I bet most of you have thought a lot about what coffee does to your body during your time at University. I want to add to that daily deliberation – should you keep or kick that coffee habit? There are effects on the body I’d like to share, and ultimately I’m a little scared that I may talk myself out of drinking coffee. I hope not. But I am committed to following the truth for this Health Bites column.
The truth is coffee may be more intoxicating than we realise. European cultures in the centuries before our time would regularly drink alcohol in the morning as a way to enter the day with rigour and a stirred spirit. Italian espresso culture was highly ritualised in the beginning. It was a far cry from morning grabs of caffeine that are important for our everyday culture. Speaking about coffee, the poet Dale Pendell said: “it is the very pervasiveness of the intoxication that makes it so invisible, it blends completely with the landscape – it is the landscape.” Has coffee filled the space left by morning alcohol as we live amongst a culture of productivity, excellence, and capitalism? I’ll leave it to the writers at Salient Magazine of Victoria University of Wellington to debate the finer details of capitalism in our lives. For now, it’s safe to say; you could be suspicious of an invisible hold coffee has over our patterns of life.
At a smaller scale – social and personal habits aside – coffee blocks the breaks of our cells. Muscle jitters and runaway neuron excitability is caused when inhibitory adenosine receptors are blocked by caffeine. The downstream effects of this are increased dopamine and increased adrenaline leading to mood improvements and endurance increases. Placebo double-blind trials have shown that coffee improves selective and sustained attention in both simple and complex tasks. And I’m sure many of you are already aware of this effect for yourself! I want to draw attention to some other scientific detail that could also help with our daily coffee decisions.
Antioxidants produced from the coffee roasting process reduce the stress on the liver produced by high-fat diets, and significantly reduce oxidation of fats. This keeps your body’s molecules clean and offers a protective factor against the filthy KFC habits we’re about to leap back into. Population health studies have suggested coffee reduces your risk of liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, among many others. Minerals and antioxidants like chlorogenic acid in coffee can help reduce blood pressure over the long term – it’s an effect that randomised control trials have failed to show for consistent coffee drinkers – but which regularly shows up in population health studies. Let’s not forget that coffee is a luxury item in our lives. And for those conspiracy fiends, coffee intake may also be associated with a successful intoxication in capitalist ambition. It is not easy to tell whether coffee compounds are actually reducing long term health conditions, or the socioeconomic privilege needed to purchase luxury items is the underlying reason coffee drinkers seem healthier. The lack of randomised control trials could convince you of the latter – but one does not simply walk into long-term health outcome trials. The evidence shows you’re more likely to be better off in the long-term if you’re drinking coffee, and many of these positive effects are dose-dependent, i.e. more coffee = more health benefit. Good news, cuppa-chuggers!
There’s something more important than all this wakeful excitement over coffee, and that’s sleep. The half-life of caffeine is about 5 hours. Which may explain afternoon grumpiness and tiredness, but the maths also painfully suggests afternoon coffee consumption will still interfere with sleep. The beauty of sleep and its health benefits is a whole topic in itself for another day…
Interestingly, until 2004 the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned the consumption of coffee before Olympic events. I mentioned endurance earlier, and coffee has indeed been shown in scientific trials to lengthen the amount of time you can endure physical stress. But in 2020 the WADA has chosen again not to include caffeine in its list of prohibited drugs. Instead, they are testing caffeine to monitor its consumption amongst athletes. This is because it’s probably too hard to enforce coffee restrictions on normal diets. Also, a ban could put caffeine-supplemented sporting-sponsored energy drinks into a very awkward position.
If you are drinking coffee, you could be ahead in the game of life and you may be less at risk of developing long term health conditions. Although you’re potentially behind on sleep, you could have an edge in terms of sporting performance. It really seems like there’s a lot to be proud of for drinking coffee! Give yourself a jittering pat on the back for drinking and reading this far. For those of you that skimmed to the conclusion and missed the fat of this article, I hope you can still make the right call about kicking or keeping your coffee habits this week.