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Caffeine: This is how the stimulant really works

General information about caffeine

We all think of coffee when we hear the word caffeine. This is also justified, after all, caffeine is the main active ingredient in coffee. However, caffeine is found in over 60 other plants. For example, the tea bush, guaraná, guayusa, the mate bush and the kola nut.

Pure caffeine was isolated for the first time in 1819 by the pharmacist and chemist Runge. Goethe had in fact inspired the latter to find the active substance in coffee. Runge is thus considered the discoverer of caffeine.

Caffeine was first used in medicine as a stimulant and diuretic. Caffeine has also been used as a drug to treat breathing disorders in asthma.


Caffeine can be obtained by extraction from tea leaves or coffee beans. It is also produced in large quantities during the decaffeination of coffee.


Caffeine has a wide spectrum of effects, with the best-known property being that of a stimulant. Stimulant generally refers to a substance with a stimulating effect on the psyche, drive as well as concentration. Fatigue symptoms, on the other hand, are eliminated.

With caffeine, a distinction is made between a stimulating and an exciting effect. The latter is achieved by a higher dose. The excitatory effect is achieved even by small doses, which mainly affects basic psychological functions such as drive and mood.

Caffeine and sport

Caffeine has long been used in sports to enhance performance. There are also numerous studies that confirm the effect of caffeine. Caffeine has various mechanisms of action:

  1. It blocks adenosine: Caffeine has a similar chemical structure to adenosine. Adenosine is responsible for making us feel tired and exhausted. The more of it there is in our body, the more tired we feel. Because of the structural similarities between caffeine and adenosine, caffeine may prevent adenosine from binding to receptors. This leads to masking the feelings of fatigue, exhaustion and pain.
  2. It increases the calcium release in the muscles: Caffeine increases calcium release in muscle cells. This calcium release is responsible for muscle contraction. For this reason, it is believed that caffeine may be able to increase force production in muscles.
  3. It acts on catecholamines: The original theory, on the performance enhancing effect of caffeine was that caffeine stimulates fat metabolism and spares muscle glycogen. Caffeine can stimulate the breakdown of triglycerides (the storage form of fat) and the fatty acids released can be used for energy. In addition, caffeine can cause an increase in the hormone family of catecholamines, which includes epinephrine. The increase in catecholamines may in turn increase fat loss. When more fat is used, it could lead to reduced breakdown of glycogen – the stored form of carbohydrates in the body – potentially delaying fatigue or exhaustion and leading to improved performance.

Now we know that this is probably not the main explanation.

Although caffeine may have small effects on fat metabolism, this is not the reason for the performance-enhancing effects.

So this is how caffeine works in sports specifically

  • It appears that the main mechanism by which caffeine can improve performance is by blocking the action of adenosine. This leads to decreased fatigue and a dulled sense of pain.
  • It improves alertness and reaction time.
  • It is possible that caffeine increases the strength of muscle contraction, but the effect of this is not great.
  • It is important to note that too much caffeine can have the opposite effects and that the effects of caffeine are very individual. Therefore, it is essential to test the use of caffeine in training.

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