Coffee and Tea: True Brain Foods?

Is Caffeine a Good Tool for Memory Improvement?


People around the globe regularly greet the new day with a cup of steaming, freshly brewed coffee or tea, but is it possible that your morning pick-me-up is actually a brain food that can decrease your chances of dementia and other forms of cognitive decline?

Science is starting to indicate so. Over the last few decades, researchers have studied the effects of coffee and tea on several different types of illnesses, including Alzheimer’s and memory improvement, and the results are surprising.

Unfortunately, they’re also conflicting and depending upon what you’re reading, coffee and tea will either cure you or kill you. We took a look at the actual research to separate the blather from the facts, so read on!

Caffeine: Is It Really Brain Food?

The key ingredient here seems to be caffeine. Studies indicate that people who drink coffee or tea regularly may actually have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s, cognitive decline and memory loss, so they started examining the common ingredient, caffeine, a little closer.

Though researchers aren’t sure why, many suspect that caffeine’s effect on cognitive decline has something to do with the fact that caffeine may help preserve the blood/brain barrier that keeps potentially harmful chemicals from passing out of your blood and into your central nervous system.

The University of North Dakota conducted a test with rabbits that were fed a high-cholesterol diet. One group got a dose of caffeine equivalent to one cup of coffee and the other group didn’t receive anything. The group that was administered the caffeine showed significantly more intact blood/brain barriers than the group who did not.

Another interesting connection here is that cholesterol weakens the blood/brain barrier and people with Alzheimer’s and dementia tend to have higher levels of cholesterol as well as weak blood/brain barriers. ”Leaky” blood/brain barriers are also often noted in stroke victims, so that may just be one more reason to drink up.

Caffeine Boosts Mood

This one’s kind of tricky because it truly is an example of the fact that you can have too much of a good thing. Caffeine actually blocks your brain’s adrenal receptors, thus stimulating the release of dopamine, as well as other “feel good” and “go fast” chemicals. In small doses, this is obviously a good; some studies indicate that people who regularly drink moderate amounts of coffee are less prone to depression, but what about people who drink large amounts of coffee?

Great question. Caffeine also stimulates your brain’s activity and makes your neurons fire faster. This causes your pituitary gland to release hormones that tell your adrenal glands to start making the stress hormone adrenaline (as well as cortisol and norepinephrine), which is what gives you the energy rush associated with coffee. This is where it can start to go south on you, though.

When Caffeine Goes from Brain Food to Brain Drain

When your adrenal glands are continually stimulated to release cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline, they can actually become overworked and your daily rhythms of cortisol release can be disrupted or cortisol levels can start to build up. If this cycle is repeated chronically (aka, you drink a ton of coffee on a daily basis), you may begin experiencing the same symptoms that you would if you had chronic stress: nervousness, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, and decreased immune response.

So How Much Caffeine Is Good For You?

The magic number for improved brain health and protection from cognitive decline seems to be between one and three cups of coffee per day. Anything more than that may actually be harmful to certain people, especially those prone to heart disease or Parkinson’s disease.

Studies are in their infancy but some are indicating that people who drink 3 cups of tea per day can actually delay the onset of Parkinson’s by up to 8 years. Strangely enough, 3 cups of coffee to the same group actually sped up onset by nearly 5 years, so it may be that caffeine isn’t the factor here but rather another ingredient in black tea. Regardless, if you’re at risk for Parkinson’s, avoiding coffee and drinking black tea instead may not be a bad idea.

A final warning about coffee: if you’re going to drink it (and research suggests that maybe you should, moderately) then make sure that it’s filtered. The ingredient caféstrol found in unfiltered coffee actually increases cholesterol levels so even though that percolated or French-pressed coffee is delicious, unfiltered coffee may be adding to your health woes.


The key to using coffee and tea as brain foods is moderation. Drinking one to three cups per day can actually help you protect your brain from Alzheimer’s, dementia, memory loss and cognitive decline but drinking too much can lead to addiction and even an increased risk of heart disease in some people.

As an aside, if you’re trying to get away from caffeine but are worried about withdrawal symptoms such as headache, brain fog and fatigue, try L-Tyrosine. It’s a non-essential amino acid that naturally influences synthesis of dopamine and norepinephrine.

The cool thing about it is that it doesn’t affect release of the chemicals under normal circumstances when everything is functioning slowly and optimally; they only affect release when your firing rates are increased by stress. Many people find that it’s useful to help get through caffeine withdrawal easily and painlessly. You can find a good deal on L-tyrosine here if you’re interested.

If you’d like to chime in about whether or not caffeine is a brain food or a brain drain, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

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