People all over the world love to drink a cup of coffee at least once a day and more specifically, in the morning, to receive the energy boost necessary to begin their daily activities. However, if you ask a college student, he or she will certainly tell you that they consume heavy quantities during midterms and exams. I mean, who wouldn't?
Coffee will keep you alert and focused during lonely nights when you are trying to cram weeks of notes and content into two or three nights.
Although coffee is a great source in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, such as phenols and acids, the true star is caffeine. Caffeine has many benefits regarding your nervous system and may actually improve your test performance in different ways.
If that is so, should I drink coffee before an exam? Let's show you all the benefits that coffee, particularly caffeine, has on your brain and how it can improve your exam results.
Caffeine and Its Effect on your Nervous System
Caffeine is a stimulant drug that affects your nervous system by counteracting the effects of a chemical called adenosine. Chemically speaking, adenosine is a neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in your sleep and wake cycle, while also modulates the release of other compounds, such as dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate.
In relation to your sleep cycle, your brain cells or neurons are constantly active because they receive information in the form of electrical impulses so it can be analyzed by specific areas in your brain. Because of this, you are kept awake and focused during the day.
However, when adenosine is produced and attaches to your brain cells, they enter in a "relaxed" state, where it reduces their activity and metabolism. This is what induces drowsiness and regulates your sleep since your brain is more inactive.
Keep in mind that these changes are necessary so your body's metabolism can sustain and revitalize all of your vital organs, including your brain, during sleeping hours.
Therefore, when you drink coffee, caffeine attaches to your brain cells and blocks adenosine from binding to them. Caffeine does not exactly produce a direct effect; it simply allows your brain cells to continue functioning as normal, which keeps you awake and focused on the activities you are doing.
According to a study published by the National Institute of Health (NHI), caffeine has the potential to increase alertness and attention in patients that have a regular coffee intake. The patients consumed approximately 150 mg of caffeine (about one 8-ounce cup of coffee) before they did a cognitive test to evaluate their performance.
Those who drank coffee had a faster reaction time, better results, and were able to focus better on the exam than those who did not consume coffee.
Caffeine and Memory Performance
Additionally, when caffeine interferes with adenosine, it allows dopamine, another neurotransmitter, to exert its effect on your nervous system.
Dopamine is also known as the "pleasure" hormone because it provides a feel-good sensation and a feeling of happiness. This is why most people feel ecstatic when they drink coffee. However, this effect is also linked to better memory retention.
Studies have shown that information and events are more easily stored in your long-term memory when they have an emotional impact or aspect to them. This is because an area of your brain (the limbic system) creates more connections to this data and is able to retain it better, which favors memory consolidation.
Since dopamine is indirectly released when you consume coffee, you are attaching pleasurable feelings to the content you are studying and/or the situation. Therefore, it will be easier to retain all the information you need for the exam and be in a more comfortable state before you do your test.
Because of this, coffee has been viewed as a neuroprotective factor against neurodegenerative illnesses, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. Research has shown coffee increases memory performance in young adults (college students and workers) at an intake below 300 mg of caffeine before the evaluation.
Many scientists are investigating the probable effect of coffee in improving cognitive performance, such as motor skills, math calculations, reaction time, symbol interpretation, from both a visual and writing aspect. They are still unable to determine the exact mechanisms by which caffeine is able to improve these activities. Some research links the improvement of cognitive function and mood to a temporary release of serotonin when drinking coffee.
Serotonin is another chemical that plays a role in emotional behavior and motivation. When your body releases serotonin, it gives your body motivation and confidence when you do all of your tasks, while also improving your mood. This is why low serotonin levels cause people to feel depressed and lack confidence. Therefore, studies do show promising evidence that your cognitive performance does enhance when you consume coffee.
A study done in 2018 evaluated the effects of caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee on cognitive performance. The final results revealed that caffeinated coffee provided a slight improvement in cognitive when compared to decaffeinated coffee.
A Cup of Coffee Before a Test?
Now that you know all the effects that caffeine can produce to improve your performance before a test, it is crucial to understand certain key points. Experts and scientists do not recommend consuming coffee on an empty stomach because it can lead to heartburn, stomach pain, and other digestive symptoms.
Therefore, it is best to consume it after you have a well-balanced meal or accompany another food element, like a pastry. Additionally, nutritionists still recommend maintaining your daily coffee consumption below 400 mg of caffeine to reduce coffee dependency and to receive the other health benefits coffee has on your immune system, heart, and metabolism.
If you want to drink a cup of coffee before an exam, it is best to drink approximately 30 minutes or 1 hour before the exam because around this time period, the caffeine has reached its peak level. This way, you can further enhance the effects it will produce on your body. Just remember to drink in moderation to boost your test scores.