This book showed me why coffee is the most common drug
I’ve always loved coffee – and never seen a reason to stop. But I underestimated the power of caffeine over our lives.
On the afternoon of the second day, I give up and lie down on the sofa. My head feels as if someone has hit me over the head with a blunt object, my thoughts stagger around like tired children. “I must be sick,” I think dully.
In fact, I’m not sick at all. I’ve simply stopped drinking coffee. I had expected a little headache and fatigue. But not this level of perceived devastation.
It’s a bitter blow. I love coffee. The other day I got an email from the roastery I order from regularly. “Congratulations!” it said, “You’re a real coffee freak.” They had calculated how many cups of coffee I had drunk last year based on my orders, over 1,000, the mail said.
That’s not true, of course. In my household, more than one person helps themselves from the supplies. My coffee consumption is totally within the limits, if the limits are what the European Food Safety Authority specifies: 200 milligrams as a single dose, or about two cups of coffee, and 400 milligrams spread throughout the day, or about four cups, are safe for healthy adults. These recommendations are about how much coffee you can drink without harming your health. There’s nothing in there about how it might feel to stop drinking coffee.
Did you know that you might be a drug addict?
How did I get this strange idea in the first place? The idea that giving up my favorite beverage might be a good thing? Blame it on a book by Michael Pollan, “Your mind on plants.” Michael Pollan is an American journalist who writes about nutrition, one of the best in his field. For several years, he has been increasingly concerned with the effects of certain substances that are pharmacologically and medically classified as drugs. Caffeine is one of them.
“About 90 percent of people consume caffeine on a regular basis. That makes caffeine the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, and the only one we routinely administer to children (usually in the form of carbonated beverages),” writes Pollan, who, incidentally, is a big frahling lover himself (by “carbonated beverages” he means soft drinks like cola). “We don’t usually think of caffeine as a drug or our daily consumption as an addiction. But that’s only because coffee and tea are legal and our dependence on them is socially accepted.”
That didn’t worry me yet. “Psychoactive” sounds like seeing pink elephants, but it simply means that caffeine is a substance that affects the psyche. It has a stimulating effect, it improves concentration and induces a faint euphoria, and it may even protect against liver cancer and Alzheimer’s. What’s not to like?
Coffee has won
For centuries, people have been trying to make coffee unhealthy or morally depraved. There are countless examples of this, but here are just two that I find particularly curious: In 1734, the composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a coffee cantata in which a Mr. Schlendrian tries to talk his daughter Liesgen out of drinking coffee every day with angry threats. In Sweden, coffee was even banned until 1820.
The fact is that there is no scientific evidence that coffee or caffeine in normal doses harm people. People who drink it don’t have to feel guilty – and probably don’t. In a survey of coffee drinkers in the Krautreporter community, 82 percent of the approximately 1,900 participants answered “no” to the question “Would you like to drink less coffee?” Around half of the respondents also cannot imagine giving up coffee in the long term. The most important reason given by this group is the enjoyment of coffee, with only around forty percent saying that they need it to wake up. I’m not surprised, because almost all of the participants drink about the same amount of coffee as I do, between one and four cups a day. Those who consume caffeine regularly develop a tolerance, meaning they need larger doses to feel positive effects. Those who stick to the same dose no longer feel a real caffeine kick in the morning.
As for “addiction” – well. I’ve always said that coffee is my only addiction, but I never meant it.
Do I need caffeine to function? I admit that my day goes better with coffee. Do I get in a bad mood if I don’t get any? Yes, I just like to drink it! But addicted? That seems like a gross exaggeration. I am convinced that I am cultivating a habit, not addicted to a substance. If I had to buy coffee powder in the park at night, I would probably switch to other drinks. And I would never take out a loan or sell my TV for a bag of espresso beans.
Caffeine is the solution to the problem caffeine causes
It is controversial whether caffeine can be addictive at all – it depends on what you call addiction, there are different definitions for this in science as well. On the one hand, many people actually get withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking caffeine, whether in the form of coffee, tea, energy drinks or tablets. On the other hand, caffeine does not activate the reward system in the brain like other addictive substances.
It is also clear that caffeine is not addictive in the same way or nearly as destructive as alcohol or nicotine. You have to drink several hundred cups of espresso as a healthy:r for caffeine to be dangerous. No one does.
But then I read a few sentences that made me think: “The first cup of tea or coffee of the day draws its power – its joy! – not so much from its euphoric and stimulating properties as from the fact that it suppresses the emerging withdrawal symptoms,” Pollan writes. Caffeine is a treacherous substance, he adds. “On a daily basis, caffeine offers itself as the optimal solution to the problem that caffeine causes.”
Now it was getting personal. I had believed that the feeling of happiness I felt while drinking coffee in the morning was part of a wonderful ritual: Sleep is over, you’re not quite there yet, but here’s five minutes with a warm, fragrant beverage to help you cross over into the world of wakefulness.