To the disappointment of tea drinkers and soda enthusiasts everywhere, today we’re discussing one of the most profitable and versatile caffeinated beverages on the planet. Take a minute to breathe it in– the rich, earthy scent of beans, the silky smoothness of fresh cream, the tangy bitterness of espresso. That’s right folks, today we’re talking coffee.
Whether you’re a self-designated coffee-snob or not, you are likely to fall into the majority of Americans who drink coffee on a daily basis. There are approximately 24,000 coffee shops in America alone, serving around 150 million Americans every day and funding the 18 billion dollars a year coffee industry. It’s at nearly every gas station, supermarket, workplace, and recreational facility– for some reason or another, we can’t seem to get enough of it.
So how is that morning cup of joe made, and what impact does it have on your body? Strap in, coffeeholics– we’re deep-diving into what makes that mug of beans so gosh-darn irresistible.
A Brief Coffee Break-down
This might blow your mind, but coffee actually comes from cherries– well, sort of. The fruit that coffee trees produce once they’re fully grown is known as a “coffee cherry” (and yes, they look like normal bright red cherries). There’s usually only one harvest a year, wherein the seeds (beans) inside the cherries are extracted using either the Dry or Wet Method. The beans are then dried and milled, sorted, and exported around the world for coffee drinkers everywhere to enjoy.
Most coffee aficionados say that the best cups of joe are made when the beans are ground right before brewing, and it’s recommended that 2 tablespoons of grinds be filtered for every ¾ cups of water. And depending on how much you want your coffee to wake you up, you may prefer some preparation methods more than others. Espresso, for example, is one of the more caffeinated forms of coffee due to its finely-ground beans and nearly boiling temperature during preparation. The variances in the coffee’s processing methods– pressure, water temp, grind thickness, age, etc.– are what lead to the different flavor profiles, textures, and aromas in the final product. (And if you still think all coffee tastes the same… well, check out this chart to see why you’re wrong.)
Funnily enough, while places like Brazil, Indonesia, and Uganda lead the pack in coffee cultivation, Switzerland has the highest rate of coffee consumption in the world: the average person drinks about 10.5kg of coffee per year there, more than two times as much as the average American. This can be pretty baffling to those just entering the coffee scene, or those who think the idea of “bean juice” is pretty gross (an unfortunate but understandable opinion). The sheer volume of coffee drinkers around the world is definitely a curious phenomenon, though: what do we even get out of drinking coffee? Well, here’s what science has to say about that.
Coffee’s Impact on the Body
There are a number of things we associate with coffee– its distinct scent, its smoothness, how great it looks in a cute mug– but what it is most known for is its ability to make us feel more alert. And if our sleep statistics are anything to go by, we sure could use some extra energy: while the specific numbers vary, most studies report that at least 20% of Americans feel consistently weary throughout the day. Enter coffee, the most popular pick-me-up in the world.
Caffeine is a crystallized compound found in about 60 different plant species, including, of course, coffee beans. One regular cup of coffee contains about ¼ of our daily recommended intake, and depending on your tolerance level, it’ll jump-start your central nervous system (your brain and your spinal cord). This will heighten your spatial awareness and cause your neurons to fire more rapidly, meaning you’ll think sharper and feel more alert. Faster neural communication also helps our brains block pain, which is why coffee is often recommended for hangovers. And last, but certainly not least, it tastes incredible when paired with a delicate slice of chocolate cake.
How Much Is Too Much?
Unfortunately, like all things, caffeine should be enjoyed in moderation. It’s recommended that we drink no more than four cups of coffee per day, or 400 milligrams of caffeine in general. The good news is that, if you pace yourself, you may not even have to drink coffee to feel its energizing effects: many casual coffee drinkers report that just the smell of it has given them brief mental boosts.
Of course, with all of the energy you could get from just a few sips, you may want to dive deeper into the world of coffee than just sniffing the beans. But be warned: coffee is a stimulant, and like all stimulants, it can have some uncomfortable side effects. So, before you reach for that fifth cup of joe, take a minute to consider…
- Bladder Complications: Coffee irritates the urinary tract, which causes us to urinate more frequently. Prolonged overconsumption may cause long-term bladder instability (meaning you’re more likely to pee your pants, and no one wants that).
- Confusion: Our minds tend to race while over-caffeinated, so be careful– too much stimulation could disrupt your cognitive processes or leave you light-headed.
- Heart Afflictions: Those with a history of cardiovascular disorders should steer clear of acidic and/or caffeine-heavy beverages– heartburn, high blood pressure, and heart palpitations can occur if the heart is overstimulated.
- Bone Complications: Caffeine is known to block calcium absorption, meaning your bones are more likely to break or warp with age. This may put you at risk for developing bone-related ailments like osteoporosis.
- Fertility: Pregnant women are put at a much higher risk of miscarriage if they drink more than 200 mg of caffeine a day. They also increase the likelihood that the child will experience developmental issues as they grow in the womb.
Seeing the potential side-effects laid out like that can be a little daunting (and there’s actually a few more that we’ll get to in a minute). But the best way to not get hung up on them is to remind yourself that caffeine is a substance you can use or abuse. You control how much you put in your body, and when used correctly, it can be a great tool for your mental and physical wellbeing. Inhaling that beanie goodness is sometimes all you’ll need to get a pick-me-up, and other times you may feel like you need four cups of it to stay afloat. And both of those are okay, as long as you know when to cut yourself off.
Speaking of, where exactly is that line? How do we know when we’re starting to develop an unhealthy dependency on coffee (or caffeine in general), and how can we begin to recover if we’re drinking too much?
One interesting and important distinction to make is that caffeine addiction isn’t necessarily measured by how many cups of coffee you drink a day– it’s measured by how your body reacts to being denied its desired substance. Like all addictions, caffeine dependency is both a psychological and physiological phenomenon, meaning it changes both your mind and your body. And the side effects of overconsumption can be just as uncomfortable as those of smoking, drinking, and drug use–
- Altered Brain Function: Studies have shown that overcaffeinated brains have difficulty releasing the hormones it needs to naturally keep us awake, and failing to provide it with a stimulus can lead to confusion and an unsettling “foggy” feeling in the mind.
- Tolerance: Steady rises in caffeine consumption lead to caffeine tolerance, meaning you will crave more of it and ultimately increase your dosage. And the more you feed into that urge, the more caffeine your brain will demand to keep itself going.
- Mood Fluctuations: How do you feel when you can’t get that cup of coffee in the morning? Are you angry? Restless? Unable to conceive getting out of bed? If so, your body might be telling you it has a problem.
- Tremors: Getting the jitters can be a sign of drinking too much caffeine at any given time, but prolonged consumption may lead to consistent, irrepressible muscle spasms.
And what’s worse, if you go a day or two without caffeine once your body becomes dependent on it, you may experience intense withdrawal symptoms: cravings, pounding headaches, persistent fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.
Thankfully, caffeine dependency can typically be reversed within a week or two. It’s recommended that you drink lots of water and be prepared for an energy crash or two as you let your body adjust to the reduced levels of caffeine in your system.
If you feel that you rely too heavily on it to maintain your health, one of the most important things to understand about caffeine is that it is not a good idea to quit cold-turkey. Seriously, don’t try it. Completely cutting your brain off from something it thinks it needs to function will most likely cause you to spiral. You can avoid the depressive episodes, mood swings, and general misery of that process by slowly reducing your intake over time.
If you’re looking to increase your energy throughout the day, here are some natural, caffeine-less methods to give your brain the jumpstart it needs:
- Exercise– Whether it’s dancing, lifting weights, going for a jog, or just stretching, getting active will help wake up your limbs and refresh a tired mind!
- Try Not to Smoke– Smoking is unhealthy for a variety of reasons, including its tendency to cause insomnia. Try to limit your light-up time to keep your energy levels consistent.
- Avoid Naps– Regulating when you let your body sleep will ultimately help your brain know when it’s time to be awake and time to go to bed.
- Be Strategic with Meals– Try eating small meals throughout the day rather than the usual big three, drink minimal amounts of alcohol, and eat with the intent of giving yourself more energy. Sugar-packed foods lead to energy crashes, and big meals with lots of carbs will tire the body out, so be mindful of what you’re putting into your body.
- Drink Lots of Water– Nowadays water seems to be the answer to just about every problem we have. But in this case, it’s true: limit fatigue by replenishing your body with clean and clear liquids.
- Get Some Rest– Try to get as close to eight hours of solid sleep a night as you can, and be sure not to stress yourself out during the day– anxiety is the enemy of good rest!
Whether you’re an avid coffee drinker or not, we could all use a pick-me-up every now and then. So now that you know the consequences of having too much of a good thing, don’t be afraid to enjoy that good thing! Brew yourself a cup after a nice meal, or set up a coffee date with that cutie in the cubicle next to you. Let’s raise a commemorative mug and give three cheers for clear minds and happy jitters!