeine and its active metabolites in the blood 24/7.
    35% of caffeine binds to proteins and is not in the blood circulation.

    Because caffeine is metabolized mostly to uric acids and caffeine accumulates in the body, it is safe to assume that caffeine accumulates in the body as different caffeine uric acids.

    Why is it then that these caffeine uric acids are not being removed from the blood to urine? Isn't that what kidneys are supposed to do? What can stop kidneys from secreting uric acids from blood to urine?

    "Physiologically, the major factors that affect urate excretion are the tubular fluid pH, the tubular fluid flow rate, and renal blood flow. The first 2 factors primarily diminish uric acid and urate precipitation in the collecting ducts, while the third is important in urate secretion. In disorders such as sickle cell disease, hypertension, and eclampsia, hyperuricemia out of proportion with decreases in glomerular filtration result from decreased renal blood flow. Organic acids, such as lactic acid and ketoacids, also can impair the proximal secretion of uric acid."

    The major factor is the effect of caffeine to blood circulation. Caffeine inhibits adenosine which is the most important neurotransmitter that dilates the blood vessels. Caffeine releases stress hormones that constrict blood vessels and reduce renal blood flow, inhibiting the secretion of uric acids to urine. The fact that caffeine's pharmacodynamic effects are mainly based on chronic elevation of stress hormones, makes it a systemic toxin that alters the chemical balance of every cell, and can thereby cause drastic changes in body's processes and organ functions.

    Uric acids are poorly water soluble. When they enter tissues with reduced water flow, the concentration elevates locally and the acids start to crystallize. Such tissues are bone, connective tissue between skeletal muscles and bones and fat. When blood UA concentration gets too high, blood can no longer melt crystallized acids. It is known that caffeine lowers the blood uric acid concentration, but reason to this is not known.

    This video shows two different modes of accumulation in big toe. First between the bone and soft tissue starting from the second joint to both directions. The second view is from the side of the toe, where uric acids have started to crystallize downward from the joint, forming a large blister under the toe. This is same mechanism applies in the whole body.

    Caffeine metabolites stored in the body have very similar sympathomimetic effects with caffeine.

    Crystallized uric acids are not stable. They can start melting from one point or another for various reasons, creating an acute caffeine poisoning that can be lethal. The problem with diagnosing the symptoms caused by these toxins is that they can cause systemic symptoms with high concentration and local peripheral symptoms close to an infected deposit, and central nervous system symptoms with two different mechanisms; generally elevated UA concentration, and locally elevated concentration in brain due to local melting in small scale. The latter one can create extremely bizarre physical symptoms depending on the location of meltdown.

  2. june buie june buie United States says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for the information on the effects of caffeine and what you call "TOT" episodes.  I am over 55 and I am an avid coffee drinker. I have been experiencing loss of words mid way through my sentences as well as having numerous loss of words, and remembering names.  I drink about 23 oz a day and then I'm through. I am going to lessen that amount each day and see what happens. I just can't STOP drinking it because I love it. I was looking really silly and I was worried. I'm relieved and now I know! Thank You!

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