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Should you quit drinking coffee

Updated on March 29, 2010

For some, just reading that title equates to blasphemy. So many of us need our morning (or afternoon, or evening....) cup(s) of joe that we can't imagine a day without it. Given the ubiquity of coffee and other caffeinated beverages in our lives, we, unsurprisingly, do not stop to question the lasting effect they may have on our bodies. In her recent QCon lecture, Linda Rising, a Ph.D. from Arizona State University, educates us on the history of and research related to caffeine. She seeks not to influence, but merely to inform and challenge us to increase our awareness of this addictive drug. Below, I will attempt to summarize some of her key points.

Cafffeine and history

Instead of dragging the audience through the long history of coffee, Rising seasons the lecture by dropping juicy historical morsels, helping to provide a better context for the subject matter. For example, she points out that humans have known about caffeine since the Stone Age, chewing on different types of plants to extract it. She then leads into an interesting story of the French novelist Honore de Balzac who represents the classic addict. He wrote of needing more and more powerful doses of caffeine, eventually resorting to eating dried coffee grounds. And, following the classic story of an addicit, he lived a somewhat short life. Yes, as it turns out, you can drink enough caffeine to kill you.

Caffeine and sleep

Ah, sleep. The most important part of our lives...and also the many of us neglect. Despite her claim of not wanting to influence our opinions, Rising clearly feels passionately about people getting enough sleep. She starts by pointing out that our sleep rhythms used to follow the seasons and the sun. But now, they usually follow a schedule, typically tied to a job. And, people use caffeine as a tool to try to meet these ever demanding schedules. However, this tool acts as a doubled edged sword because it blocks the effect of adenosine, one of the body's natural sleeping pills. This creates a vicious cycle: caffeine allows you to stay up late, not getting enough sleep which then forces you to drink coffee the following morning to keep alert. All the while, your body gets deinied the crucial time of regeneration and cleansing that only a proper amount of sleep provides. So, it should come as no surprise when studies find signs of premature brain aging in young adults.

Caffeine and wok

The potentcy of caffeine stems from its ability to easily cross the blood brain barrier. You can reach peak concentration roughly one hour after drinking a cup of coffee. This makes it the "pick me up" of choice for those running the full-time job rat race. However, caffeine affects everyone differently and not always positively. Rising makes several points related to this:

  1. In most people, caffeine primarily improves only vigilance tasks: prolonged, repeative actions with little physical activity, like in a factory. It provides alertness, not productivity. However, studies have shown that taking frequent breaks combined with getting the correct amounts of sleep work even better for both alertness AND cognitive ability.
  2. On more complex tasks, extrovert's performance tends to improve with caffeine while introverts performance diminishes.
  3. NASA did an experiment involving the affect various drugs have on how spiders weave webs. While most of the webs have some sort of architecture (even the spider on marijuana), the caffeinated spider spun something completely unrecognizable. If it has that affect on a spider, imagine what it could do to something infinitely more complex and sensitive, like the human brain?

So, it should come as no surprise that the NCAA restricts caffeine usage and NASA forces their astrounauts into a period of rest and "cycle adjustment" before a flight (probably meaning, they get back to a more natural, caffeine-free sleeping schedule.)

Caffeine and children

During the lecture, Rising tells a disturbing story of a woman whom fills a baby's bottle with Pepsi. What makes this so disturbing is that babies cannot fully metabolise caffeine until well past the age of one. Still, mothers today remain so caffeinated that most babies contain caffeine in their bodies when born. Who knows what type of damage this could do to a still developing child?

Of course, corporations do not target babies for their highly caffeinated drinks, but young kids and teenagers. From energy drinks like Red Bull, whose classification allows it to dodge FDA regulation, to caffeine overloads like Fixx, corporate R&D and marketing departments constantly vie for the next shiny new caffeinated product that will ensnare a new generation of kids. Not since Coca Cola's invention of Santa Claus to circumvent the restriction of marketing their drinks to children have corporations so shamelessly pursued children without even warning them the potential dangers to what they drink. And finally, due to the current health craze, thinking to get the caffeine without the calories, more young people drink productions like Diet Coke which contain deadly "fake sugars" such as aspartame, increasing their risk of triggering a debilitating disease.

To caffeinate or not to caffeinate?

Despite my consistenly negative tone, I haven't completely written off coffee or by extension, caffeine. Like using credit cards to manage money in a pinch, I find rare, targeted use of caffeine totally acceptable. Just realize that you will pay a heavy price for breaking your hardwired cicadian rhythms. And, always keep in mind that the best thing you can do for health and productivity is simply getting a good nights sleep.

If you need help quitting coffee or to stop drinking caffeinated drinks in general, read Steve Pavlina's post: How to give up coffee.


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