I have been working from home for the last few months (since well before all the pandemic panic started) and it comes with a lot of pros and cons. You get to work in your comfy PJ pants, but you might also lose your mind after a few days of very little social contact. One of the greatest blessings, and somehow simultaneously one of the darkest curses, however, is the coffee machine.
Yeah, I know some of you get great coffee for free at the office, but at my previous job that black gold was pretty limited (or worse: INSTANT). When at home, though, it flows freely, leaving the house smelling like freshly ground beans, and providing me with the will to live. Now that so many of us are social distancing, and possibly spending a lot of time indoors, making frequent trips to the coffee machine (or however you make your coffee), what better time to have a discussion about it than right now.
Why do we love (or hate) coffee?
It’s a necessary part of the daily routine for millions of people around the world, but others can’t stand the bitterness, or the jitters it induces. Some get a much needed pick-me-up, and others are left writhing in agony. Which you are depends on your genes. Whether you’ve built up a strong tolerance to caffeine, or whether you avoid it because it makes you anxious or nauseous, all comes down to tiny variations in your genetic alphabet.
According to Michelle Z. Donahue for National Geographic, it all begins with the way your body handles the caffeine floating around in it, and two genes deal with most of the work: a gene called CYP1A2 produces a liver enzyme which metabolises about 95% of it, and how much of that enzyme is produces is controlled by AHR. “If you produce less of the caffeine-zapping enzyme,” she writes, “more of the chemical will circulate in your body for longer, meaning it can affect you for longer”, and if these effects aren’t the fun ones you expect, you probably wont be reaching for the next cup quite as frequently.
Turns out a totally different set of genes also plays a role in determining how your cup o’ joe affects your brain, its activity, and its reward centers. These genes, according to Donahue, are also implicated on other side effects, such as insomnia or stomach trouble. A gene known as ADORA2A, in charge of Adenosine (which causes drowsiness in the morning, and after lunch) is largely what controls your reaction to caffeine you ingest. It’s why some people feel better after their post-lunch latte, and why others will have trouble sleeping after just a sip. It’s also why many suffer from serious panic and anxiety after just one cappuccino.
Negative side-effects of caffeine aside, a lot of people avoid coffee in particular because of its bitterness. Funnily enough, this is also why people love it. This too is influenced by our genetics. But coffees come in a range of different bitternesses. Taste and smell researcher, Danielle Reed, of the Monell Center in Philadelphia told Donahue that “Only 15 percent of the bitterness of coffee is from caffeine, and the other 85 percent is from a whole other palette of bitter compounds”.
She says that we have a whole bunch of different bitter receptors, but that there are also a lot of different bitternesses in coffee. We therefore have to look at the genetics on a coffee-by-coffee basis as well. As we are all different, coffees are too.
But is coffee good for us?
Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, after oil. So we can safely say that it’s pretty popular. Chances are you’ve already read numerous articles on both sides of the debate about whether or not its actually good for us. like this one, from National Geographic, which says that a study following 500 000 Europeans over the course of ten years found that those who drank coffee “show signs of having healthier livers and circulatory systems, as well as lower levels of inflammation”. The study also found that “higher coffee consumption was associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause,” which sounds bizarre unless, like me, your morning coffee provides you with the will to live.
Studies like this one have also found that with moderate coffee consumption comes improved alertness and reduced fatigue, improved performance on “vigilance tasks and simple tasks that require sustained response”. Regular caffeine usage (this makes us sound like drug abusers), according to the study, also results in “better mental functioning” and the effects on users’ behaviour are largely positive. So if you’re looking for an excuse for that third cup, there’s always that.
According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, some studies have also shown that intake of caffeine can protect the brain against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia (although they’re not exactly sure why yet) and also improve Erectile Dysfunction. Admittedly, more research is needed in both these arenas.
So while your daily coffee is starting to look like it does more good than harm, keep in mind that, as with anything, you can have too much of a good thing. A lethal dose of caffeine is about 150mg per kilogram of body weight. Considering a single cup of coffee contains approximately 150mg of caffeine, you’d have to drink a cup for each Kilo that you weigh, which might be a challenge if you’re running to the bathroom and back between cups. According to this informative ASAP Science video, you’ll probably also start experiencing mania and hallucinations before you’ve gotten through all those cups, and then there’s the fact that all that liquid can’t actually fit into your body.
What about other sources of caffeine?
While this article has focused mainly on coffee consumption as a source of caffeine, many of the points discussed also apply to other sources, like most teas or chocolate.
Caffeine occurs naturally in cocoa beans, so as a rule of thumb, the darker the chocolate, they higher the caffeine levels. If you’re looking for that little energy boost but can’t stand the bitterness of coffee, this might be a solution (all in moderation). If you’re particularly sensitive to caffeine and are trying to stay away, best to avoid that as well. Any chocolate or coffee flavoured treat, like ice cream, may contain low levels too.
Even decaffeinated coffee isn’t entirely devoid of the stuff. A cup of decaf may still provide you with 12mg of caffeine and keep those who are particularly sensitive to it from getting good quality sleep.
According to Sleep.org, Headache medicines and PMS remedies are also culprits, often containing up to 65mg of caffeine per dose.
Our aim at Essential Millennial is always to educate and inform our readers, and also to encourage them to go out and investigate further. After writing this article, this particular writer intends to maintain her current work-from-home coffee habit until further notice.
While this article is neither saying you should avoid caffeine in whatever form, nor dive into a bathtub of your favourite single origin brew, it’s always wise to keep in mind the effects that it has on your body. Considering many of those effects are genetic, nobody is going to judge you (we hope) for passing up on a cup of coffee, or for keeping a bar of 90% Lindt next to your computer because it “helps you focus”.