Caffeine and your brain: It’s complicated

I routinely get asked so many questions about coffee—or, more specifically, caffeine. Can I drink it? Should I drink it? Is it good for me?  

Of course, I have written about the health benefits of caffeine here before. But today’s conversation is going to be a little bit different. Because new research from the University of Basel shows that regular caffeine intake may change your brain’s gray matter—albeit temporarily.  

So let’s take a closer look at what this study found… 

This is your brain on caffeine 

Your gray matter is the part of your brain made mostly of cell bodies, while your white matter is made up of neural pathways. In other words, your brain’s white matter sends the information, while your gray matter processes it.  

We already know that sleep deprivation can have an effect on gray matter. And that caffeine can interfere with sleep. So these researchers set out to see how regular caffeine consumption might affect gray matter, too. 

This was a small study, looking at just 20 healthy, young people who were regular caffeine drinkers. But the researchers used caffeine tablets to standardize the dose. Subjects took the tablets for ten days, and then they took a placebo for another ten days.  

At the end of both ten-day stretches, the researchers looked at gray matter volume via brain scans. They also looked at sleep quality by monitoring brain activity in a sleep lab.   

As it turns out, sleep quality didn’t change with caffeine. (Not too surprising since, as I mentioned above, the participants were all regular caffeine drinkers already.) But there was a noticeable difference in gray matter.  

Specifically, the subjects had much higher gray matter volumes when they weren’t consuming caffeine than they did when they were. And this difference was particularly pronounced in the areas of the brain related to memory. 

Don’t give up coffee yet   

The study’s authors didn’t conclude that caffeine was bad for your brain. But clearly, it does have some negative impact—especially in storing memories.   

The good news is that—in these young, healthy people, at least—the reduced gray matter regenerated. But we need future studies on caffeine in general to determine if the same can be said for everyone.  

Especially because this latest finding runs counter to some other research I’ve shared with you here before. (Including one study, which showed that dark roast coffee delivers powerful protection against age-related cognitive decline.)  

Needless to say, I’m not prepared to write off coffee (or tea) just yet. But if you’ll excuse the pun, there’s a lot of gray area where this topic is concerned. So I’ll continue to report the facts right here in my Reality Health Check and in my monthly Logical Health Alternatives newsletter for my patients and readers who enjoy their cup of joe every morning.  

In the meantime, drink up. Just hold the milk and sugar, if you can. Or try a little natural sweetener (like Stevia) and some almond milk, instead. 


“Regular Caffeine Consumption Tied to Reduced Brain Volume, but Don’t Lose Sleep Over It.” Medscape Medical News, 03/03/2021. (