Coffee: the good, bad, and the treacherous

Coffee: the good, bad, and the treacherous
Whatever the task, coffee comes first!

Ah, coffee, the burnt umber nectar. It makes everything better. Actually, it does make quite a few things better, and it is a darn sight better than caffeine tablets or the dreaded energy drinks that peaked in popularity during the last twenty years. In the history of people who have taken it upon themselves to experiment with the biological effects of various plants and other materials on themselves, we should keep a special place in our hearts as we stagger blearily towards the jar of instant coffee for whichever brave soul first decided to roast fermented red beans they found growing in the rainforest before making a tea from it that, as far as they knew, might have killed them. ‘Tis how humanity makes progress.

Disclaimer: This post does not comprise medical advice. It is written for entertainment purposes, so badly that it should it be taken particularly seriously (or possibly not read) by anyone. If you are worried about your caffeine consumption or any other health issue, please consult a healthcare professional.

The dark side of coffee

Caffeine: the main stimulant present in tea and coffee.

(Original by ScardinalNY11, reproduced under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license from Wikimedia Commons.)

Coffee contains quite a lot of caffeine: a bitter alkaloid stimulant, caffeine is a less potent relative of nicotine and acts in the same way. Caffeine increases wakefulness by impairing the mechanisms that cause people to relax and feel naturally sleepy but can do nothing to revive your creativity or executive decision-making ability that is so important for the skilful completion of coursework or other complex tasks. So caffeine might keep you awake to finish your assignments, but if you are too tired to think clearly, no volume of energy drink can help you. Life’s mean like that: it tends not to let you get away with something for nothing.

Caffeine dependency and withdrawal

Particularly in anxious people, caffeine can lead to ‘jitters’: hyperarousal and anxiety that can further impair the ability to clearly focus, although habitual caffeine intake reduces the severity of its impact. Caffeine consumption within 9-10 hours of when you plan to fall asleep will keep most people awake, although in cases of extreme caffeine dependency, drinking a strong coffee may be necessary to meet the body’s caffeine intake needs and allow the body to sleep. Best to avoid getting to that point, though, eh? You really do need to drink a lot of coffee to end up in that kind of a mess. My friends and I can testify from bitter, swirling, hot, brown, tasty experience… *slurp!* (ah! that’s better).

As with anything you might be addicted to, take one former(?) caffeine addict’s advice and ease yourself off gradually over several weeks. Stopping suddenly from a very high intake level will just make you feel horrible, even if not usually dangerous. Wean yourself off caffeine over a few weeks. |Take it from me that your body will thank you for giving it time to notice and adjust, and you won’t find yourself unable to sleep because your body is desperately awaiting its next caffeine fix.

Putting coffee drinking in its historical context

Coffee has been repeatedly associated with freedom and dissension. Following the Boston Tea Party, Americans began to rise up and reject English taxation without voting rights and started drinking coffee as a sign of freedom from the Old World. Naturally, whatever America did, Europe had gotten there first. Coffee houses were being banned left, right and centre at different times as rulers began to fear the political rebellions fermenting within them. At least we have managed to salvage political dissent over coffee as a pastime. We even have fairly traded coffee products now, which means you can taste sustainably farmed coffee free from the taint of burning rainforests and the tears of exploited farmers. Fairtrade is even good for the coffee industry, investing sufficient money back into the production of coffee to prevent the entire industry from imploding, which was otherwise an increasingly serious risk.

But I like coffee!

Good news, everybody! Studies have looked into the possibility that caffeinated drinks might be good for you. Caffeine itself appears to be pretty much an unmitigated evil, keeping you awake and alert at the cost of relaxation and creative focus. Black and green teas and coffee are real witch’s brews of chemicals and the mixture of polyphenols and other antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds and minerals present appear to be rather good for you, offsetting any deleterious effects. Drinking 3-5 cups (cups mind, not pint-sized mugs!) of tea or coffee appears to be associated with a reduced risk of developing liver disease, colorectal and skin cancers, multiple sclerosis, gout, depression, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease as well as cultivating a more beneficial gut flora balance. Not bad for a cup of char, eh?

Oh goody, let’s have lots!

Not so fast. If you have one of several serious medical conditions, are not yet an adult, or think you might be pregnant, you should avoid caffeine. For the rest of us, four cups (not pint-sized mugs!) of coffee or (fairly strong) tea is currently thought to be a healthy intake. This amount is reckoned to supply enough of all the good things in these drinks for you benefit from them, particularly if you drink them with skimmed milk or a vegan milk substitute to boost your vitamin D intake, without getting so much caffeine that it will push up your blood pressure and stress you out.

Mind, that assumes you are not imbibing energy drinks and cola all the rest of the day. Just two energy drinks contain the same amount of caffeine as about 4-5 cups of coffee and frequently come replete with a huge amount of sugar but none of the health benefits associated with tea and coffee.

References

Klemm, S. (2020, September 29). Benefits of coffee. Eat right. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/preventing-illness/benefits-of-coffee

Mayo Clinic. (2020, March 6). Caffeine: How much is too much? Healthy lifestyle: Nutrition and healthy eating. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20045678

National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d.). PubChem compound summary for CID 2519: Caffeine.
https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Caffeine.

National Health Service. (n.d.). Foods to avoid in pregnancy. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/foods-to-avoid-pregnant.aspx/close

National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Caffeine. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/caffeine.html

Rotondi, J. P. (2020, February 11). How coffee fueled revolutions — and revolutionary ideas. History stories. https://www.history.com/news/coffee-houses-revolutions

Sajadi-Ernazarova, K. R., Anderson, J., Dhakal, A., & Hamilton, R. J. (2021). Caffeine withdrawal. In StatPearls Publishing (Ed.), Treasure island. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430790/

ScardinalNY11. (2020, April 15). File:Caffeine Structure.svg. Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caffeine_Structure.svg

WebMD. (n.d.). Caffeine: Uses, side effects, and more. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-979/caffeine

What is caffeine, and is it good or bad for health? (n.d.). Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-caffeine

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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