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Coffee: The Highs, The Lows and The Jitters
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Caffeine, ah, sweet indescribably necessary elixir, without which mornings are impossible.

At least, that is, mornings for those in the vicinity of me. For almost 5 millenniums we humans have been sipping tea, drinking coffee, chewing cocoa beans, gnawing mate, guzzling cola and generally doing whatever it takes to extract caffeine from the sixty or so plants that produce it.

And for the impatient ones amongst us, caffeine is added to hundreds of over-the-counter drugs. We’re not just talking No-Doz or CoffeeGo, but a vast array of cold, headache and diet concoctions.

Must of us don’t “do” caffeine to stimulate our gastric juices, though it does that. Nor are we particularly interested in its proven capacity as a diuretic. So potent an enemy of muscle fatigue and enhancer of strength is caffeine that the Olympic Committee regularly checks athletes for excessive levels, and the American Institute of Medicine recommended that the Pentagon add it to troops’ rations.

But most of the time, that’s not why we take it either. We consume caffeine for the brain. “The most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world,” is how the experts describe it. Brain medicine, pure and simple. It takes about 30 minutes for the caffeine from a decent cup of coffee to arrive full force in the seat of reason. Once there it does its work mainly by stealth.

According to accepted scientific wisdom, caffeine doesn’t directly stimulate your cortex so much as prevent it from receiving a chemical signal called adenosine, a naturally occurring depressant.

The brain has special receptors that, when plugged with passing adenosine, slows the body down. But caffeine is so similar in molecular shape to adenosine that it slips into the receptor instead, blocking the adenosine. Caffeine is like oil between your tires and the pavement; the light is red but you’re not stopping at the intersection.

Of course, for those of us with one eye always cocked on the coffee maker in the corner, this suppression of adenosine certainly feels like stimulation, (and pharmacologists do classify caffeine as a stimulant!) The problem is, the adenosine is still there in the nervous system, floating around, building up, waiting. Yup, crash.

The half-life of caffeine - the time it takes your body to eliminate 50% of the amount ingested - is about five hours. But long before that you probably drank another pot of coffee.

There’s a theory about caffeine tolerance-the verifiable increased desire for caffeine amongst us ten-plus cups a day crowd-that’s gaining approval among neuroscientists. This postulates that in order to make up for the bush-wacked adenosine, the brain grows more receptors in a process called upregulation.

If this extra-receptors theory proves correct, researchers believe it will help account for some of the very real caffeine withdrawal symptoms. The common headache is a case in point. Caffeine contracts the brain’s blood vessels while adenosine expands them. When the caffeine supply is cuts off and adenosine hits the extra supply of receptors, your brain veins swell up to quite a painful degree.

the caffeine dosethe caffeine doseThe solution is an aspirin and a strong cup of caffeine!

The brain’s role in other documented symptoms of severe caffeine withdrawal-muscle aches, runny noses, nausea, fatigue, vomiting-is less clear.

“Just as with withdrawal from more dangerous drugs like cocaine, we’re not sure of the exact location of the effect, whether it’s actually generated in the brain or at a specific site in the body,” offers J. Hopkins Medical University professor Roland Griffiths.

“But we know it’s very real. Performance is impaired in withdrawal. Caffeine withdrawal is not in any way just a ‘psychological phenomenon.‘”

And the good news is… no study has yet found a convincing connection between caffeine and a host of serious diseases. So far, caffeine has beaten the rap on charges of causing heart disease, birth defects, various cancers, even PMS.

The evidence on caffeine and miscarriage is inconclusive, but it only makes sense that women shouldn’t drink so much jolt during pregnancy, and women with a family history of osteoporosis should be aware of caffeine’s role in reducing body calcium. But even though caffeine ranks as one of the world’s most researched drugs, that’s about all you have to worry about.

Best of all, those odd folks which study the sex lives of senior citizens discovered that elderly folk who consume coffee often are much more likely to be getting it on in the bedroom more regularly than their peers that don’t drink it.

So, cut back a couple cups a day, maybe, but quit? Not on your life, grandpa!

Coffee factoids:

  • Coffee may jump start you, but it works best if you're bored. It increases alertness and enhances performance, but its effects are most pronounced on performance levels that are already low because of boredom. You can't rely on it as a diet aid, but caffeine does speed up your metabolism a bit.

  • Caffeinism-or coffee nerves-strikes only those who are unaccustomed to high doses of caffeine. Those who are already addicted and are then deprived, suffer irritability, restlessness, lethargy and a headache that doesn't go away for a day or two.

  • Only intellectual speed, not power, is increased by caffeine.

  • Besides the caffeine and methyl in your coffee, you should also worry about ingesting chlorine from those bleached paper filters. To avoid these use the brown unbleached filters, a French press or invest in one of those reusable gold-plated mesh baskets.

  • Everyone knows it and science backs it up; Joe will cause you to have a closer relationship with the John. Caffeine is both a diuretic and a laxative.

  • The world looks better when you're wired, at least according to a ten year study done by Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Northern California. The study suggests that caffeine is an anti-depressant, and that 1 to 3 cup a day drinkers are 30% less likely to commit suicide that nondrinkers, while those of us who drink a pot a day are 80% less likely, but the truth is, we're just too busy to end it all.

  • Despite rumors current among latté lovers aside, espresso doest not contain less caffeine than other types of coffee. It's just that it is served in one or two-ounce demitasse cups, versus the regular 150ml. cups. Every 30 grams of espresso contains about 40-50ml. of caffeine, so that a 750ml. espresso would weigh in at a whopping 200-250ml.

  • The cheaper the coffee, the bigger the kick. I know your coffee dealer won't agree, but measure to measure, a cheap cup-o-joe will actually contain up to 25% more caffeine than fancy designer brews. That's because cheaper coffee is made from the stronger robusta beans, and the boutique kavarny use the expensive arabica beans. As for taste, well, why do you think god invented sugar and cream?

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