For most of my adult life, I have been a daily user of the drug methylated xanthine. Or, as it is more commonly known, caffeine. Heck, this blog derives its very name from my appreciation of coffee, one of its most common carriers. That being said, for forty days over the period of Lent I made myself the subject of my own human experiment and went cold turkey. I’m back on the stuff now, and gladly. But since then, my approach to coffee has changed significantly.
At the outset, I should openly acknowledge that scientific reports such as this one in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) claim that moderate coffee consumption is “more likely to benefit health than to harm it.” Great! Does this mean that we should all start drinking three or four cups a day? I don’t think so.
First of all, the link between coffee consumption and positive health benefits is not causal. Coffee won’t save us, it just won’t kill us. At least, not more quickly than our dangerously sedentary lifestyles will otherwise. Secondly, reports like this one don’t take into account other important measurements, ones more subjective. Drinking coffee may not increase your risk of cancer, but it might make you intolerably moody such that your spouse or friends hate being around you. Maybe you need to rethink your caffeine intake on other grounds.
This is all to say, the following observations are personal and subjective. I’m interested in what coffee actually does to me in the moment, how it makes me feel. Given that we all feel the affects of caffeine differently, I encourage you to experiment on yourself to find your own optimum.
Drink a maximum of two cups of coffee per day. Or rather, two cups of caffeinated coffee. When I have three or more cups of coffee, I feel jittery and restless. My thoughts whiz around my head too fast. I am prone to stress and anxiety. I get headaches and feel dehydrated. This one’s my personal limit, and I encourage you to find yours.
Don’t drink coffee on an empty stomach. For weeks I had a morning ritual that meant I started work at 7AM. I’d work for 2–3 hours before breakfast, with nothing but a black filter coffee for company. But come breakfast my head would be pounding. I’d have to force myself to slow down, have something to eat, and drink a pint of water before I was functioning properly again. Eat your breakfast, folks.
Drink coffee at 10AM and 2PM. If you think there’s no bad time to have a cup of coffee, you’re wrong. Your body’s circadian rhythm controls the release of cortisol, a drug linked to increased alertness. Your cortisol levels increase by around 50% upon waking and tends to peak at around 9AM. I find this fascinating. Our bodies have a built-in mechanism for tackling morning grogginess, for waking us up and kicking us out of bed. If you consume caffeine when your cortisol levels are naturally high, its effect is significantly diminished and your body’s tolerance to the drug will increase in the long run. The studies show that the best times to drink coffee are between 10AM-12PM and 2–4PM. I tested this out, and trust me, it works. The daily peaks and troughs of my concentration are now gone, and my energy levels are much more consistent.
To cut down on your coffee drinking, find a substitute drink. This is basic habit formation 101. Don’t simply quit something bad for you; replace it with something better. My favourite substitutes are rooibos tea, naturally decaffeinated, and hot water with the juice of half a lemon. If I’m desperate for the taste of coffee, I drink decaf. Right now, I’m drinking this one by Artisan Roast.
Save your caffeine for your socials. If you’re not like me, and you don’t have your own grinder or copious other home-brewing options, you’re much more likely to find a good cup of coffee in a nearby café than you are your own home. So ditch your instant coffee (which, by the way, only consists of 5–15% coffee anyway — check the tin!), and make your coffee consumption part of the joy of meeting with friends.
Here’s the challenge. What does your caffeine consumption look like? Could you experiment on yourself, find your own optimum, and live a happier, healthier, and more productive life?