Friday, December 08, 2006

Time For A Coffee Break?

This morning, I went for coffee. Nothing at all out of the ordinary but when I arrived at work I found the cup floating in what had become a negative 14 degrees wind chilled frigid pool of coffee in my car. That was it, I thought, I’m OFF the coffee. Enough is enough. It’s time for a coffee break.

I’m tired of being slave to the coffee cup, dependent on the daily grind. Farewell my black and peppy morning cup of pick me up. I’ve had enough of your cup-sized casual disregard to the laws of gravity when in my car. And for the last time, I’ve watched you tip over at the slightest turn I make. No more. We’re through.

But as I walked to my office, into the biting wind and bitter cold, it took about 100 yards to reaffirm my unshakable love and commitment for coffee. For during winter, coffee is one of the few things that will keep you warm and how dare I break the habit on this negatively chilled day.

To celebrate my renewal of coffee vows (I vow to drink thee everyday, I vow to never drink thee over ice, I vow to never drink thee from a gas station), I sat down at my desk, nursing and savoring each and every sip of the remaining coffee from my spilled coffee. I enjoyed it, sip by sip, between reading and typing over the next hour. After awhile, though, I realized something was not quite right. My coffee had gone cold. There is nothing worse than cold coffee – except maybe an empty cup. So from that point on, every 20 minutes, I got up to microwave my coffee for 45 seconds to make it drinkably warm again until finally the last quarter of an inch laid helpless, dark and burnt in the bottom of the cup.

Know what I did? I drank it.

It didn’t taste great. In fact, what tasted like a beautiful cosmic combination of chocolate and raspberry swirled together in sweet bliss a few hours earlier had become something so acidic and nasty that it can only be described as ass. Purely the swill of what would happen if you poured the hot coffee through a flaming donkey and it came out the other end – ass.

And this is not the first time this has happened. On a daily basis, I will heat and reheat coffee until it barely recognizes the former version of its tasty self. Even my friend Brenda advised me not to do this. She had worked with a very famous, large coffee company in the past and had learned that reheating the coffee actually changes its chemical properties. It could be that when I reach these last drops I am not even drinking coffee anymore. Chemically, it could have morphed into….dear god….tea or…..even worse…..decaf. Even the cup begins to protest as it gives in and disintegrates after a few microwave whirls.

Why do I do this? What pleasure do I get from this last drop of flaming donkey fuel, from drinking something that is not even what is was when started?

I begin thinking, searching, wondering. Why is coffee so darn good to the last drop? Why can’t my day start without it? Is it the nature of coffee or my nurturing the daily coffee routine? Biology or psychology? Am I a victim of a cleverly marketed experience economy or a plain old physical need? The power of suggestion or the power of a deceptively potent drug? I had to find out.

Wasting no time, caffeine goes straight to the center of control – the brain. And this is not an easy thing to do. Guarded and cautious, the brain employs one of the body’s most powerful defenses – the blood brain barrier - as the bouncer to all substances foreign and dangerous. Yet, caffeine is one of the few substances that sneakily and easily streams across the blood brain barrier. And though most substances are filtered out as too toxic or harmful to cross this line, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing caffeine casually and effortlessly slips by unnoticed.

Once inside, caffeine builds a fortuitous wall blocking anything drowsy, sleepy, or dozy in its way. In turn, this allows caffeine’s stimulating effects to flow freely through your bloodstream. Specifically, it blocks adenosine, a nucleoside that induces drowsiness, slows heart rate, and lowers blood pressure. With adenosine-blocker enabled, caffeine gets underway to stimulate your central nervous system to get your heart rate going, pump up your blood pressure, and wake you the hell up. As if that wasn’t enough, caffeine further infiltrates the regions of your brain to increase alertness, increase the flow of thought, clarify those thoughts to improve concentration, and sharpen your coordination.

With brain controls now on complete lockdown and full cooperation, caffeine gets greedy and reaches for full body and organ control. Caffeine moves easily from the stomach, intestines, and into the bloodstream. Quickly, it circulates through your body, traveling to every organ, building, and building leaping through your organs in a single bound, bettering every inch of your brain and body along the way. And in less than 1 hour, that’s right – in about 45 minutes, you are en route to a fully leaded way to start your day. Until 3 – 4 hours later, when it wears off and is nearly gone.

But in that short amount of time, caffeine can accomplish some incredible things. You see, biologically, the wiring is now complete. Fast forward to one day later, same exact time, your body is already craving its reward of faster processing, clearer thought, and better concentration. Either physically or psychologically, you’re already hooked and your brain biologically requires a buzz day after day. It’s that easy to get hooked, and once you’re on it’s tough to get off. Hence the reason why caffeine is North America’s most ubiquitous psychoactive drug. And that’s probably a good thing because the other psychoactive drugs out there aren’t nearly as user-friendly.

Precisely the amount of caffeine an individual requires or craves to get the buzz varies. It varies by body size, gender, age, and how well or how poorly your body tolerates the caffeine. Imagine a 100 lb woman, drinking a 100 mg cup of coffee. Her body will reach a maximum caffeine concentration of 2 mg per 1 kg of body weight, twice as much as the effect of a man twice her size drinking the same cup of coffee. Her body might feel twice as caffeinated, twice as perked up, and twice as hooked. In fact, when Chris and I sit at Caribou sipping Hazelnut Americanos it’s safe to say that I am under the influence of a much more powerful, potent drug than he is. And though he thinks it’s his endearing charm and boyishly good looks that has me starry-eyed and jittery, it’s not. It’s just the caffeine.

Which makes me think that perhaps I should stop scheduling meetings at Caribou or quit talking to friends over coffee. Who knows what I’m likely to say or do and considering that I’m under the hypnotic and powerful effects of a stimulant, a drug, should I even be held accountable? Is there any case for personal responsibility when my body is gripped by the daily brew? Will coffee be my new scapegoat, my new excuse for uninhibited insults or unwithholding gossip? Will I walk through the door and kick a bag of beans because it’s all the beans’ fault?

What’s even more interesting is how quickly, or not so quickly, the body eliminates caffeine. It takes about 1 hour to reach peak concentration and disappears within 3 – 4 hours. If you’re a smoker, it actually takes half this amount of time. Which might explain the old coffee and a cigarette habit. Women taking the Pill process caffeine much slower, leaving them jittery for up to 10 hours. And though some doctors approve 2 caffeinated beverages per day for pregnant woman, it’s going to take mommy-to-be 15 to 18 hours to get rid of that cup of joe.
And then there’s my husband whom I believe is not on oral contraceptives, not pregnant, and definitely not a 100 lb woman. Yet still he processes caffeine about as efficiently as someone in their third trimester ready to pop. Give him caffeine and it will keep him up all night. He’s gotten better, he’s developed some tolerance to its effects. But still can’t take caffeine after noon or chocolate before bedtime. And this surprises me. Because 50 percent of his genes run rampant with caffeine addict. My father-in-law has a hard core caffeine habit. He also has a lot of other quirky habits, like talking about trains and chasseys, but his coffee thing even throws me for a loop. A man who makes coffee the color of mud. And drinks it black. A man who drinks coffee after 8 pm. Regular. A man who drinks freeze-dried instant coffee. Because he wants to. Hard core, I tell you – hard core. Why couldn’t my husband have been born just a tiny inkling of that? Furthermore, how can I ensure that my children inherit the caffeine gene?

But one thing is certain – caffeine is an equal opportunity addictor. In other words, it takes only a sip my dear to become fully and entirely hooked. In fact, it’s just a small sip over one, maybe two days, that makes your body dependent and hungry for more. Caffeine is quick like that – it has skills, mad skills to convince your body that it’s better, bigger, bolder while on it and fuzzier, slower, and sleepier without it. This rapid fire readiness of caffeine is what makes it one of the most present and addictive drugs in the world.

But I use the word drug casually. Because a drug implies something illegal, illicit, ill-fated and caffeine – well, it’s just fun. Besides, surely we are not addicts to coffee. Surely, our willingness to pay in excess of $4 for a beverage is not indicative of any – major – problem. And surely, dressing our coffee up with whipped cream, milk, chocolate, and sugar makes it much more acceptable, less addictive, and less of a drug.

In the land of make believe.

The fact of the matter is that it is a drug. A psychoactive drug, at that. Need I even dissect the meaning of the word psycho – active? It’s a broad category that encompasses everything from opiates, to barbiturates, LSD, tricyclics, Prozac, Buspar, marijuana, heroin, codeine, nicotine, and – our friend – caffeine. Those psychoactives – they’re a tough crowd and not one I’d want to brush shoulders with anytime soon. And they’re a group of drugs used to treat everything from depression, pain, mania, obsessive-compulsiveness, schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety. Now imagine hanging out with that crowd.

And so, by association or like any good drug, caffeine can make you crazy. In fact, it is so agreed upon that it is a drug and can make you crazy that they put it in the handbook for all conditions crazy; the DSM-IV, Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Along with personality disorders, and depression, eating disorders, dementia, and mania, you will find a condition called caffeinism which falls under the umbrella of Caffeine-Induced Psychiatric Disorders including caffeine intoxication, caffeine-induced anxiety disorder, caffeine-induced sleep disorder, and caffeine-related disorder not otherwise specified (NOS). Sweaty palms, palpitations, restlessness, lack of clarity in speech or thought, psychomotor agitation, muscle twitches, increased urination, and nervousness may result from sending over 600 – 750 mg of caffeine into your bloodstream at any given time. And that is how one becomes caffeine-intoxicated.

600 mg – sounds like a lot, right?

Not necessarily. Most of us are already consuming around 300 mg of caffeine per day or 3 – 4 cups of coffee, 5 cups of tea, or 6 cans of pop. At least with the coffee drinkers, I imagine that consumption takes place all at once. A ‘cup’ of coffee in the morning and most of us are good to go.

But are we really all overcaffeinated?

Maybe, and here’s how. Most ‘cups’ of coffee have about 85 mg of caffeine. But coffee, being the one beverage that can transcend standard rules of measurement, is considered at 6 oz per cup. Note that most cups in this country contain 8 oz. See how important coffee is? How many of you have your own system of measurement, eh? On any given trip to the coffee shop, I pick up a 16 oz cup of coffee or the equivalent of nearly 3 cups of coffee. Get it? One cup of coffee actually equals 3 cups. And 3 cups x 85 mg puts my daily caffeine consumption around 255 mg at one given time. But what if you go for the 20 ounces or the big one at Dunkin’ Donuts rolling in at 24 ounces. And what if it doesn’t stop there? I once had a friend who would drink nearly an entire pot of coffee every morning. That’s roughly 850 mg of caffeine. At once.

And those calculations are with the amount of caffeine in a standard, brewed cup of coffee. I haven’t even touched upon drip method or espresso. With about 100 mg of caffeine per shot, that Venti collassal super-sized Americano might send you well more than halfway on your way to caffeine-intoxication. And how ironic that you can show up at work nearly drunk on coffee, but do the same with bourbon and that would be your last day. Irony aside, the amount of caffeine depends on the method of preparation. Drip coffee contains the highest amount of caffeine, followed by a shot of espresso, brewed coffee, instant, and finally decaf (yes, even decaf has caffeine).

Levels of caffeine even vary by bean blend. Those of you enjoying Peaberry are enjoying the most caffeine in a bean blend at 1.42 percent. For comparison, French Roast comes in at 1.22 percent, Sumatra at 1.3 percent, and Kona at 1.34. Where you buy your coffee might be just as important as what you buy. Though most blends contain the high quality Arabica beans, the cheaper beans, Robusta, used in cheaper blends contains more caffeine than a good old Guatemala Antigua from Starbuck’s. So, if you’re looking for a pleasant caffeine buzz it’s best to stick to your coffeehouses but if you want a cheap, buzzy thrill it’s best to head to the Jewel.

Knowing that I consume about 250 mg of caffeine a day puts my mind at ease. Actually, it’s perked up from coffee but it feels better knowing that I consume less than the average 300 mg of caffeine per day. And it’s probably best I don’t show up to work intoxicated – be it by caffeine or anything else. Wouldn’t want to lose a finger in the fax or anything.

But I know that somewhere in the past, I have teetered dangerously close the caffeinism edge. And this concerns me. Because being on that edge you get a taste of the other side.

It happens, on occasion, after a Friday morning trip to Caribou in which I think the Americano is a great idea. And about an hour later I pop into my co-workers office rattling speedily and senselessly about something – anything – it could be bananas for all I know – and finally conclude by stating that I should probably take a few laps around the building to burn it all off. All this while trying to keep my hands from shaking and trying to keep myself from jittering right out of my body.


Alarmingly, the further I think about how so many of us start out our morning riled up on hundreds of milligrams of caffeine – a drug capable of producing intoxicating effects - the more I become convinced that us coffee drinkers really are crazy. Consider this statistic - nearly 80 percent of the world's population uses caffeine consuming over 120,000 tons of coffee per year. Now, 25 percent of this population is diagnosed with a mental disorder. Now consider the overlap. 20 percent of the world drinks coffee and is crazy. For every 100 coffee drinkers you meet, 20 are coffee drinkers that are completely out of their mind.

I think I may even work with some of those people. I have a co-worker deep in the throes of daily caffeinism. She boards the caffeine coaster at 4 am, takes another hit around 8 am, another around lunch, a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, and the after work wind-down. Her blood flows in an endless supply of coffee. In fact, if you tapped one of her veins she might even bleed coffee. Her brain is so familiar with coffee that it doesn’t even charge a toll when it passes the blood brain barrier (yes, of course, there’s an I-Pass installed up there – this is Illinois, what did you expect). Anyways, we were at a conference in southern Alabama in a city I will only describe as not upwardly mobile for coffee drinkers. It was a dry town, with very little, limited coffee to be found. And what we did find wasn’t very good. 5 days in a dry town with someone that needs coffee 5 times a day. With a person so used to being so perked up that when they don’t get their fix they get fixated on finding it. It makes you hate coffee, it makes you hate yourself for even drinking coffee. It makes you cringe every time they say “I could really go for a cup of coffee.” It makes you want to pop a Buspar in their Coke - the closest available beverage to coffee - and say ‘calm your crazy coffee-deprived ass down’. It makes you think about changing your own coffee habit.

But then you think again. And think to yourself – why? If coffee keeps me happy, keeps me perked up, keeps me productive at work then so be it. There are so many things that could be in place of coffee – cigarettes, clothes shopping, fast food, television that I can’t help but feel I’ve chosen the right thing. Besides, I couldn’t afford a clothes habit and certainly wouldn’t get anywhere running on French Fries day to day. At times, I think I’ve chosen the best of the worst habits.

And so I sit here, thinking about tomorrow, another day and another cup of coffee. Actually, another 3 cups. My heart starts to beat a little faster, my eyes widen, I might even start salivating. I wonder if this is all that it takes – the power of suggestion. Part of me considers strapping on my heart rate monitor to see what happens. Maybe biology has nothing to do with it all, nothing to do with the milligrams, the studies, the method of preparation. Maybe it’s all in my head.

And so I call the coffee break completely off and dream of another perky day. Tomorrow I get to have coffee in the rooster mug filled with dark roast and a sprinkle of cinnamon. And I’ll reheat it about 100 times. Each time, I’ll toast to my habit, embrace it, biology, psychology and all, until the next cup. Are you in?

3 comments:

finn said...

add a couple fingers of jamesons, and i'm in.

some dark chocolate would be nice too.

Barb said...

I am SO in!!! Currently drinking Peet's French Roast. It's the darkest, richest, best tasting brew I can find! Yummy!

Elizabeth Fedofsky said...

Peet's does make GREAT coffee! The last time I had it was in Texas - of all places! You can't find it often around here...