I’ve had a long-standing love-hate affair with caffeine.
When I began university, many years ago, I decided to start drinking coffee. That’s what grown-ups do. But my mother had terrible problems with stomach ulcers so, when I began to get stomach pains, I feared that I might have inherited her constitution and quit drinking it.
This makes me almost the only adult that I know who never drinks coffee. Even my mother, who almost bled to death from a perforated ulcer, still drinks it every day.
Instead, I got my caffeine from Pepsi, Coke, and chocolate. Lots of caffeine from lots of colas and chocolate. If you drink twenty-six ounces of Pepsi at a sitting, you’re getting similar amounts of caffeine as you’d get from a cup of coffee. And a whack more sugar. Hard on the teeth, but a great buzz.
When I was a post-doctoral fellow a few years later, my supervisor commented that she was suffering from insomnia and went to her doctor. The doctor’s first question was whether she drank coffee. The penny dropped. She stopped consuming any caffeine – coffee, tea, colas, chocolate – and began sleeping well.
I, too, was having trouble sleeping so I did the same. I, too, began enjoying nights of blissful slumber.
I soon lost all tolerance for caffeine. A couple of chocolates was enough to give me a bad night. This was not merely a placebo effect. I inadvertently gave myself a blind test. I woke up one morning after a bad night and my first thought was, “I’ve had caffeine somewhere.” At that time I was drinking non-caffeinated soda exclusively. The day before, I had downed a bottle of orange Slice – not a brand that I normally drank. I pulled the bottle out of the garbage and looked at the label. Sure enough, the ingredients included caffeine.
It’s not easy to avoid all caffeine in this society.
After a few years, I missed the caffeine buzz and decided that maintaining a little tolerance was useful. I began eating healthy amounts of chocolate and drinking the occasional Pepsi. I restricted my colas to Fridays on the theory that it didn’t matter if I didn’t sleep on Friday night; I could sleep in on Saturday morning.
I also use caffeine strategically to jack myself up for important events like public lectures and to keep myself awake on long-distance drives. Because I keep my tolerance low, it does not take much to have a relatively strong effect on me.
From years of casual observation of the impact of caffeine on myself and discussing it with other people, I’ve come to four broad conclusions:
First, caffeine is a much more powerful drug than most people realize. Because the average person maintains a high tolerance by consuming a constant amount of coffee every day, he greatly underestimates the effect of the drug on himself.
Second, a dose of caffeine has effects that last at least forty-eight hours. People believe that caffeine only affects them for a few hours because they pay attention only to the initial effects – such as a pounding heart and heightened attention. They pay less attention to minor sleep disruptions. Because they typically re-dose themselves within twenty-four hours, they mask longer-term effects, such as sleep disruption on the second night.
Third, the effect of caffeine is cumulative over several days. If I drink a can of Pepsi one morning, it has little effect on my sleep that night. If I drink a can on the second morning in a row, I’ll be restless that night. If I drink a can on the third morning in a row, I’ll be hard pressed to get six hours sleep that night and will be awake for at least a half hour in the middle.
Fourth, caffeine withdrawal is a subtle malady. Many people realize that headaches are likely but discount the foggy head that is a more pernicious symptom of withdrawal. There is evidence that the boost in attention and activity that follows a cup of coffee in the morning is a result only of removing the fogginess due to caffeine withdrawal. People who have a caffeine habit think that they are preforming above average after drinking their habitual morning cup of coffee. They are wrong. In fact, they’re merely bringing themselves up to the normal level that they would already be at if they never used caffeine.
The most interesting effect of caffeine addiction is the denial of its most obvious effects by addicts. I have a friend who drinks coffee constantly all day long. She complains that she can sleep only about four hours a night. When I point out the obvious correlation, she swears that coffee doesn’t have any affect on her sleep. And she has no intention of ever stopping her caffeine intake, even for a few days to test the theory. I think she is afraid that she will discover that her coffee consumption really is causing her insomnia and have to do something about it.
She is not alone in her denial of the effect of caffeine on her sleep patterns. All the time, people tell me that they only drink coffee in the morning so that’s not what’s causing them to stay awake at night. It has to be something else. Anything else.
It’s the coffee. Admit the truth. You’d rather drink that coffee than get a good night’s sleep.
Me, too. I think I’ll have a Pepsi and a seventy per cent chocolate bar tomorrow morning.