the Gauntlet

Counting beans

The psychology, chemistry and sociology of coffee

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And so it begins...

The first cup of coffee I ever had was late in my elementary school years in a grocery store near my house. I was with a friend and his mom buying supplies for a trip to his cabin when we strapping young lads decided that it would be a good idea to partake of the free coffee that was set up to the right of the doors, near the bakery. It was a nasty affair, loaded with sugar and cream and it thoroughly ruined my interest in coffee for years.

My second experience with the ebony liquid was in high school. At the time it seemed like a good way to get the extra motivation to ask a girl out. It never worked and I just wound-up a jittering mess. Back then, coffee made me quite hyperactive, causing certain friends to say that they didn't like me when I drank coffee. I was drinking maybe one cup a day.

By the time I was in my first year at the University of Calgary, I was drinking somewhere between four and eight cups a day. Large cups, that is, not the kind marked on the measuring cup (a cup of coffee is actually 8 oz., a large cup is usually 20 oz.). Coffee no longer made me jittery and I needed it to be able to function. For nearly four years, I continued drinking coffee at this rate. I drank a full pot at home before going to work or school and then buy a few more throughout the day.

I tried to quit once. I was becoming increasingly concerned about the effects coffee might be having on my ability to (not) grow a beard and so, decided to quit drinking it on a Sat. By the following day I was so irritable that, while at a staff meeting, my boss asked a co-worker to go and buy me a coffee. And so, a relapse.

The need for me to make another attempt at quitting coffee grew steadily more apparent through this past fall semester and into the winter. Coffee had almost totally lost its effects on me and even made me sleepy when I drank it. I went through entire days drinking cup after cup of coffee and still was exhausted. Even directly after drinking a coffee, I wouldn't get any noticeable lift in energy and then crash only a few minutes later. Constantly purchasing cups of coffee was also adding up. At two dollars a fix, my daily expenditures were between six and eight dollars. Added to this, the cost of beans for consumption at home was around $84 per month.

I stopped drinking coffee.

The physiology of my whipping master

U of C assistant professor in psychology and medicine and sleep expert Dr. Michael Antle explained how coffee works. The body's energy comes through burning adenosine triphosphate. During the process, the phosphate is removed from the molecule and only the adenosine is left.

"The brain has evolved to use adenosine as a signal for when it's time to rest," said Antle. "Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, so it blocks that message that makes you tired. It's a way of bypassing that signal or increasing your arousal when you are tired, much the same way as people take Red Bull to revitalize the mind briefly when [they're] tired."

The effect

Coffee promotes alertness in the body and the mind. At higher doses, though, it may result in agitation. At really high doses, it can have a negative impact upon an individual's sleep, with all the decreased efficiency and increased propensity for accidents. There are some other, perhaps less common, side-effects that are worth considering.

Antle noted that continual use of caffeine over a period of time can result in habituation. As with most drugs, the body develops a tolerance to caffeine and it takes more and more to produce the same effect in the individual. Caffeine also shares with other drugs the nasty tendency to cause withdrawal symptoms in chronic users. Typical withdrawal symptoms may include headaches, nausea and irritability. These aren't the most pleasant symptoms to deal with, but as Antle was quick to point out, they aren't too bad compared to other substances.

"The side-effects of it aren't that great," said Antle. "People don't tend to check themselves into rehab to get off of their coffee."

My own experience quitting coffee was unpleasant, but not dangerously so. My first day without coffee began at 6:45 a.m. It took just over four hours for the headaches to set in, but once there, they lingered for the rest of the day. Caffeine restricts the blood flow to the brain, which can provide headache relief, especially for migraine-sufferers. In retribution, perhaps, the opposite is true when going off of it. I was more prepared for the effects this time around, so I didn't become too irritable (or so I think). But I was simply unable to wake myself up. On my second day off coffee, I woke up feeling great, but within twenty minutes plunged into an exhaustion I was unable shake. I felt like this lasted for many days, up to a week and a half, or so.

Antle suggested that caffeine should clear the body fairly quickly and it became apparent that it might be all in my head. As he pointed out, it is not just a physical addiction-everything is experienced by your brain, so all physical experiences include a psychological component.

"There are learned aspects to the cup of coffee," said Antle. "It has lots of little ritualistic behaviours that are just like a lot of the other drug addiction things. Heroin addicts have some learned behaviours associated with preparing the needles, preparing the drugs and getting ready for the injection. You could see the same sort of thing with people who are going through the morning routine with their coffee and preparing them, [putting] the sugar or the milk and those sorts of things in."

Ritualistic behaviour can be strong enough to kill. If a heroin addict has consistently injected in one location, the body will learn to recognize the situation and behaviour that indicates a dose is coming, and will prepare the system for it. If the location or behaviour is changed, the body may not recognize that an injection is about to be administered and the individual can overdose from an amount of the drug that their system could usually handle.

It is these learned responses that made me sleepy when drinking coffee. When an individual is habituated to caffeine, the body prepares for the intake of the chemical when it knows that it is coming. Just before drinking a coffee, my body would offer up the counteracting response and I would get tired. Then I would drink the coffee, which would bring me back to a more normal level. This would be followed by a crash and a return to fatigue.

Coffee and sleep

It takes roughly three hours for the body to clear the caffeine from one cup of coffee, so consuming it too close to bedtime can impact an individual's sleep. Similar problems may occur from over-use, as it will take a long time to clear eight cups of coffee, even if they were all consumed in the morning. This may impact the restorative portion of sleep. Antle noted that it is during the first four hours of the night that people are in slow, delta wave sleep, which is the time when things in the body and brain are repaired.

Individuals should get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Research shows that not only will less sleep negatively impact a person, but so will getting more (possibly because people sleeping all the time aren't getting enough exercise). Despite this, Antle remarked that North Americans are consistently sleep deprived and that coffee may be a good way to counteract the problem, especially for those working in monotonous, repetitive jobs that require concentration.

Antle drinks coffee.

Coffee is a dirty drink-with benefits

The most obvious benefits of consuming coffee are its increased level of alertness and concentration. Beyond this, though, there are other positive effects. U of C master's of science student Jasmine Tunnicliffe pointed out that caffeine isn't the only thing found in coffee. She is currently studying the other properties of the popular drink in the faculty of kinesiology.

"Coffee is actually one of our biggest sources of anti-oxidants," said Tunnicliffe. "I'm looking at one specific type of anti-oxidant in coffee. It's called chlorogenic acid. Basically, you'd have to eat at least 12 apples to get the same amount of this type of anti-oxidant as found in one cup of coffee. There are also small amounts of vitamin E, niacin, magnesium and potassium. Then there's tiny amounts of protein, tiny amounts of carbohydrates and tiny amounts of fibre. Those probably aren't that significant. But there is a lot of stuff in coffee and a lot of it is just starting to be looked at now."

Anti-oxidants-which fight free radicals-are known to combat many types of disease, including cardio-vascular disease, type II diabetes and Parkinson's. These are all positive features, but because it comes along with the caffeine, it is difficult to say whether coffee should be recommended or not. Tunnicliffe suggested that it might be best to drink decaf at this point.

Contrary to popular belief, caffeine does not aid in weight loss. Tunnicliffe pointed to a study that took place over a period of 12 years and found that individuals drinking a lot of coffee had only lost on average one pound.

Tunnicliffe drinks coffee.

Coffee and friends: the socialization of the bean

"Everything about coffee is social, from its cultivation to its consumption," said U of C sociology professor Dr. John Manzo.

Coffee is the most widely-used drug in the world, outstripping even tobacco and alcohol. In recent years there has been an explosion of coffee houses all around North America, including here in Calgary. Manzo, who is currently researching the role that coffee houses play as a third place to relax apart from work or home, suggests that much of this has to do with the opportunity provided by coffee houses to people who don't drink alcohol. He noted that there are four different coffee houses in Calgary that, because their well-trained baristas utilize quality beans and equipment to produce their product, are acceptable for coffee aficionados: Caff� Artigiano, Kawa espresso bar, Bumpy's and Phil & Sebastian.

"The cool thing about these places is that they are all packed," said Manzo. "People are increasingly attracted not only to the third place coffee experience, but also to really good coffee."

Manzo noted that these coffee houses are providing customers with the ability to shed the common stereotype of the individual only connected to others through Facebook and MySpace and engage in some old-fashioned socialization. For the university student, socialization takes a back seat as coffee is often consumed purely for the physical effects that aid studying after sleepless nights. It is merely a way of acquiring the energy necessary to push through a long day laden with work.

"The role that coffee plays for most students is the role it played when I was in university," said Manzo. "It keeps you awake."

It was in the early '90s, when coffee houses appeared everywhere, that coffee became a status symbol, Manzo suggested. This aided the development of many people's taste for it. Manzo noted that one of the curious aspects of being what he terms a "coffee geek" is that people question the legitimacy of his statements against smoking.

"Every once in a while a smoker will say to me 'why do you criticize me when you drink coffee?', but coffee has good parts to it," said Manzo. "Sure, caffeine is bad for you, but [with the other components in it] coffee is basically neutral. There's all this good stuff in coffee that there isn't in smoking tobacco."

Manzo drinks coffee.

A failed experiment, convinced by the benefits and parting shots about flavoured coffee

Two weeks to the day that I quit caffeine I had a coffee. It didn't produce any drastic jitteriness in me, but neither did it invoke the sleepiness it had been. Since then, I've been having a coffee every day or so and have decided to stay around that level. One coffee a day won't kill me financially and that amount of caffeine is within reasonable, healthy levels. Frankly, decaf is out of the question, even if it might be better-flavoured coffee, too. Manzo mentioned that the chemicals used to add the flavour are basically the stuff that is used to make room deodorizers.

I drink coffee.




Sweet article.

I've been gradually reducing my caffeine consumption over the last year to such a point that I really only drink the stuff on Wednesdays, when I have to be awake ad-infinitium. I've been compared to a coke-head while on considerable amounts of caffeine, and that kind of bothers me...

Some notes:
1. Espresso is cheaper and more effective than regular coffee. Plus it tastes better. You can get 4 shots for about $3 most places on campus, while a large regular coffee will cost at least $2. To be an even stingier bastard, add your own hot water and make an Americano.

2. I've found drinking fruit juice lessens my dependency on caffeine. The natural energy you receive from the sugar helps offset the chemical down from caffeine withdrawal.

3. I'd say it's arguable that low amounts of nicotine are worse than large amounts of caffeine. Yeah, smoking a pack a day will mess up your lungs, but there are studies that use MRIs to measure brain activity over long periods of caffeine exposure and that of regular caffeine junkies is significantly reduced. I can't find the study, but here's one that compares the signalling effects of caffeine to cocaine.
Also, check out the Erowid caffeine vault for more random health info: