Caffeine addiction

My daily caffeine intake consists of one regular-sized cup of instant coffee (with milk and sugar) in the morning and one regular-sized cup of black tea (with milk and sugar) in the late afternoon. This would not normally be seen as a sign of caffeine addiction except that on the days that, for whatever reason, I cannot get my morning cup of coffee (in the case that I have spent the night at some place where I cannot get one first thing), I feel a little unsettled and will often go to some lengths to find a coffee shop where I can get a cup.

Food writer Michael Pollan says that that feeling first thing in the morning is indeed a sign of caffeine addiction, that my vague need to drink a cup of coffee is because the caffeine withdrawal symptoms are kicking in and I need to suppress them.

The scientists have spelled out, and I had duly noted, the predictable symptoms of caffeine withdrawal: headache, fatigue, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, decreased motivation, irritability, intense distress, loss of confidence and dysphoria.

According to the researchers I’d interviewed, the process of withdrawal had actually begun overnight, while I was sleeping, during the “trough” in the graph of caffeine’s diurnal effects. The day’s first cup of tea or coffee acquires most of its power – its joy! – not so much from its euphoric and stimulating properties than from the fact that it is suppressing the emerging symptoms of withdrawal. This is part of the insidiousness of caffeine. Its mode of action, or “pharmacodynamics”, mesh so perfectly with the rhythms of the human body that the morning cup of coffee arrives just in time to head off the looming mental distress set in motion by yesterday’s cup of coffee. Daily, caffeine proposes itself as the optimal solution to the problem caffeine creates.

He says that researchers have pinpointed some benefits of caffeine when taken in moderation.

I found numerous studies conducted over the years reporting that caffeine improves performance on a range of cognitive measures – of memory, focus, alertness, vigilance, attention and learning.

The current scientific consensus is more than reassuring – in fact, the research suggests that coffee and tea, far from being deleterious to our health, may offer some important benefits, as long as they aren’t consumed to excess. Regular coffee consumption is associated with a decreased risk of several cancers (including breast, prostate, colorectal and endometrial), cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and possibly depression and suicide. (Though high doses can produce nervousness and anxiety, and rates of suicide climb among those who drink eight or more cups a day.)

But, as always, there are downsides, and that is the negative impact that caffeine has on sleep.

An English neuroscientist on the faculty at University of California, Berkeley, Walker, author of Why We Sleep, is single-minded in his mission: to alert the world to an invisible public-health crisis, which is that we are not getting nearly enough sleep, the sleep we are getting is of poor quality, and a principal culprit in this crime against body and mind is caffeine. Caffeine itself might not be bad for you, but the sleep it’s stealing from you may have a price. According to Walker, research suggests that insufficient sleep may be a key factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, arteriosclerosis, stroke, heart failure, depression, anxiety, suicide and obesity. “The shorter you sleep,” he bluntly concludes, “the shorter your lifespan.”

Walker explained that, for most people, the “quarter life” of caffeine is usually about 12 hours, meaning that 25% of the caffeine in a cup of coffee consumed at noon is still circulating in your brain when you go to bed at midnight. That could well be enough to completely wreck your deep sleep.

I thought of myself as a pretty good sleeper before I met Walker. At lunch he probed me about my sleep habits. I told him I usually get a solid seven hours, fall asleep easily, dream most nights.

“How many times a night do you wake up?” he asked. I’m up three or four times a night (usually to pee), but I almost always fall right back to sleep.

He nodded gravely. “That’s really not good, all those interruptions. Sleep quality is just as important as sleep quantity.” The interruptions were undermining the amount of “deep” or “slow wave” sleep I was getting, something above and beyond the REM sleep I had always thought was the measure of a good night’s rest. But it seems that deep sleep is just as important to our health, and the amount we get tends to decline with age.

Pollan says that all the sleep researchers he spoke to did not take any caffeine.

I myself will likely continue my current practices. As for sleep, I tend to get about nine hours per night, usually getting up just once and falling asleep again fairly easily. I do dream a lot. How much of my sleep is deep sleep and how much is REM sleep, I have no idea. Apparently the iWatch can tell you but I not going to spring for hundreds of dollars for yet another device just to get that information.

Pollan’s article has in interesting extended section on the history of coffee and tea and about the political role that coffee houses played in England, serving as a kind of library and salon for intellectual discussions.


  1. Matt G says

    His complaint about the morning hit serving only to rescue us from withdrawal reminds me of my partner and our (mostly my) extra “stuff” (I have too many hobbies). My solution is to put it up in our attic, which is not livable and is accessible only by drop down ladder. She doesn’t want too much stuff up there. Why? Because we have to see it, or have it get in our way? No. She just doesn’t like the *idea* of it being there.

  2. anat says

    Back in the day I read epidemiological studies that claimed that the benefits of caffeine for memory and preventing dementia start at 3 cups a day. I was never able to have that much. On the other hand I was never addicted to caffeine -- I could drink coffee (or tea) or not with no noticeable effect. I do have poor sleep ever since my teens when I trained myself to sleep about 6 hours a night -- and I still can’t make myself sleep more than that. And one day I had coffee in the afternoon (on an outing with colleagues) and could not sleep a single minute! After that event I quit coffee for good. I still sleep poorly -- no more than 6 hours, about 1-1.5 hours of deep sleep (according to my Oura ring), about an hour or less of REM sleep, extremely rarely recall any dreaming. I also have low heart rate variability which means that although my resting heart rate is on the low end (in the 40s in beats/minute) I’m not good at raising my heart rate when needed (to the point that a doctor jokingly asked if I might have a pacemaker and not know it). Consistent meditation practice helps with the latter (apparently it helps engage the parasympathetic nervous system).

    Mano, if you are happy with your sleep, feel refreshed in the mornings, don’t feel a need to nap in the daytime, you are fine and don’t need any sleep trackers.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    as long as they aren’t consumed to excess

    The ugliest words in the English language. Excess makes life worthwhile. In moderation, of course.

  4. Janicot says

    I bet you’re also addicted to food — and water. Oh well.🙂
    We all make our way the best we can.

  5. mailliw says

    On the subject of coffee I find Raymond Chandler in The Long Goodbye much more persuasive and eloquent:

    “I went out to the kitchen to make coffee -- yards of coffee. Rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved. The lifeblood of tired men.”

  6. lorn says

    Easiest clear sign of physical addiction is having one of those AM half-headaches before coffee and having it go away within a minute of the first few sips.

    I lucked out on the coffee/sleep front because ADHD causes stimulants, including coffee, to have a “paradoxical” effect. IOW after a pot of strong perk coffee I mellow out. sometimes getting a little sleepy. It also explains why I never got into cocaine even though the mid to late 80s were awash with the stuff. Hundreds of dollars on a drug that calms me down only slightly better than coffee … I don’t think so.

    Last I read the best use for coffee was combining a small amount with a nap. With some experimentation I found that a twenty minute nap followed by a half-cup of strong coffee is about right.

  7. says

    When I went into basic training the coffee was so bad I didn’t drink any coffee for years. I experienced no withdrawal or cravings. Maybe it was lost in the other misery, I dunno -- but at that time there was talk about coffee addiction that made it sound like heroin or tobacco. Never tried either of those.

  8. mnb0 says

    “At the coffee shop, instead of my usual “half caff”, I ordered a cup of mint tea.”
    Maybe I should do the opposite as I’ve been starting my days with a big mug of black tea (as a Dutchie I think milk and sugar are for kids only) for half a century. At the other hand, the rare times I don’t get one I don’t suffer from “headache, fatigue, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, decreased motivation, irritability, intense distress, loss of confidence and dysphoria.” But I do feel unsettled.
    I don’t like coffee enough to make it for myself, so I drink it rarely (milk only -- it’s really easy to get rid of sugar; just decrease the amount gradually).

  9. mnb0 says

    “Pollan’s article has in interesting extended section on the history of coffee and tea ”
    Rather onesided. Coffee and tea were and are not popular in England only.
    The country that drinks most coffee per capita is Finland; England is not even in the top 10.
    It might surprise some folks that UK is not even the country that drinks most tea. Both Turkey and yes, Ireland, beat Albion in this respect.
    Coffeehouses still exist in Vienna, the capital of Austria. Before WW-1 they were very popular places to discuss politics, culture etc. Or simply read newspapers.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @10:

    England is not even in the top 10

    In the Euros, they’re in the top 2 right now. England! Or for you Dutchies, Engeland! And in Italian, Forza Inghiliterra!

  11. mnb0 says

    Ha, I’ve been rooting for Italy since their first match.
    The Dutch team was very overrated once again.
    We’ll meet again Sunday evening.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @12: Congratulations to Italy! It was a good match. I just feel bad for the lad Bukayo Saka, who has the stigma of missing in the stupid penalty shootout.

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