Blood flow normally increases in response to exercise, and the results indicate that caffeine reduces the body's ability to boost blood flow to the muscle of the heart on demand. The ratio of exercise blood flow to resting blood flow, called the myocardial flow reserve, was 22 percent lower in the group at normal air pressure after ingesting caffeine and 39 percent lower in the group in the high-altitude chamber. Dr. Kaufmann said that caffeine may block certain receptors in the walls of blood vessels, interfering with the normal process by which adenosine signals blood vessels to dilate in response to the demands of physical activity.
"Although these findings seem not to have a clinical importance in healthy volunteers, they may raise safety questions in patients with reduced coronary flow reserve, as seen in coronary artery disease, particularly before physical exercise and at high-altitude exposure," the researchers wrote.
Although caffeine is a stimulant, these results also indicate that coffee may not necessarily boost athletic performance.
"We now have good evidence that, at the level of myocardial blood flow, caffeine is not a useful stimulant. It may be a stimulant at the cerebral level in terms of being more awake and alert, which may subjectively give the feeling of having better physical performance. But I now would not recommend that any athlete drink caffeine before sports. It may not be a physical stimulant, and may even adversely affect physical performance," Dr. Kaufmann said. "It may not be as harmless as we thought before, particularly if you suffer from coronary artery disease or if you are in the mountains."
Dr. Kaufmann noted that this study was not designed to measure athletic performance.
Although the participants were all healthy, Dr. Kaufmann said that the results raise concerns about possible effects of caffeine in people with heart disease.