I love coffee. I can’t hide it. My daily obsession started back in college: staying up late, hammering out English papers up against pressing deadlines, trying to keep my eyes open as I studied for exams. For the longest time I hated the smell of it. Growing up I never understood my grandmother’s fondness for Folgers every morning and iced mocha drinks at Starbucks and the Border’s café.
It was an acquired taste, something that developed later on, purely out of against-the-clock desperation as semesters wound down and my classwork schedule was crammed into a few frenzied nights dictated by midterms and final exams. I started out drinking it with a few pinches of sugar, just to fight that dark roasted taste (creamer never appealed to me). Eventually I just started taking it black, straight up, no additives or extras—just a mug and a refill. Taste acquired. Every single morning of every single day. I can’t handle mornings without it.
There are worse addictions, I’m sure. On a recent trip to Arizona to visit my parents, my father tried to slip me some minor league vanilla roasted decaf; my head had cramps all day. We stopped at the nearest grocery store and procured an emergency medium roast. At this point, a morning without coffee is like a shower without hot water. Missing out—or for some unexpected reason skipping—a morning cup of Joe has the power to completely obliterate any sense of routine normalcy. And knowing this, I started to wonder recently, is my caffeine addiction unhealthy? Should I try to cut back? My father always said, in regards to food and diet, that moderation is key. The only vague rule that I’ve set for myself, when it comes to consuming coffee, is that I don’t ever drink it in the evening, no matter how heavy my eyelids feel after a long day. But I’ve started to wonder more and more, as my caffeine cravings have continued, is drinking this much coffee healthy? And is it actually helping me wake up? (It can’t hurt, given that I have never been much of a morning person).
First, the positives: according to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, those who drink at least four cups of coffee every day are ten percent less likely to suffer from depression, and interestingly, this has nothing to do with the presence of caffeine (remember that drinking a Coke or iced tea can jolt you with caffeine, but there’s a connection between Coke and depression). The biggest reason that coffee can help fight the blues: unlike soda, coffee is loaded with antioxidants. In fact, a study in 2005 showed that Americans get more antioxidants from coffee than from any other type of food or beverage. Other studies show that drinking coffee regularly can reduce the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes and for women, drinking three or more cups a day can help reduce the chances of getting skin cancer. Maybe one of the biggest benefits, as far as I’m concerned (and maybe this is why I always feel so relaxed in bookstores), is that just the smell alone of coffee can decrease stress levels. Researchers from Seoul National University discovered that lab rats exposed to coffee aromas underwent changes in brain proteins linked to stress. (This study is focused on stress that stems only from sleep deprivation, so even though I rarely catch eight hours of sleep on a given night, I think it might be counterproductive to keep a Keurig machine on the nightstand by my bed.) Again, the key is moderation: ten cups of coffee—ten cups of anything—qualifies as overkill, and probably nullifies all of the health benefits mentioned above.
But as we all know, there’s two sides to every story, and even after considering all of the myriad health benefits mentioned above, I assumed that there had to be some negatives to a seven day a week coffee regimen. After all, I’ve never in my life heard someone say, “Hey, caffeine is really good for you.”
Many working people, myself included, claim that their brain doesn’t start working in the morning until they’ve had a cup of coffee (though it’s highly debatable whether or not my brain works at all, pre or post-coffee). But researchers have claimed that the inspiring and stimulating effect that caffeine is famous for may all be an illusion. It’s true that those who drink coffee regularly may feel more alert and awake after their first cup of the day, however, this is likely due to a reversal of the fatiguing effects of overnight caffeine withdrawal. Bristol University researchers conducted a study of 379 people who abstained from caffeine for up to 16 hours before drinking either caffeine or a placebo (a dummy drink), and were tested for their responses afterward, with little variance in levels of alertness among the volunteers. The study concluded that coffee drinkers might actually be better off without their habitual morning cup as it raises the risk of anxiety, contributes to high blood pressure, and can prematurely age your brain because it dehydrates and reduces blood flow. Sure, sure, I’ll admit it: I’ve had days where I’ve chugged too much too fast and by high noon noticed my hands and fingers jittering as if I’m trying to remember the beat to an old pop song. Why does everything that tastes so good also have to have unhealthy side effects?
It’s somewhat shocking, at least to me, that roughly 85% of Americans admit to drinking coffee on a daily basis, easily making it the most popular drug in America. An Australian study published in Personality and Individual Differences, found that drinking five or more cups of coffee may increase the risk of auditory hallucinations. The studies also posited that any form of caffeine can worsen the effects of stress by skyrocketing the amount of cortisol your body releases when under duress. Cortisol is a steroidal hormone that is released in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentration, and functions to increase blood sugar, which suppresses the immune system and aids in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Other general side effects of high caffeine consumption: irritated stomach, headaches, anxiety, and sleep disruption. On the positive side, caffeine is not stored in the body, so its effects are never permanent, though the effects of caffeine can last up to two or three hours.
Are there alternative ways for waking up in the morning without some fresh-brewed java? Some studies suggest exercising, solving crossword puzzles or Sudoku, waking up on schedule every day (seven days a week), avoiding carbs at breakfast and instead sticking to eggs, vegetables, and fruits that will help avoid a crash later on in the day. Some columns even suggest ending morning showers with cold water!
Yeah…that’s not going to happen. Not for me, anyway. I think for most of us, at least those who comprise the 85% majority of the coffee-swilling public, the best option, both for our daily cravings and for the much-needed morning jolt, is as simple as this: don’t over do it. Some coffee drinkers have higher tolerances than others—thankfully, as of the writing of this article, I still think that I fall somewhere in the middle. It’s obviously not a good sign that I get headaches when I don’t get some small dose of Folgers in the morning, but as long as I can manage to sleep at night, I think the status quo is manageable. Still, as with any food or diet habit, the key is moderation. Always, always, always. Or so I tell myself this when I start to get drowsy at around four in the afternoon, and can smell the scorched aroma calling to me from the brewer still faintly dripping by the office refrigerator.
By Collin Myers