Caffeine dependence and how caffeine affects the brain

1 a.m. Ellie stares at the clock hanging on her wall, barely managing to keep her drowsy eyes open. Another day of staying up late, she thinks. Well, my sleep schedule is ruined anyway. Slowly turning back to her dreaded study materials, she half considers just stopping for the day and winging the test in the morning.

But as she considers the consequences of failing her test, her pride refuses. Standing up, Ellie moves to pour herself a cup of coffee. She drinks it plain with no sugar. The bitter taste helps her stay awake anyway. Gulping down the drink, she returns her attention to studying. Within fifteen minutes, caffeine enters her bloodstream. It acts as a stimulant, temporarily boosting her focus. With this newfound energy surging through her veins, Ellie continues studying.

The next time Ellie takes a break from her textbooks, it is already 4 a.m. She panics. Only halfway done with her studying, she’ll surely fail if she isn’t able to squeeze in some more review time before her test. But she can feel a caffeine crash coming on, a phenomenon caused by consuming too much caffeine after being tired, leading to fatigue and irritability, and the realization hits her that she won’t be able to study much more in the state she’s in now. 

Instead, Ellie pulls out her phone and sets an alarm for 7 a.m. tomorrow. She heads off to bed, too tired to even brush her teeth or pack her backpack for tomorrow. 

Despite how late it is, it takes a while for Ellie to fall asleep due to all the caffeine she has consumed, but slowly the fatigue from long hours of studying and schoolwork overtakes her.

When she wakes up at 7 a.m., Ellie pulls herself out of bed, feeling barely more rested than she did a few hours ago. Pushing down any remaining fatigue that lingers in her mind, Ellie resolves to get in another hour of studying before heading to school. Before sitting down at her desk to start her study session, Ellie heads toward the coffee machine sitting on her kitchen counter. She momentarily considers how many expresso shots she should put in, before deciding that 5 is reasonable, after all, she needs to have enough caffeine to get through her study session and ace the test. A few minutes later, she’s sitting at her desk again, with a cup of coffee to keep her company for the next hour of studying. When she’s almost done with the last chapter of her textbook that she had planned to review, Ellie’s mom calls from the kitchen.

“Sweetie, it’s time to leave for school! Your sister and I will wait for you in the car,” she says.

All throughout the drive to school, Ellie is unable to think about anything but her worry over the upcoming test, the coffee in her system exacerbating her anxiety. When consumed, caffeine increases a person’s stress levels by causing them to produce more cortisol.

Even the conversations between Ellie’s mom and her sister that she usually would have joined in on now seem distant and insignificant in comparison to her looming worries over a test she doesn’t feel prepared for. 

As she sits down at her desk, Ellie can feel her anxiety starting to spike. When the test papers are handed out, Ellie quickly begins to scan over the questions. It suddenly feels as though the temperature of the room has dropped fifty degrees. As Ellie moves to begin filling in answers, she finds that her hands are shaky and her mind is racing.

A few hours later, Ellie is sitting at her usual lunch spot in the student union, holding her lunch that she had just picked up from the cafeteria. Normally, lunch is one of Ellie’s favorite times of day, as it’s a chance to chat with her friends and alleviate some of the stress that builds up throughout the school day. However, staring down at her lunch, Ellie suddenly finds that she isn’t hungry. The coffee remaining in her system from this morning along with the stress from her earlier exam work to suppress her appetite. Beyond that, Ellie is also struck with an overwhelming sense of sleepiness. She rests her head in her arms and closes her eyes in an attempt to fall asleep.

Her hope of falling asleep is thwarted by the ring of the bell signaling the end of lunch. Ellie lifts her head up with a sigh, giving up on the prospect of getting some more rest before her next class and she begins dragging herself to her next class. Since it’s the last class for the day, she resolves to head home and get some more sleep afterward.

Despite this, when Ellie gets home and attempts once again to fall asleep, she finds that the result is the same. No matter how she twists and turns and tries to get comfortable, she remains restless and unable to fall asleep. 

After what feels like an hour of trying different techniques to fall asleep, from meditation to laying completely still for as long as possible, Ellie gets up, impatient, tired, and thoroughly frustrated.

Giving up on falling asleep, she decided to start on homework and simply sleep earlier tonight instead. She just needed one more cup of coffee to get started. Walking once again towards the coffee siphon, she hardly notes her sister standing there in the kitchen, eyeing her critically. 

“I’m telling you if you keep drinking so much coffee every day, your sleep schedule is going to get ruined. What’s that, like your tenth cup this week?”

Agitated, Ellie bites back with, “My sleep schedule is just fine! Mind your own business. If all you’re gonna do is criticize me, why don’t you keep it to yourself!”

The judgemental look on her sister’s face is quickly replaced with one of surprise but also sadness.

“Fine,” she says quietly, before hurrying away to her own room.

Ellie is suddenly struck by how uncharacteristically harsh her own outburst was. What was she doing, didn’t she know better than this?

Heading to her bedroom mirror, she stands in front of her reflection but finds it almost unrecognizable. The eyes that stare back at her have bags under them, and Ellie swears she doesn’t remember her face being that pale. Disheveled curls flow down her shoulders. Her reflection looks almost zombie-like, and she wonders how she got through the day without anyone commenting on it. This wasn’t like her at all— staying up to 4 a.m., yelling at her sister, barely pulling herself through a simple day of school.

Ellie stands up, walks back towards the kitchen, and pours her newly-brewed cup of coffee down the sink.

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