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.