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One Addict’s Story

Published: June 27, 2010

5:30 AM and the sun is peering in through the window. Outside birds would be heard chirping, if not for the awful train wreck of a noise being so unceremoniously spewed through the speakers of my alarm clock. Groping at the nightstand with all of my might, I manage to find the snooze button not once, not twice, but three times. 6:00 AM and my feet first hit the floor. Eyes half open and my brain less than half alert, I stumble into the kitchen. My arms are lead and even the simple movement of flicking the light switch is trying. On top of the stove next to a dirty iron skillet I spot the reflecting silver of the tea kettle. The sink is full of dishes, but that is none of my concern, for I am singly focused on getting one thing. Pushing the dishes aside, I turn on the tap. There is a ringing of stainless steel as water fills the kettle, it parallels the ringing in my head as my body fills with anxiety. More impatient than ever, I grab the large bag of whole coffee beans, conveniently within arms reach. As I pour the coffee into the grinder, I feel as if I can hear each individual bean dropping into the hopper. Pressing the power button, the sharp, metallic, bone crunching clamor of the grinder crescendos into a serene melody. A vivacious scent wafts through air. My nostrils flare as they catch the bouquet and sparks erupt in my brain. Opening my eyes, I count out loud as I scoop the coffee. 6 and one-half scoops, the perfect proportion for the perfect cup. The kettle screams and my heart begins to race. As I pour the hot water into the press, the steam burns my hand. The pain is startling, but like the stinging of a needle in the arm of a heroin addict, I embrace it, feed off of it, knowing that this pain represents that my morning ritual is nearly complete. Shaking with anticipation, I pour the black elixir into a mug, lifting it to my lips. The aroma has subsumed me and as I drink I am elevated from this plane of existence onto the next, a glimpse of heaven contained in the cup.

My ritualistic morning practice is not a unique one, in fact eight out of ten adult westerners claim to be consumers of caffeine. In America, many of these people choose my personal favorite method of caffeine intake, consuming the drug as it naturally occurs in coffee beans, the dried seeds of the cherries from the plants Coffea arabica or Coffea canephora. Caffeine itself is a stimulant and when used in low to moderate doses its long list of effects include: an increase in feelings of well-being (euphoria), increases in the ability to concentrate and the overall state of alertness, as well as an increase in self-confidence, sociability and arousal which seems to explains the popularity of the Red-Bull Vodka. Caffeine itself works differently from other stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine in that it doesn’t affect your “fight or flight” (sympathetic) nervous system. The truth of the matter is that scientists don’t really know why caffeine is a stimulant. One proposal is that caffeine inhibits a vital enzyme called cAMP phosphodiesterase, however there is opposing research that suggests that the amount of inhibition is not significant enough to cause any physical response. Caffeine has been shown to block the effects of adenosine, a naturally occurring chemical in our brains. Adenosine has been proven to induce drowsiness in cats, so it would seem a logical conclusion that the same effect would occur in humans. Science is messy, however, and what works in other animals often doesn’t work in humans, as can be seen by mice showing a reduction in motor activity when given high doses of caffeine (humans tend to become anxious an jittery). So there you have it, science itself isn’t an exact science. We as a species, despite our significant technological advances, still have much to learn about our world, even in matters as routine as drinking coffee.

Of course, any habitual coffee drinker could have explained the effects of caffeine, and I think that very few people care (or at least have only superficial use in knowing) what is causing these effects on the cellular level. Why then, am I getting into all of this? Well, besides the positive, mood enhancing, energy inducing, life affirming nature of caffeine, there is a dark side to the drug. Caffeine dependence, the craving that we, the 80 – 90% of us that consume caffeine feel every morning has been the subject of several recent studies. My experience with this drug, and its uncanny ability to wake me from my zombie-like stupor sparked my interest in these studies, which show that our understanding of the effects of caffeine might be different than we originally thought.

In part 2 we will take a brief look at these studies and the conclusions they draw.

The story presented above was based on the experiences of our staff writer, not Dr. Doug DeSalles