09/18/2006

Coffee Detox

By Kirk Fernandes

“Can I get something for you?” asks the beaming, curly-haired barista from behind the counter. 

“Do you have decaf?” I respond, half-expecting a fervent denial or at least a raised eyebrow.

It's been more than 18 months since I've had a cup of coffee or knowingly drank a caffeinated beverage.  But now I'm back in a coffeehouse -- the source of my former drug of choice -- purchasing my first cup of decaf.  My name is Kirk.  I'm a recovering caffeinaholic, and it’s entirely possible the drink in my hand could awaken the caffeine-hungry beast I've starved for so long.

I used to be one of those pressured professionals who survived the work week with several dozen cups of caffeine. At the height of my habit, I realized the severe weekend headaches I developed were symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. Relief came quickly after I visited the corner Starbucks or the nearest vending machine to get my next “hit.”

Tired of the routine I detoxed and discovered there is life after caffeine.   I'm still productive; the headaches are gone; and I no longer feel out of control when making decisions about my beverage consumption.  I once thought my caffeine sensitivity was fairly unique, but there are others like me, perhaps including yourself, who might underestimate the impact caffeine has in their lives. 

My greatest fear in a post-caffeine existence was that I would linger in an unproductive caffeine-free malaise.  Unfortunately, I can't deny the fact that I'm at a competitive disadvantage because I don't consume caffeine.  Increased alertness is a near-immediate effect of the drug, which quickly breaches the blood-brain barrier.  Caffeine stimulates several body mechanisms including blood pressure and respiration, by blocking nerve receptors in the brain that are usually reserved for the body's natural “downer” chemical, adenosine.  In addition to alertness, caffeine has been shown to improve mood and increase speed and efficiency on certain timed tasks. 

It's believed these positive effects are what encourage reinforcement among consumers.  In fact, there's growing evidence that caffeine shares some of the addictive properties of other psychostimulants such as heroin and cocaine.  Recent research has found caffeine stimulates dopamine release in the same part of the brain as amphetamines and cocaine, a mechanism believed to create the rewarding sensation and motor-activating properties of addictive drugs.  “Relatively low doses (of caffeine) can produce physical dependence,” says Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.  Griffiths will often cite a University of Vermont telephone survey that found 30 percent of the 162 coffee drinkers questioned met the diagnostic criteria for drug dependence.  He also conducted a meta-analysis in 2004 of 57 experimental studies, determining that one out of two participants reported caffeine withdrawal headaches and 13 percent demonstrated clinically significant distress or functional impairment.  He's pushing for the inclusion of caffeine addiction in the next version of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  An APA researcher says “it will be considered” for the 2011 edition.

Still, caffeine seems poised to retain its spot as the most widely consumed psychoactive drug on the planet.  In fact, we're being pumped up with caffeine like never before in cutely-packaged, highly-concentrated doses.  It’s not just the 12-oz can of cola with its 30 mg of caffeine, stores now sell breath mints crammed with 100 mg of caffeine per piece.  You can order a caffeinated syrup online that contains the same 100-mg dose in a single 1-oz serving.  Although the seller warns buyers that the syrup should be used sparingly, it's also suggested you “pour it on ice cream and pancakes.”   The surging $3 billion energy drink industry offers several 16-oz products with about 150 mg of caffeine, but you'll have to check the manufacturer's website to find that out, because it's not on the label.  Head over to the nearest exercise and nutrition store and it's likely you'll find a tub of caffeine powder to enhance your next workout, because caffeine increases exercise endurance.  Or how about a caffeinated soap that advertises 200 mg in 12 bath-time servings that are absorbed directly into the skin?

Even coffee drinkers might be getting more than they bargained for.  A study by the University of Florida College of Medicine found significant variation in the amount of caffeine in a 16-oz cup of Starbucks Breakfast Blend coffee.  Over a six-day sampling period, the caffeine dose ranged from 259 mg to 564 mg per cup.   “We know that the processing of the coffee beans can affect the amount of caffeine that's in the final grounded product,” explains Bruce Goldberger, associate professor of toxicology and psychiatry.  (An acute dose above 500 mg will negate most beneficial effects of caffeine and has been shown to increase stress levels in the body.) 

While it would be unfair for a caffeine-sensitive individual like myself to demand everyone give up this vice, it can't hurt to take an inventory of your caffeine intake.  For most adults, there's general consensus that 300 mg over the course of a day is a moderate amount.  At the very least, manufacturers should label the caffeine content in their drinks so consumers can compute their daily consumption.  Coffeehouses should also be encouraged to post the range of caffeine content in their products.

As I polish off my first cup of decaf, I decide it'll probably be my last.  I haven't even tried a caffeine-free cola since I kicked my habit; there's still a part of me that fears temptation, I guess.  As I head outside the cafe, I don't feel particularly energized nor spirited, but unlike the others who're just going inside, I don't feel like I have to come back, either.