This column first appeared in The Western Mail in January 2023.
I once had a colleague who proudly sported a sweater with the slogan “But first, coffee!” underneath a cartoon of a steaming caffeinated beverage.
The implication? That nothing of note would be achieved in her life without the oral ingestion of liquidated amphetamine.
Imagine for a second that same sweater read “But first, crystal meth!”. That would be much less workplace appropriate and more likely to end up in some sort of social services intervention for her children.
Yet, when it comes to caffeine – an addictive substance that underpins a multi-billion dollar global industry – our collective reliance on it to function is considered fair game for novelty sweaters, mugs and bumper stickers. We are happy and keen to boast about it. It’s almost as if liking coffee is a substitute for a personality trait.
Coffee – one of the most readily available and cheap mood-altering drugs in the world – is the modern opium of the masses. It’s like humanity’s oil – we run on it, and you could argue that capitalism depends on our collective consumption of it.
I’ve been thinking about the humble coffee bean a lot recently. Having spent decades juggling more commitments than there is time in the day, coffee was my narcotic of choice for years. It used to be the first thing I thought about when I woke in the morning, and I drank up to five cups a day. I wasn’t drinking coffee to wake up as much as waking up to drink coffee. In short, I was an addict.
That was until a few months ago when I experienced some serious health issues and started to consider how to treat my body less like a bingo hall and more like a temple.
Having given up booze in the dark days of the pandemic, the screamingly obvious next candidate was caffeine. All the advice was to taper by reducing consumption gradually, but I didn’t have the patience so just stopped one day. No more morning espressos, speciality lattes, or after-dinner coffee. I swapped them out for peppermint tea and waited for the horrible withdrawal I’d heard so much about to begin.
Except it didn’t. There were no headaches, difficulty concentrating or irritability (well, no more than usual). If anything, I found that it was easier to focus. And I realised that while I was still tired, I wasn’t any more tired. Coffee had been papering over the cracks of perpetual tiredness for a long time, and I’d started to associate being exhausted with a lack of coffee. Coffee felt like a fix for fatigue. But as I read more about caffeine, I realised I’d fallen victim to a monolithic beverage-based scam.
It turns out that caffeine only appears to give you energy. Caffeine works by blocking the action of adenosine, a molecule that gradually accumulates in the brain over the day, preparing the body to rest. Caffeine interferes with this process by stopping adenosine from doing its job and keeping you alert. But adenosine levels continue to rise so that when the caffeine is eventually metabolised, adenosine floods the body’s receptors and tiredness returns with a vengeance. In short, the energy that caffeine gives us is borrowed. And like all debt, we must eventually pay it back.
Speaking of debt, coffee is expensive. Unless you’re relying on a jar of instant at home, the cost of that daily coffee can soon rack up. According to a Visa Debit survey, we spend an average of £2.09 a day on caffeinated hot beverages – a whopping £763 a year. So we pay for the privilege of having interrupted sleep and the jitters. It’s insane when you think about it.
Coffee also does weird things to our brains. In a famous experiment conducted by NASA in the 1990s, researchers fed a variety of psychoactive substances to spiders to see how they would affect their web-making skills. Writer Michael Pollan explained what happened next:
“The caffeinated spider spun a strangely cubist and utterly ineffective web, with oblique angles, openings big enough to let small birds through, and completely lacking in symmetry or a centre. The web was far more fanciful than the ones spun by spiders given cannabis or LSD.”
At the same time as I gave coffee the heave-ho, an athlete friend called Jimmy Watkins – founder of the brilliant Running Punks movement – also quit caffeine. He is evangelical about the positive impact of doing so:
“I feel more enthusiastic about life, more focused and much happier. My skin looks better, I’m less bloated, sleeping better, and a lot less anxious. I haven’t noticed any downsides, and I’m saving money. For me, it was all part of becoming a healthier person as I get older, so it felt like a similar decision to cutting out alcohol. Even though alcohol is more damaging, it felt like a similar logical transition in terms of feeling safe in my own body.”
I wholeheartedly echo his sentiments. I’ve now moved onto mushroom tea (a caffeine-free wonder non-drug), and my anxiety levels are at an all-time low, while my ability to focus is at an all-time high. My local branch of Starbucks might have seen a significant profit dip since I went cold turkey, but I don’t feel too sorry for them. In the UK alone, the market size of the coffee shop industry is almost £6 billion. Globally, it’s nearer £127 billion. Like all good scams, the great caffeine swindle is one hell of a money maker.
If you need another reason to reconsider your relationship with caffeine, my partner has an interesting take on coffee. As so often, I’ll give him the last word:
“Coffee is basically responsible for killing the pub. And I really like pubs. So coffee, to me, is a bit like the film Forrest Gump, which won the Oscar for best film the year Pulp Fiction deserved to win. In a nutshell, coffee is responsible for a grave injustice, so a single drop will never pass my lips.”
Spoken like a true (decaffeinated) Welshman.
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