What does it mean to be addicted to coffee? What does coffee do in my body? And most importantly, is it a friend or a foe? A member of Kaffa team quit coffee for a month so the rest of us don't have to... But what did they learn?
My name is Pauliina and I've been working at Kaffa for two years now. There haven’t been many consistent things in my life over the past ten years, but the one thing that’s been with me through thick and thin is my coffee. I love coffee, and have been known to be one of those people who simply cannot function without my morning coffee. I love everything about it, the smell, the taste, the ritual and the stories.
In January, I quit coffee for a month. I thought there isn’t that much I can still learn about this little seed, but it turns out I was wrong.
What exactly is coffee?
First things first. As I mentioned above, coffee is a seed. The coffee plant is a tree that makes berries (called cherries) and inside those berries there are seeds (called beans). Confusing, I know. The cherries are picked, the beans processed and shipped off to a roastery, in which the coffee beans are roasted. The roasting process is essential, because without the roasting there can be no brewing - and no coffee drink. The coffee that we drink is mostly the oils and compounds inside the bean, extracted with water.
Coffee contains heaps of natural chemicals, compounds and oils. These are things such as caffeine, antioxidants and aroma compounds. As long as you are drinking black coffee, it contains next to no energy in the form of calories. So why, then, do we feel so energetic when we drink coffee?
So caffeine, this is the most well known substance in coffee and for many, the main reason for enjoying coffee in the first place. Caffeine is a xanthine alkaloid found in many plants leaves and seeds, and acts as a natural pesticide for these plants, keeping predators away. Of course, it has a bit of an opposite effect on us humans, we seem to absolutely love it. We know it helps us wake up in the morning and gives us that little boost in the afternoon. In order to understand how caffeine works, we actually have to look at what it inhibits, rather than what it causes.
All of our cells, including our brain cells, have tiny receptors on their membrane surfaces. With the help of these receptors, the cell gets information about the environment and what’s going on within the body. Chemical messengers, such as hormones, bind into these receptors with their own personal “keys” to relay these important messages. Serotonin, for example, is the happy-hormone that is released when having a massage or laughing at an old happy memory, and then binds into cells to tell your body and brain to learn, be happy and get horny, amongst other things.
Another type of an organic compound that regulates our body is adenosine. Adenosine builds up in the body gradually during the day, binds to all cells in the body, slowly making you feel a little calmer and sleepier towards the evening and regulating your heart rate. As with other compounds, adenosine has its own special “key” to unlock its own receptors in its target cells. This is where caffeine comes in. Caffeine is also an organic compound, and it happens to be in the possession of a very similar “key” to that of adenosines. This allows the caffeine to bind into the receptors that are meant for adenosine, therefore inhibiting the function of adenosine and confusing the body. Or basically, gaslighting the body.
So caffeine stops adenosine from working properly, making you stay more alert and speeding up the heart rate. But that’s not all. Your body now is getting a message that something is happening, your heart rate is increasing and you are feeling more alert. The only natural assumption to make then is that you are in grave danger (or very excited) and the response to that is stimulating the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, which further hype you up and increase your heart rate, to prepare you for any challenges ahead.
So, what’s the problem with caffeine?
I’m all for a morning or afternoon energy boost. However, as we all know, over time you just need a little bit more to get that fix. And at some point, we all become one of those “caffeine no longer has any effect on me” -people. Oh I know, I was one of them for years and years!
Our bodies have an incredible ability to adapt to almost anything we throw at them, including caffeine. As we keep consuming coffee daily, our cells will start to see through the gaslighting and begin to increase the number of receptors for adenosine on their membranes, to allow this compound to do its job. What do we do then? Well, we have another cup, of course, because the effects just don’t feel the same anymore!
The problem with this infinite experiment is that by keeping on drinking coffee in excess, we are also keeping our bodies in a stress-like state. This is especially unfortunate for those who are prone to anxiety or mood disorders or poor sleep. Though it doesn’t feel like much anymore, caffeine still has a great effect on the body.
There's a lot to love about coffee
The thing is, when used in the right way and at the right amounts (the European health officials say 400mg of caffeine or 2-3 cups of coffee per day should be safe for healthy adults, half of that for pregnant women) coffee is absolutely fantastic. There are multiple studies proving its effectiveness for better performance pre-sports or to boost the mood and productivity for a short period of time.
The antioxidants in coffee can also have anti inflammatory effects in the body
Not to forget about the ritual and the social side of coffee. Who doesn’t love to meet a friend for a coffee date or to take a slow sunday morning with a good read and a cup of coffee? There are so many aspects to this drink that can not be discounted. And these are also some of the reasons I still stand with coffee wholeheartedly, when consumed mindfully.
When to enjoy coffee?
Because of the effects of coffee on cortisol, and the fact that cortisol is naturally highest in our bodies in the morning, it may be a good idea to wait a little while before enjoying our morning brew. Coffee also interferes with iron absorption, so it is not the best to drink coffee while eating, but to wait at least an hour before and after a meal.
Due to the boost in productivity and performance, many people like to drink coffee (or caffeine containing pre-workout drinks) before a challenge or a sports event. The effects will kick in after about 30 minutes or so after enjoying the drink and will last for a long time. In fact, it takes about 6 hours for the caffeine in your system to be halved, and that's why it shouldn’t be consumed later than six hours before bedtime.
This all would suggest that the best time to enjoy your brew is either mid-morning between breakfast and lunch or afternoon, between lunch and dinner.
My experience with quitting coffee
So now we get to the sausage behind the sauce: is quitting coffee horrible? The short answer is yes, quitting anything addictive is horrible. But it gets better.
I was a total caffeine addict for years. In fact, I would often start my day with two cups of coffee AND a pre-workout. That’s a shit ton of caffeine. So needless to say, when I went cold turkey on the first of January, it was not a fun ride initially. Luckily, I was still able to enjoy tea, so I didn’t have to go completely without a hot beverage.
The first few days I was on an absolutely foul mood and annoyed with every little thing, and the only blessing that probably saved my poor partner from any huge trauma was that I was also just way too tired to make a scene about anything. I felt paralyzed, and the headaches were real. And between us, things weren’t really working in the bathroom at all which added to the discomfort. Yes, coffee withdrawal constipation is a real thing.
After about a week things started getting easier though. I started to actually enjoy my morning tea and I was sleeping pretty damn well. Walking past coffee shops was hard, but I was feeling fresh and functional, against all my initial expectations. Over the month I truly started loving my tea in the morning and didn’t notice any changes in my productivity at work. If anything, I felt less anxious and more calm or indifferent under stress.
Towards the end of the month I truly had broken the addiction and though I was excited to have a cup of coffee, it didn’t feel like such a big deal anymore.
That opinion changed when I had my first cup of coffee again.
The first cup I had like I usually do: I grind my own beans, brew them manually with a Chemex and drink my coffee before breakfast. Often two cups.
Within 20 minutes, I had just finished my first cup and was getting started on the next one (I’m a slow drinker) when the shakes and jitters hit. In other words, everything discussed above was happening on schedule. I could not for the life of me keep my hands steady on my keyboard, and I suddenly felt a strong urge to do something. Do what, that I didn’t know, but the restlessness was strong, and unpleasant. I didn’t drink the second cup, but wastefully poured it down the drain and even then, it took a good couple of hours to feel calmer again.
The next day I did not drink coffee. I was happy to have my morning tea again, and felt calm and collected all day. I had not realised what a strong stimulant coffee is, and had foolishly thought it had no effect on me. But it’s clear that my cells and adenosine receptors had returned more towards normal during the month, and I simply didn’t have superhuman tolerance for caffeine after all.
What I learnedI am now very aware of how coffee affects my body and mind and though I still love the taste and the ritual and many things about it, I am much more mindful about how to consume coffee. One cup a day is enough for me to get my kicks, two is stretching it.
I also time my coffee much smarter. Since I’m still not back on pre-workouts, and don’t plan to go back on them, having a coffee before a workout is a really lovely experience. I wait for a while after breakfast, then have a coffee and head to the gym, and enjoy lunch when I get home. This has definitely changed my coffee rituals, but not for the worse I don’t think.
So is coffee a friend or a foe?
For me, coffee is still a friend, no question about that. But just like any relationship, there can be toxic or healthy relationships with coffee. I no longer need coffee as a crutch or crave it first thing in the morning. But I still love exploring the world of flavour in single origin coffees of different varieties and processing methods, from small, sustainable farms and responsible, cool roasteries.
Sometimes the only way to judge a relationship objectively is to take a little breather and look at it with new eyes. You might find even better ways of enjoying something you had already gotten used to.