I couldn’t get comfortable. My head was pounding. For two and half days I languished, rolling around in bed, applying pressure to my temples, lamenting my state and my stupid pillow and my stupid curtains and the light that was in the room. I was dehydrated and starving, and I couldn’t fix that. A sip of water and half a banana ended up in the sink. I didn’t know the cause, I couldn’t fully describe the symptoms; there seemed to be no end in sight.
On the phone, my best friend and doctor suggested I have a sip of coffee. Excedrin, Midol, all are curatives laced with caffeine and studies have shown that caffeine goes a long way in combating headaches. I took a sip of coffee—in all I probably consumed 25 mg. Within twenty minutes my head was clearer, my nausea had disappeared, my outlook had improved and I could stand on my feet.
I realized then that I am an unknowing addict. My ailment was caffeine withdrawal, and my little experiment, followed by a return of my symptoms hours later, proved that. Caffeine (1,3,7-trimethylxanthine) is the most widely consumed drug in America. 80-90 percent of Americans consume the bitter white powder in the form of energy drinks, coffee, tea, and soda. We get the word from the German ‘kaffee,’ and the French ‘café,’ both meaning ‘coffee.’ It is generally safe—you have to consume very high quantities before it starts to negatively affect your body. In the meantime you’ll enjoy heightened stamina, constant urination, and increased focus.
Let’s look at how the brain works. Every moment we’re awake and doing stuff, it’s made possible by the firing of neurons in our brain. To coordinate activities, our neurons communicate using substances called neurotransmitters. As these neurotransmitters are being passed from synapse to synapse, there is the constant production of a byproduct called adenosine. But this isn’t just waste—your brain monitors the adenosine levels very carefully. It does so through specialized receptors aptly named ‘adenosine receptors.’ There are a few different types of adenosine receptors—the one important to our story is the A1 receptor.
As adenosine builds up in our spinal chord and brain, these receptors recognize the surplus and notify the brain that we should slow down. Usually, we’re told to go to sleep. So you go and drink a cup of coffee. Caffeine enters your system and acts as an “Adenosine A1 receptor antagonist.” This means that, because it looks so very similar to adenosine, it binds to the adenosine receptor without activating it. So our brain goes on its merry way, pumping out natural stimulants like glutamate to keep us going. In the brain the response to caffeine is similar to what happens when we meet a bear. The pituitary isn’t really sure what is going on with the adenosine receptors, freaks out, and starts spitting out adrenaline. Your muscles tense, your hands grow cold, you feel excited and your heart beats like a snare drum. This doesn’t slow down till the caffeine is metabolized and the adenosine can move in—all of a sudden, bringing us crashing back to earth.
Over time we become desensitized to caffeine. In a study comparing individuals taking a whopping 900 mg of caffeine a day versus people taking placebos, after 18 days their alertness, mood, and energy levels were equalized. The reasons for our inability to perpetually process caffeine in an efficient manner are up for debate, so I’ll hesitate to cite any one study explaining why. Well catalogued on the other hand are the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. Adenosine plays an important role as a cerebral vasodilator. It helps our brain get oxygen by widening the pathways, an important regulation when we are sleeping (see the connection?). When all that adenosine comes flooding back, blood is allowed to go rushing up to our brain.
That is the root cause of my throbbing headache.
I’m not going to go into why caffeine is considered a diuretic whose absence can lead to constipation, or why it also acts as a cGMP inhibitor, stressing your bones and muscles, because those factors are largely irrelevant to this story. I’m not going to go into how caffeine amps your dopamine production via the same mechanism as cocaine (albeit to a lesser degree) contributing to it’s addictiveness. Along with my headache I had flu-like symptoms; many withdrawal sufferers complain of irritability and depression, insomnia and in other cases sleepiness. Caffeine withdrawal sucks.
Interestingly, it is cured with the smallest amount of caffeine. It’s why we crave that first cup of Joe in the morning and seek out a shot of Nitro Energy Explosion when we start to tank in the afternoon. Vicious cycles dig their teeth deep into you and it takes measured, deliberate will to wean. Three cups to two cups. Two cups to one cup. One cup to half decaf. Half to all decaf. All to none and then only when you need it. But do not, for the love of all that is holy, try to go cold turkey.
I said I was an unknowing addict. Turns out the workout supplements I was taking, billed as all-natural with a blend of peppers to help you metabolize faster, had the equivalent of two cups of coffee worth of caffeine in them. I was taking two to three a day. This on top of coffee meetings at work, and energy drinks, and the IV drip I set up next to my desk built me up higher than I realized I was. And then I quit everything for Ramadan. No tapering, no easy let-down. Guess who is too sick to fast today?
I’m not going to stop drinking coffee. Coffee is amazing stuff and the perfect, most delicious pick-me-up when you need it. My favorite client manufacturers energy drinks and they are delicious. Over 19,000 studies have been conducted on coffee and caffeine in the past 30 years. They’ve discovered amazing things:
- Regular coffee drinkers are 80% less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease.
- Two cups a day cuts the risk of gallstones in half
- Two cups a day led to an 80% decrease in the likelihood of developing cirrhosis
- Citrated caffeine can be administered to infants to help them with breathing problems
- Two cups a day decreases the risk of colon cancer by 20%
- Caffeine has been shown to be beneficial in treating asthma, preventing cavities, stopping headaches, and alleviating depression.
While most of these studies focused on coffee consumption, many of the benefits were tied back to caffeine itself. Caffeine is critically important to billions of people on planet Earth.
So no, Naimul isn’t telling you to stop drinking coffee, and I never expected anyone to stop drinking milk. I’m not fighting a lobby here; I’m not evangelizing some kind of return to naturalism or a Paleolithic diet. This is a cautionary tale. The past few days have been hell for me because I wasn’t careful. Hopefully you can learn from that.