Coffee- The Cigarettes of the 21st Century?

Everyday at work, between the hours of 10am and 11am, a strange migration of local wildlife occurs. As far as I am to know, this migration is isolated to the eastern end of Kensington Road in Norwood but this phenomenon may be more widespread. The migration I speak of involves middle  age white collar professionals. They emerge bleary eyed and disorientated, before finding their bearings and commencing the fast-paced bee-line for their target.  They either head east or risk life and limb south (crossing Kensington Road), and return 10 minutes later holding little, brown, ribbed cardboard cups. This happens like clockwork, everyday from Monday to Friday. I could probably set my watch to it.

Of course this phenomenon is not isolated to my little part of Adelaide. I am sure it is commonplace wherever trendy cafes and white collar workplaces coexist. Whilst this is a trend that developed over recent years (or at the very least has become abundant enough to be noticeable) the concept of workplace bonding occurring over some ritualistic behaviour is nothing new. Last century we had cigarettes for that purpose!

Concurrent to the rise of coffee- no, cafe latte consumption has been the gradual ostracism of smokers. This, it could be argued is not a bad thing- much better that people are drinking coffee than smoking. I would generally agree with that. I don’t need to list the reasons why smoking is rightfully stigmatised these-days as government advertising has done a pretty reasonable job of that. Coffee on the other hand gets off pretty lightly. So I think it would be interesting to see if coffee and cigarettes share some qualities.

First of all- coffee and cigarettes both stain your teeth and give you bad breath. And I think coffee breath is far more offensive than smoker’s breath (just my opinion). Second, they both involve a ritual that is claimed to be at least part of its allure- I love making, and watching others make coffee. I love the sounds of the grounds being tapped out and the new beans being ground, I love the smell of the extraction and the hiss of the steam. I also love the quiet time taken to drink it- about 5-10 mins or the same as a cigarette.

Ceasing of ritual, for many is claimed to be the hardest part  of quitting both  smoking and coffee drinking. They both however contain a chemical that contributes to dependence- nicotine and caffeine respectively.

The American Psychiatric Association define substance dependence as any that meet three of the following seven criteria: (1) tolerance is developed; (2) substance-specific withdrawal syndrome is present; (3) substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than expected; (4) persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use; (5) a great deal of time spent in activities necessary to obtain, use, or recover from the effects of the substance; (6) important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced because of the substance; and/or (7) use continued despite knowledge of a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance (from www.medicinet.com). Caffeine meets most of those to some extent.

Further, regular caffeine intake can impact negatively upon our physical health. Caffeine stimulates acid secretion in the stomach which can lead to, and certainly exacerbate stomach ulcers. Caffeine stimulates our adrenal glands, putting us into a fight or flight mode even when we are sitting on our backsides writing blogs! Continued overuse of caffeine can lead to adrenal fatigue and also throw out our sleep cycles by countering adenosine, a hormone that helps regulate our sleep cycles.

Also, a myth about caffeine has been perpetuated by past scientific literature. It was a long held belief that caffeine consumption improves cognitive performance. This was suggested in studies which compared coffee drinkers before and after they have had caffeine in the performance of problem-solving, memory and creativity tasks. Caffeine, it appeared, made the participants smarter.

What was found in more recent research, in which controls (non-coffee drinkers who hadn’t had coffee) were added, showed that the control group performed as well as the caffeine-dosed coffee drinkers. This suggests that rather than improving your cognitive performance, caffeine merely created a deficit when you hadn’t had it. You don’t need that morning coffee  to charge yourself up, you need it to feel normal. Isn’t that what long-time heroin users say about their addiction?!

My clients are consistently dismissive of the impact of caffeine upon their health. And I do believe from my observations that caffeine affects people differently. But if you are sceptical about caffeine’s impact upon your health ask yourself these questions:

  • How well do you sleep?
  • How good is your digestive system?

If you answered ‘fine’ to both, fantastic. If however you are sub-optimal in either of these two vital areas, try giving coffee up for a fortnight and see what happens. Apart from an excuse to leave your desk, what have you got to lose?

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  1. [...] intriguing article by Scott Wood from iNform Health and Fitness entitled, Coffee – The cigarettes of the 21st century, should give all coffee drinkers some pause for [...]

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