Coffee 101: Danger, dependency, and dosing

Business travel runs on coffee. I’m no exception — like 63% of my fellow Americans, I drink a cup of coffee (or two, or four) pretty much every day.

I picked up the habit in architecture school, where it was fairly hard to avoid — I would guess that, as a population, the percentage of architects that have a daily cup of that good good bean broth is significantly higher than 63%.

I’ve never believed it to be particularly harmful to my health, but I figured that since I’ve had at least one cup of hot brown work water a day for the majority of the last ~10 years, I should probably take a few hours and find out if it’s secretly killing me or something.

Since statistically more than half of the population has at least one cup every day (which I would guess is actually a low estimate among travelers and high performers) I figured that what I found would be of interest to you as well.

So: according to a meta-analysis from this year, and contrary to some previous research, there’s basically zero evidence that coffee and tea are bad for you, unless you’re pregnant (and even then, it’s not bad for you, but bad for your unborn child).

In fact, coffee and tea may actually reduce the likelihood of a getting number of diseases, including some cancers (endometrial, prostate, colorectal, and liver), some neurological conditions (such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression), and type-2 diabetes.

That said, note that scientists think that any positive effects from coffee and tea are due to the polyphenols and antioxidants (like EGCG, eugenol, and other chlorogenic acids) that come out of the beans and leaves when brewing — meaning that energy drinks and caffeine pills aren’t going to have these effects.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses.

Throughout the day, our cells release a chemical called adenosine as a byproduct of normal metabolic processes, and the buildup of adenosine in our brains is one of the main things that make us feel tired (there are more pieces to that puzzle, including why exactly we evolved to feel tired at all, but they’re not relevant to today’s topic).

Caffeine works by attaching to the adenosine receptors in the brain, which blocks the adenosine from doing its tiredness thing.

But: our brains create new adenosine receptors in response to the gummed up receptors, meaning that you need more and more caffeine over time to have the same effect. A caffeine tolerance is born.

More adenosine receptors are also what cause caffeine withdrawal. If you’re not blocking some of these receptors with caffeine, your caffeine-adapted brain has more receptor sites than is desirable, and is over-sensitive to the neurotransmitter. Because it has so many sites to bind to, a ‘normal’ amount of adenosine now makes you cranky, tired, and irritable.

We become chemically dependent on caffeine pretty quickly, and when that addiction takes hold, not consuming caffeine can lead to headaches and other serious bad times. Not everyone is willing to put up with that dependency.

In short: it’s totally safe to consume caffeine, but know that you’re consuming a psychoactive chemical that should be used in moderation, is absolutely habit-forming, and can lead to some unpleasant (although not particularly harmful) side effects if abused.

If you choose not to, that’s also just fine. You won’t be missing that much — the benefits, while real, aren’t massive, and plenty of people get by just fine without. Plus, there is data suggesting that after your first few hits, you’re really just bringing yourself back to baseline instead of overclocking your system.

Of course, if you’re going to consume caffeine, there are better and worse ways to do it. First off: coffee and tea, black, with no adulterants. Those two drinks have the most knock-on benefits; and it’s really easy to consume a few hundred not-particularly-nutritious calories of milk, refined sugar, or both when you drink even one latte or energy drink.

From there, let’s assume that your primary reason for doing so is to even out your energy levels and increase your productivity. Let’s also assume that you want to avoid as many of the potential negative side effects, like jitteriness, sleep disturbance, and headaches, as possible.

If both of those assumptions are true, then you have three options:

  • Become an occasional user
  • Be a daily user on the Henry Rollins schedule
  • Be a daily user on the Queen of England schedule

Becoming an occasional user

If the evidence shows that daily use isn’t harmful, occasional use almost certainly isn’t (although you probably won’t get the positive side effects like reduced cancer risk if you’re just occasionally drinking the black stuff).

Occasional use is just that — occasional.

To keep your sensitivity to caffeine up, try to consume no more than about 8oz of coffee or 12oz of black tea when you need a boost, and try to keep it to once a day, and no more than 2 or 3 times per week. (Pro tip: Starbucks has an off-menu 8oz size called a “short,” as in, shorter than a 12oz “tall”).

If you’re drinking more than that, then it’s probably time to move on to one of the two daily schedules below.

The Henry Rollins Schedule

In an interview with Joe Rogan at the beginning of this year, Henry Rollins (who is one of my favorite people of all time) mentioned that he gets a huge coffee in the morning, drinks some of it, and then slowly sips on the rest throughout the day as it gets gross and cold.

I’m honestly not sure if he was joking, but it’s actually an excellent strategy for coffee consumption. One of the reasons that we experience wild energy swings when drinking coffee is that the body metabolizes it fairly quickly — it has an average half life in the body of about 6 hours, and even shorter for some people.

So the caffeine in your morning cup is half gone by lunchtime, and you only really feel the effects when the drug is full strength in your system. Drinking part of a cup of coffee and then sipping on the rest of it keeps the caffeine levels in your bloodstream fairly constant throughout the day.

I’d suggest splitting it up 50/50; drinking about half of the total you’re going to drink first thing and then splitting the rest evenly over the rest of the day. For example, get a 20oz coffee, drink half right away, and then have a big sip (1-2oz) every hour or so until it’s all gone.

Just be sure to stop sipping 6 to 8 hours before you go to bed so that your body can eliminate enough for you to get to sleep. Also: don’t be like Henry and drink gross cold coffee. Either invest in a really good vacuum mug (I am obsessed with my Zojirushi) or drink it iced.

The Queen of England’s Schedule

Henry’s schedule does a very good job of keep caffeine levels in the blood fairly constant throughout the day, but our natural energy levels aren’t actually consistent through the day.

Due to daily fluctuations in a number of hormones, including stress hormones like cortisol and hunger hormones like leptin and ghrelin, we’re at our most naturally energetic shortly after waking. We then become low-energy in the early afternoon, pick up again around dinner time, and get increasingly tired in the evening until we go to sleep.

The Queen’s Schedule works counter to these natural rhythms to keep energy levels consistent through the day, instead of caffeine levels.

(To be fair, I’m not sure if this is why she does things this way; its relationship to our natural biorhythms may be entirely accidental. I learned about her schedule while touring the HMS Britannia in Scotland, and while the tour guide was great, they were not a biochemist).

It goes like this: 7:30 AM, cup of tea; 11 AM, cup of coffee; 5PM, cup of tea. The morning tea lightly supplements the normal morning peak energy; the pre-lunch coffee staves off an afternoon slump, and the tea at tea time brings levels back up slightly, but not so high that you won’t be able to sleep.

If you don’t like tea, that’s also fine. Just consume small amounts of coffee — 6oz or so — in the morning and at five, and about twice that at eleven.

Seeing what works for you

Ultimately, you should be taking all of these recommendations (and most of the recommendations we give you on here) with a pinch of salt.

Some people are genetically highly sensitive to caffeine, or are slower to break it down in their body (slow metabolizers), meaning that these schedules might leave them up at night.

Others, like Coleman and me, have a genetic mutation (CYP1A2*1F) that makes us fast metabolisers, and we either have to use a version of Henry’s schedule that requires more sipping — more like 1/3 up front and 2/3 through the day than 50/50 — or a higher dosage version of the Queen’s schedule.

The only way to know which of these suggestions works for you is the same way you find out if anything works for you: try it!

Photo by Oliver Thomas Klein on Unsplash

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