Take it or leave it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Fact: There are authors who attribute many of civilization’s greatest achievements to the consumption of coffee. AKA Java. AKA Joe. If not for that daily cup or pot as the case may be, how would people have the energy to do all that they do? I mean really!

Question: If you need coffee in order to be able to accomplish something, should you be doing it in the first place?

My personal history: Like most teenagers, I fell asleep in my morning class. As the National Sleep Foundation will tell you, teens need, on average, over nine hours of nightly sleep, and tend to have irregular sleep patterns. In general, teenagers stay up late each night and sleep in late on weekends. They are night owls. I quote: “Biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence -- meaning it is natural not to be able to fall asleep before 11:00 pm.” The effect on the biological clock is such that it is therefore also natural to be snoozing in classes that begin at 8 am. Sorry Ms. Wortman, but a fact is a fact. Ms. Wortman was my Math Analysis teacher my senior year at Beverly Hills High School.

My mother, an avid coffee drinker, made me my first morning cup shortly after my 20th birthday. She surely would have given me coffee prior to my sophomore year at UCLA, if not for the belief, still held by some, that coffee can stunt a child’s growth. Like lifting weights before you’re fully grown. But this is largely a myth. And besides, I was full-grown by the time I turned 15. I quickly took to the taste – black with a spot of sweetener – and in no time made a ritual of having coffee after my morning meal of oatmeal and eggs. Instantly my grades improved. I was always a good student, but I became an even better one. I just felt more intelligent, as if my IQ were increasing with each daily dose. This is to be expected. Coffee is a central nervous stimulant, and the central nervous system is basically the brain. As a vasodilator, coffee increases blood flow, and thus transport of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. While we’re on the subject of physiological effects, the caffeine in coffee also increases levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. It increases body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate, as well as body temperature, the International Journal of Vascular Medicine tells us. Ooops, I already said that. See, jittery!

Never a morning person, overnight I began to look forward to getting out of bed each day, just to have my morning cup of Joe. Granted, I had just quit my job waiting tables, which had involved late nights, many of them during the school week, so I no longer felt so overworked. Waking up was no longer so hard to do. This was in 1993, and for the next 21 years coffee or some stimulant was part of my daily routine. Sometimes I added to the morning cup a capsule or two of Ripped Fuel, now taken off the market. Ripped Fuel contains ephedra, a stimulant associated with heart irregularities and the turn of the century preseason deaths of several overweight football players, but that’s another subject.

By the time I had enrolled in medical school, in 2004, I had become a confirmed coffee drinker, every morning enjoying two large cups of the strongest brew I could find. It made me more alert. Duh! And by this time I had added distance running to my daily regimen, and an extra cup or two, pounded quickly at the start line, helped me to compete in endurance events like triathlons and half marathons. More than once I was visited by the unsettling awareness of my coffee addiction. I wasn’t born needing this dark thick drink, so how had I become so dependent on the stuff? But the few times I tried to kick the habit, while doing juice fasts or spending a day in bed and not needing an energy boost, I felt the effects of my chemical dependence in the all-too-familiar form of a piercing headache and general malaise.

When I was hit by a car in 2012 while training for a marathon, I was bed ridden for a month and stopped drinking coffee, only to resume it once I was cleared to resume physical activity. And when I broke my hip in 2014, I gave it up for a whole two months. (Too much coffee weakens bones. I wonder if the two are related.) I had forgotten what life was without some form of stimulant. By this time I was 41. I had kept up the habit for over half my life. And sans pick-me-up, I wrote and read as usual, but when I tried to work out, I had lost the spring in my step. It seemed I needed coffee just to be active. Coffee had become synonymous with living. Something I needed to do every day, even if I don't feel like it. Sorta sad.

I don’t think I’m alone in being hooked on kona (my favorite brand), but this is not the rule, or doesn’t have to be. Chuck Engle runs a marathon every seven days as part of his 80 weekly miles and doesn’t drink coffee except on the day he races, which means he runs six days a week sans stimulant. And I know of writers who do not need caffeine to put words on the page. Stephen King doesn’t touch the stuff. He prefers black tea, which does contain caffeine, making my point moot.

What would the world be like without coffee? What would my life be like? I was an A student and varsity athlete in high school without drinking java. But in college I struggled in school and hardly had the energy to live my life – until I started consuming coffee.

I recently reconnected with a girl from my past, a lovely gal whom I had loved then and still do now. Excited to see her I wanted to get in shape in the shortest time possible. I was still recovering from my broken bone and hadn’t so much as done a chin-up in the two months since the accident. So I started drinking coffee again. I wanted to supercharge my recovery. Suddenly I was jumping rope, climbing stairs, and pushing weights over my head, as if I hadn’t skipped a day. I might add that these were the very activities that the doctor had told me not to do for at least a few more weeks, but I felt super-powered. Before the week was through I seemed to have regained my muscle tone and pre-accident fitness level. P.S. it didn’t work out with the gal in question. We wanted different things. It happens all too often. A bit depressed, I stopped drinking coffee. And working out.

The question is this : Without coffee what will I do? I don’t feel like doing anything, really. Not moving a muscle is fine by me. But if coffee gives me the energy to do what I don’t otherwise feel motivated to do, is this justification to take it? Or should I reconsider my goals and activities? The sages say not to engage in unnecessary action, and if only useful actions are necessary, and by useful those that benefit oneself or others, most of what we do doesn’t have a point in the grand scheme. So maybe rest is best. But how to combat complacency?

An NIH study finds that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of death. But Joel Fuhrman, MD, nutrition guru, tells us that caffeine gives a false sense of energy and causes one to override the signals of fatigue, and that it should therefore be avoided. Who are we to believe? If taken too late in the day, caffeine most definitely compromises sleep. Fitness enthusiasts are familiar with the phenomenon of adrenal exhaustion. Coffee stimulates the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, with the long-term drawback of leaving you chronically tired. Caffeine may combat Alzheimer’s but it can contribute to diabetes. Drinking several cups a day is linked with a lower risk of depression. And caffeine can give you a short-term competitive edge both mentally and physically, increasing the entry of sugar into muscles by as much as 25 percent (Journal of Applied Physiology, June 2006) but also leading to more muscle damage and fatigue, possibly aggravating the symptoms of depression? The findings are by no means conclusive, and it must be remembered that regular coffee consumption can be classified as a chemical dependence (thus the withdrawal symptoms most of us are so familiar with). Drink too much coffee and you're liable to experience the symptoms of anxiety, nervousness, even a full-blown panic attack with sweaty palms and racing heart.

It makes me uneasy to rely on a substance that unlike food or water or sleep is not a biological need. After all, we didn’t come into this world drinking or needing coffee, so why spend our days consuming the stuff so religiously? The same can be said about sex. But as with sex, if life is more enjoyable with a cup or two of caffeine to start each morning, just to kick start an otherwise drab day, then this stimulation, albeit artificial, is harmless enough, and the benefits may outweigh the risks, but the jury is still out.

This much I do know: there is much I would not do, if not for the nudge that coffee provides. Maybe I should save myself the effort. I may not achieve much, but at least I'll know that what I do counts.

I am drinking black tea as I write this. Its merit I leave for you to decide.

If you're going to drink coffee, it's best to keep caffeine intake under 500 mg per day. Note that an 8 oz cup of strong coffee can contain as much as 200 mg of caffeine, so 16 oz of daily java will put you at the maximum (which the Mayo Clinic says is 400 mg). And avoid your morning cup on days you don't work out, due to increased risk of diabetes and cellular damage. Also, the half-life of caffeine is 5.7 hours, and as it takes about 6 half-lives to remove a drug (which caffeine is) from the body, the stimulating effects you get from drinking Joe can last 36 hours or well into the next day. Remember that next time you toss and turn.

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