TLDR: I love caffeine. : Notes on Michael Pollan’s book - specifically the Caffeine chapter
I recently listened to Michael Pollan talking about his new book ‘Your Mind on Plants’.
In it, he discusses three main plant substances : Opium, Caffeine and Mescaline.
This is a summary of the ‘Caffeine’ section - a drug 90% of the human population consumes daily, including me. We think we are in ‘vanilla’ consciousness, but our default is actually caffeine infused consciousness.
1,3,7-trimethylxanthine : my first love
World’s most used psychoactive compound
90% of the world consumes caffeine in some form. In fact it is the only drug we routinely give to children (in the form of soda).
Most don’t even think of it as a drug, because it has become so ingrained into daily routines. Our baseline state of consciousness is caffeine fuelled.
Caffeine is found and consumed primarily from two sources
- Coffea ‘bean’
- Camelia sinuses leaf (tea)
It’s miraculous how these two plants managed to produce a chemical that somehow binds to a receptor in the human brain and alters the state. Clearly not the intention of the plants. They now command a vast infrastructure where we move these leaves all around the world, cover huge swathes of land- all for the sole purpose of infusing in water and then throwing it away. It’s pretty weird.
These plants produce caffeine as a pesticide for defence against predators, because at high doses caffeine is lethal to insects. It’s bitter flavour also discourages them from chewing on the plants.
You can see the effect of caffeine on insects: For example : NASA conducted a famous experiment in 1990’s where they fed psychoactive substances to spiders.
The caffeinated spider was pretty useless. The insects are effectively neutralised.
Why don’t the plants just produce pesticides that kill the insect? Why make it confused. This is because killing it, would then select for resistant members of the population.
History of Caffeine
Caffeine only arrived in Western Civilisation in the 1600’s! Pretty late.
All apparently in the same decade (1650’s) in England.
Coffee was in East Africa a few centuries prior- and was thought to be discovered in Ethiopia in AD 850 by a goat herder. He noticed his goats would be hyperactive after eating berries from the Coffea Arabica plant. It was then traded across Arabian Peninsula- used by Sufi’s as an aid to concentration. Tea is older than coffee - discovered in China since 1000BC - and was used by Buddhist monks.
Coffee houses sprang up in the Arab world - more than 600 of them in 1570’s Constantinople. These were centres of gathering, news, gossip and performances.
Pollan notes that this period coincided with flourishing in science, technology and learning. Similarly in China, the popularity of tea in the Tang Dynasty coincided with a golden age.
He posits this may be because : people no longer had to drink alcohol. Prior to coffee/tea - people in Europe mostly drank alcohol instead of water - as it was safer. It was fermented. Therefore most people lived a drunk existence - from waking up to sleeping they drank alcohol.
The advent of coffee/tea - meant that they now had a reason to boil water and drink hot water. This killed any microbes and was safer than drinking plain water.
The first coffee houses popped up in the West in Venice 1629- and then in England in 1650’s. “Within a few decades, there were thousands of coffeehouses in London; at their peak, one for every two hundred Londoners”.
Coffee houses were a venue for exploration, conversation and a place where different classes could mix (more reputable than taverns). They were “often referred to as ‘penny universities’”. Apparently each coffee house attracted a niche e.g. scientists would congregate at the ‘Grecian’ which became associated with the Royal society. “Literary set gathered at Will’s and at Button’s in Covent Garden”.
Pollan explains that coffee may have significantly contributed to Capitalism in the West- mainly through allowing humans to escape the rhythms of the sun. It allowed for night shift / shift work : owners would institute coffee breaks. It’s pretty weird - your employer giving you time off specifically to consume a drug. The advent of tea and coffee also meant that sobriety became more common, and this may have also led to increases in productivity. Coffee houses were beds for liberal ideologies and good conversation, and may have had a significant contribution to enlightenment values.
MOA of Caffeine
Caffeine produced by these plants, blocks a receptor in the brain that binds the neurotransmitter ‘Adenosine’.
Adenosine when it binds- has a “depressive and hypnotic (sleep inducing) effect on the brain”. It varies throughout the day- so that over the course of a day Adenosine rises in the bloodstream making us sleepy. ‘Sleep pressure’. Along with Cortisol, it is responsible for regulating our sleep-wake cycle.
Caffeine has several indirect effects too : increasing adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. The Dopamine release is responsible for the mood enhancing benefits and also the potential addictive nature.
Caffeine is a vasodilator. It is also a mild diuretic. It temporarily raises blood pressure, and relaxes the smooth muscles of the body (laxative effect).
Coffee and tea are large sources of antioxidants. You can also gain these from drinking decaf.
Largely, the scientific research has found caffeine beneficial as long as consumed within moderation. A recent BMJ met analysis found it reduced all cause mortality, reduced the risk of several cancers, and Alzheimers.
Pollan then does tackle the negative effect of caffeine.
The quarter life of caffeine is around 12 hours. This means that 25% of caffeine in coffee consumed at 11am, is in your system at 11pm. Matthew Walker (Why We Sleep) suggests that this may be enough to impair deep sleep which is vital for memory formation and several other facilities.
Why We Sleep tackles many of the negative consequences of poor sleep in our society. It is worth a read, but also has several problems as detailed by Alexey Guzey.
Walker suggests our sleep crisis is caused by
- Work schedules
- Noise and light pollution
Pollan does mention that :
“In fact, none of the sleep researchers or experts on circadian rhythms whom I interviewed for this story used caffeine”
Pollan decided to quit coffee for a period of a few months to assess his relationship to the drug. The way he writes about it is hilarious.
The main benefit he found was improved sleep. But he recounts his 3 months abstinence as harrowing. How was he going to fuel the writing of the chapter on caffeine, without caffeine. The very chapter was endangered by the lack of the drug he was writing about.
He finally has his first cup after 3 months- and describes it as euphoric. Almost psychedelic. I know exactly how this feels.
I’m addicted. Coffee really has a profound impact on my mental state (positive) , and sleep (negative). I sleep for a shorter duration, and wake up feeling like a zombie (until the 1st cup). This is largely on only 1-2 cups a day, all before 11am. I am quite sensitive.
Yet, as Pollan acknowledges, it has huge benefits. According to the studies, it has a range of positive outcomes (reducing risk of cancers etc). Beyond this, it fuels creation. I know I am compelled to either write/code/exercise/talk/think/read when I drink coffee. There is also the ritualised social aspect that goes back centuries, from Zen Buddhist tea ceremonies, to the coffee houses of London. That is invaluable.
Reading the chapter has made me realise, I should use caffeine more carefully. Pollan talks about how after his abstinence, he decided to use it only on Saturdays. This went well, until it slowly creeped up to twice a week, and now it sounds like he is back to the daily cup.
I think I will try a similar experiment, or at least switch to green tea. I’ve tried several times throughout my life to quit caffeine completely, yet I always come back. It’s a drug I’ve decided to become symbiotic with for several reasons : the social aspect, creation, the feeling, the ritual. But I will try and moderate its use.
- Quit caffeine for a while : you can never understand your relationship to a substance until you get off it.
- When you eventually go back to some form of caffeination - green tea has historically been the most sustainable for past you.
- Might be fun to review all the coffee and teas