Coffee and caffeine and addiction

A have drunk coffee and tea all my life from the time even before I reached my teens. Nowadays I drink one cup of coffee in the morning and one cup of tea in the afternoon. That is not a lot but I am a caffeine addict in the sense that I look forward to a cup of coffee in the morning and feel somewhat uneasy if I don’t get one. I will even drink coffee that I know will taste bad just in order to get that morning caffeine fix. Is that addiction something to be concerned about?

In this transcript of a Fresh Air interview with food writer Michael Pollan about his new book that looks at how caffeine affects the daily rhythms of our lives, he quotes a researcher on addictions who says that that word is very leaded with negative connotations and that all addictions are not equal and some are harmless.

But as Roland Griffiths told me, you know, if you have a steady supply of something, you can afford it, and it’s not interfering with your life, there’s nothing wrong with being addicted.

He says that caffeine has been shown to help us focus and concentrate and to have some health benefits, provided that you are not drinking too much of it.

Coffee and tea are protective – appear to be protective against several kinds of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease.

Pollan said that as part of his research into caffeine, he quit caffeine cold turkey for three months in order to experience first hand the withdrawal symptoms, and then started drinking coffee again to see how it affected him after he had effectively detoxed.

He says that coffee helps you both focus on things and remember them afterwards. He describes why some of us feel the need for coffee first thing in the morning. It is because the influence of caffeine on the body is synchronized with out circadian rhythms.

Well, once a day. It – the cycle – they’re called the pharmacokinetics – of caffeine seem very well synchronized to the circadian rhythms of the human body. So that, you know, it’s really amazing that you don’t go through withdrawal at, like, 2:00 in the morning, when it’s out of your system, and it doesn’t wake you up saying, you got to have coffee. Nobody feels like coffee in the middle of the night.

But in the morning, you are beginning to feel – you know, all those people who tell you, you know, I’m not civil, I’m not fit for, you know (laughter), human conversation until I have my cup of coffee, they’re beginning to go through that withdrawal. They’re starting to feel a little off, that muzziness is coming in. Maybe they have a headache. Maybe they’re a little irritable. And then they have that cup of coffee, and the pleasure they’re getting from it, I learned, is not simply the lift, the euphoric lift of the drug; it’s the suppression of these symptoms of withdrawal, and we go through that cycle.

We have a neurotransmitter called adenosine, or adenosine, that over the course of the day, levels of it rise, and its job is to gradually make us tired, create what’s called sleep pressure, so eventually, you know, we turn out the lights and go to sleep. There is a receptor that the adenosine fits into. And as it turns out, caffeine fits into the same receptor, and it gets there before the adenosine has a chance to. So it essentially blocks the action of that neurotransmitter, and so you never get the signal that you’re tired.

Eventually, though, the adenosine, it’s not like it goes away; it keeps building up, the level in your bloodstream keeps building up so that when the caffeine is finally metabolized and the receptors are available again – voom – you get hit by, you know, a flood of adenosine, and you get really tired. And what would you do then? Well, you’d try have another cup of coffee and start the cycle all over again. So it’s a pretty simple mechanism. That’s what keeps us awake. That’s the alertness of caffeine. But it does also act on some other networks, such as the dopamine network, and that’s part of what gives us the euphoria.

He said that after he quit for three months, the first cup of coffee he had gave him an incredible sense of euphoria. But after one gets habituated to the caffeine through regular use, one feels the need to drink coffee in the morning merely in order to suppress the withdrawal symptoms, not to get a high.

He and show host Terry Gross are sharply critical of, and laugh derisively at, instant coffee because it is supposedly made from inferior quality beans and is bitter. Actually I like instant coffee and that is what I drink every day. When traveling, I have drunk coffee at hotels and from Starbucks and Peets and other places that serve supposedly the much superior brewed coffee but I cannot say that I like it better. I know people who stop off at one of these places every morning and pay high prices for a cup of their coffee. I am perfectly content to make and drink my instant coffee at home. It saves me time and money and most importantly, I like it. My attitude to food is that same as Duke Ellington’s to music, when he said “If it sounds good, it is good.” I don’t worry what experts think as long as it tastes good.

On the rare occasions when I buy coffee at a specialty coffee store, I am with Rat when it comes to ordering. I ignore all the flavors and names for the sizes on offer and simply ask for a regular medium-sized coffee.

Here is the audio of the Pollan interview.


  1. says

    You can tell his coffee addiction was mild, at best. Only once does he mention the word headache. Anyone with a serious caffeine addiction (hand raised) knows how bad a day without coffee can be.

    My biggest concern at my age is the raise in blood pressure. My BP is good for my age, but with a large dose can shoot up to 140/90 for short periods. Being physically active is out of the question, and I avoid coffee if I plan to go dancing at the club.

  2. lochaber says

    Echoing what Intransitive said, most of the people I’ve known who claimed caffeine addictions also mentioned having pretty severe headaches when they can’t get their fix.

    I generally enjoy a cup of coffee or two in the mornings, but usually only on work days, or possibly if I’m up early on a day off. I haven’t tried instant coffee in some time, but have heard some of the varieties out of Asia are better than the old U.S. stuff. I’ve sometimes used it while camping/backpacking, but also always mixed it with hot cocoa mix, for a sort of “field mocha”

    I also just order a ‘large regular” or “large plain”, and have never gotten any complaints/corrections. Hopefully my lack of fluency in fancy-coffee terms is balanced by the simplicity of my order, compared to all the people in front of me in line who seem to have pretty specific demands as to what sort of milk, how much sugar, and pumps of whatever added…

  3. Mobius says

    I was once at a coffee shop and the girl behind the counter asked if I wanted a large or a mondo. I commented, “So the large is your small?” She was very confused.

  4. Jazzlet says

    I see instant coffee and real coffee as different drinks, I like both, but have to be more careful with real coffee not because of getting the jitters, but beause too much will give me reflux. Come to that cheap instant will too, but as I’m usually at home when I drink instant that’s not a problem. I’ve certainly had plenty of real coffee that wasn’t as good as the instants I use -- one caffienated and one decaffienated -- it’s not unusual to be given coffee so bitter because of over-roasting that it is undrinkable, I prefer a meduim roast made very strong with a lot of milk. People denigrate this choice at times “it’s just coffee milkshake”, but if I make coffee without telling them what roast it is they nearly always prefer the medium I use to the high roast they had been using and usually changge to medium roast themselves.I refrain from rubbing in my clearly superior taste 😉

  5. kestrel says

    I once quit caffeine cold turkey. (It was not in coffee, it was in a soft drink which I drank quite a lot of.) Holy cow. The headaches were terrific. I talked to a doctor about it and he told me it was stupid to quit cold turkey. So I went back to it, but one cup of coffee in the morning every day. Whew! What relief from those headaches. I once worked with dynamite and as anyone who has worked with it can tell you, you can get some humdinger headaches if you accidentally get it on your skin which is surprisingly easy to do. The “cure” for it is: caffeine. I’ll just stick with my one cup a day routine, and not try to quit again. Totally not worth it.

  6. publicola says

    When I was growing up, there were only three types of coffee: black, regular and light, depending on how much milk/cream you wanted. I could never drink coffee though--too bitter. I’ve been a tea drinker since I was weaned (with milk and sugar). Gotta have it hot--don’t care for iced tea. I’ve had those caffeine withdrawal headaches. No amount of aspirin/painkiller seems to help. The only relief is more caffeine. Oops, time for another cup.

  7. seachange says

    I read Pollan’s quote of Griffiths and find it odd. I substitute “food” or “sex” in the predicate just to see if it makes sense, and it sounds like a Deepity.

    IME the thing that makes instant coffee bitter is oxygen exposure. Cafe Legal coats their dry coffee granules with sucrose and it comes with a very tight and thick lid. It’s almost never bitter, but you do have to tolerate 2 out of every 5 grams of not-coffee.

    I dunno if adenosine receptors should get the entirety of the bad rap. I get cluster headaches and caffeine is good for this since oxygenation variation in the brain is a known thing for this. You can walk/exercise, breathe from an oxygen tank, or use caffeine or something with a similar metabolic mechanism as it.

  8. says

    Never liked coffee but got to like Earl Grey tea for a while. Hated the way it made my heart race for hours so I just drink weak green tea now. Don’t think it has much caffeine compared to black tea.

  9. says

    One of my daily challenges is making coffee before I’ve had coffee. I have an ever expanding collection of “things you can fuck up using a Senseo”.
    I drink quite some coffee, but I don’t get much withdrawal without. Apart from falling asleep while standing up.

  10. Marja Erwin says

    I have hyperacusis and a salicylate sensitivity. I didn’t feel as sick when I was able to quit tea, but personal emergencies, and I’m addicted again. I am also allergic to coffee and have bad reactions to too much fructose. So caffeine addiction isn’t always harmless.

  11. lanir says

    I drink somewhere between 6-12 cups of coffee on an average day (cup as in 237ml). Some days I don’t drink any. I don’t think coffee affects me too much though. I don’t have the same sorts of withdrawal symptoms and I almost never get headaches. I think coffee does keep me awake more but it’s pretty mild about it.

    I find that for my tastes, having a variety is a good thing. I notice what I drink more that way. I do prefer the gourmet coffee that you brew at home, but largely the light to medium roasts. Honestly a lot of expensive coffee house drinks are more about flavorings, sweeteners and creamers they put in rather than the actual coffee. Next time you’re in the coffee aisle of the supermarket if you feel like trying something different, buy a small package of something with a light roast and try it. Everyone’s taste buds are different but if you’re going to taste any difference in coffee it will be the difference between that and a more mass produced name brand variety (those are usually darker roasts so they can source beans from all over without changing the taste of their product).


  1. […] Mano Singham posted the episode of Fresh Air yesterday and I included the link in this morning’s video fest, but I wanted to feature the transcript of final portion of Terry Gross’ interview with Michael Pollan in a separate blog post. I long ago became fascinated with how I could manipulate my own reactions to coffee by periodically taking caffeine fasts and Pollan got it. […]

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