I was putting my poor sleep and general weariness down to the unprecedented, once in a lifetime, uncharted territory stuff that is happening in the world, but last week I had to take a good, hard look at myself. I’m an addict. You possibly are too.
Caffeine is the world’s most widely used psychoactive drug and 80% of humanity are regular users. I’ve been a caffeine addict for a long time.
As a teenager, I have a strong memory of drinking a bottle of Jolt Cola and experiencing my first full on caffeine buzz. Jolt Cola contains 160mg of caffeine per serving whereas I’d been used to drinking an occasional cup of tea with a mere 30mg of caffeine in a cup. I was hooked.
The caffeine content of coffee ranges between 70-150mg. The size of the serving and the strength of the tea or coffee will obviously alter the dosage — some people’s idea of a ‘cup of coffee’ is the size of a churn and other’s a large thimble. The rough rule of thumb is two cups of tea equals one cup of coffee.
A can of cola comes in at 34mg of caffeine and combined with the eight teaspoons of sugar, it’s no wonder children are as high as a kite after consuming one!
Pre-Covid, I managed my caffeine intake to one cup of tea at breakfast, a mid-morning cup of coffee and one or two sociable cups of tea thrown in during the day.
But the last few weeks have been a slippery slope and I’ve been using more and more coffee to give me the energy to juggle work, childcare and the hyper-vigilant supermarket shop.
But, of course, caffeine doesn’t give you energy. It simply interrupts your brain chemistry by blocking the tired signals in your brain.
From the moment we wake in the morning, our body starts producing adenosine which binds to receptors in our brain. As adenosine levels increase during the day, it makes us feel tired and drowsy and aids us going to sleep.
Scientists call this ‘sleep pressure’ and it is part of our natural circadian rhythm.
However, caffeine can also fit into adenosine receptors and it gets in adenosine’s way. Caffeine helps us overcome tired and sleepy feelings by blocking adenosine from doing its job. It ‘tricks’ the brain, that ‘sleep pressure’ and adenosine hasn’t disappeared and you will feel tired and sleepy later. Unless you have another cup of caffeine!
Like most addictive substances, if we continually consume it our body becomes accustomed and the first cup of tea or coffee just returns us to baseline functionality and we need to drink more to get a ‘buzz’ or a ‘lift’.
So I decided that something had to change. I had to cut back.
I’m usually motivated to tackle a problem when I understand it better so I started listening to the audiobook Caffeine by U.S food writer Michael Pollan. He dissects the science of caffeine addiction and explores the fascinating history of coffee, from a humble shrub in a corner of Ethiopia to its expansion as one of the world’s most important commodity crops.
The history of caffeine is intertwined with the history of the modern world. Like sugar and tobacco, coffee’s rise in popularity shifted the histories and fortunes of countries and people. It fuelled slavery, social revolutions and the expansion of capitalism.
Coffea arabica was a shrub ‘discovered’ in Ethiopia about 400 years ago. It had been used locally for centuries because farmers noticed how animals became wakeful and sleepless after nibbling the berries and they decided to try the berries themselves. Word spread.
Arabs roasted the berries and combined them with hot water and eventually started exporting them to Europe, where cafés and coffee houses sprung up. This was in the 1600s when water supplies were often unsanitary and alcohol was quaffed throughout the day as a ‘safe’ drink that wouldn’t make you ill but did fog the brain.
Europeans embraced coffee and tea as it had the benefit of being made with boiling water, killing germs and keeping people alert all day.
Coffee houses became important gathering places for trade and information. Lloyd’s Coffee House was the place to go for shipping and maritime gossip and where you could buy insurance policies to protect your cargo. It became the enormous global insurance company we know today.
Britain didn’t have colonies that were as suitable to coffee growing so pursued tea production to satisfy its population’s thirst for caffeine. The opium wars and the history of Hong Kong were because of the British population’s demand for tea.
So your humble and seemingly innocuous cup of tea or coffee is actually of enormous historical, societal and biological importance. The modern world without caffeine is unimaginable.
I’ve cut down to three cups of tea a day. I miss the surge of optimism, purpose and productivity that comes from a cup of coffee but I welcome the feeling of waking without wanting to crawl back under a stone.
At a time when we are evaluating how the modern world functions and how we might rebuild a more sustainable way of living, it might be worth considering our relationship, and reliance, on caffeine.