QJ Science: Wake up your brain

When I wake up in the morning, the first part of my routine is usually the same: I get out of bed and groggily stumble downstairs in search of the holy grail — a cup of coffee.

Like most who have become dependent on a daily boost of caffeine, when I forgo my morning coffee, I typically experience headache along with a notable decrease in my concentration levels. But is caffeine really the best way to wake up your brain?

I, and many other coffee drinkers, tend to agree: coffee, tea or anything caffeinated does help me feel more alert and focused. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice.

Faced with this question, Peter Rogers, a professor at Bristol University, tested coffee against chewing gum, sage, fudge and electric shocks.

A group of 20 people, 10 who never drink caffeine and 10 regular caffeine consumers who had abstained for 12 hours, were recruited to test their concentration, dexterity and mental agility both before and after drinking a cup of coffee.

As expected, the drink did give the non-users a boost in their performance. But it also made them anxious and jittery. With the regular caffeine-consuming group, coffee only boosted them to the same level the non-users were at without any caffeine.

So what about other products? In a separate test, 24 volunteers were tested to measure their concentration and alertness. They were then randomly assigned to chewing gum, eating fudge, swallowing a pill containing sage or receiving a placebo. An hour later, they did the tests again to compare the results.

As expected, the placebo pill had no effect. Eating fudge also made no difference on the volunteers’ performance. Chewing gum was actually found to improve the volunteers’ mood, though it was suggested that simply going for a walk would have the same effect of promoting blood flow to the brain.

Sage pills, surprisingly, were the only product to significantly improve the volunteers’ performance on the tests. As it turns out, sage contains a cholinesterase inhibitor, a chemical that prevents the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. By preventing acetylcholine breakdown, there’s more available for signalling in the brain, where it plays a role in improving attention and memory.

In spite of this finding, it’s unlikely popping a sage pill every morning is going to take off as a replacement for coffee. Personally, the smell, flavour and temperature of my morning coffee are all a part of what helps me wake up.

If anything, Rogers’ study shows that coffee isn’t the be all and end all to feeling alert. But there’s one solution that trumps any natural or synthetic product, and that’s getting enough sleep in the first place.

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