Do you know the world’s most actively used psychoactive drug? It’s caffeine. Coffee is a savior to many because of caffeine, its primary active ingredient. But did you know that there is a right and a wrong way to consume caffeine?

How Does Caffeine Work?

One of the mechanisms the brain uses to modulate drowsiness is through molecules of adenosine, which bind to receptors in the brain. Adenosine concentrations rise as you consume ATP, so it makes sense that you feel tired later on in the day. More adenosine bound to receptors translates to more drowsiness. Caffeine comes in and competes for these receptors, called competitive inhibition. If caffeine is in the receptor, adenosine cannot bind and therefore the drowsiness-inducing effects are reduced.

Caffeine, like most drugs, is subject to the effects of tolerance. Caffeine acts on many more receptors than just the adenosine receptors. When you repeatedly use caffeine on a regular basis, the body upregulates or downregulates the various  receptors to maintain homeostasis. Meaning, the body generally doesn’t like drugs or chemicals changing things, even if you enjoy those changes, and it tries to maintain a constant balance. That’s why when you use caffeine daily for several weeks or months, you will notice it no longer takes 1 cup to get you going, but now 2, and then three, and if you miss a cup you now get a headache.

Caffeine also stimulates serotonin production, a neurotransmitter which regulates mood, anger, and aggression. Therefore caffeine withdrawal can lead to irritability, anxiety, and concentration difficulties.

How to Properly Use Caffeine

There are two general ways of consuming caffeine that I will recommend.

The first is to only use caffeine occasionally. This prevents caffeine tolerance from developing in the first place. I only use caffeine in situations where I truly need it, which is quite infrequent.

The second is for people who drink coffee daily; you should cycle your caffeine.

What is Caffeine Cycling?

“Cycling” caffeine means taking a brief period of stopping or tapering caffeine consumption to reduce tolerance. If you drink coffee or take caffeine tablets on a daily basis, then taking periodic breaks to recalibrate your brain receptors may benefit you. Giving your body a break from the drug allows the receptor changes in the brain to reset to their normal level.

So who should cycle their caffeine intake? Most students typically use caffeine for increased focus, but it is also commonly used for appetite suppression. Cycling is great for these purposes. However, if you use caffeine primarily to enhance performance during endurance exercise or for potential benefits such as Parkinson’s or Type II Diabetes risk reduction, then cycling may not benefit you.

How to Cycle Caffeine

The only way to undo tolerance is to cut back on your caffeine consumption for a period of time. There are two ways of going about this: first, quit cold turkey for a period of time. Second, slowly taper off. Going cold turkey will likely be more difficult but may reset your caffeine tolerance in a shorter period of time. Tapering would look something like reducing your intake by half for a few days, then half of that for a few days, and so on.

When you start using caffeine again, don’t jump back to the increased levels you were using before you quit. Start slow. As you slowly ramp up your caffeine intake, the smaller doses will pack a punch in a way they didn’t before.

I cannot give you an exact schedule on how frequently to cycle your caffeine or for how long. Studies (“Caffeine Intake, Tolerance, and Withdrawal in Women: A Population-Based Twin Study”) have shown that genetic factors play a large role in one’s tolerance and withdrawal.

A good starting point for your cycles is to go 1-2 weeks without caffeine consumption to reset your tolerance. As for how often to perform a full cycle, that will depend on your coffee-drinking habits, tolerance, and other factors.