Have we created a culture that justifies addiction? It might be time to wake up and smell the coffee
A look at the perks and pitfalls of coffee, and whether a 20-minute nap might better serve us throughout the day
For my coffee addiction I blame George Clooney, he of the sexy salt ’n’ pepper hair and dreamy brown eyes. See, I used to be a one-coffee-a-day gal. Then George moved in. Well, not George exactly, but one of the Nespresso coffee machines he promotes. And I couldn’t say no. I was knocking back three a day – before work. One morning on the school run my heart started beating faster than horse hoofs in the Melbourne Cup.
So I quit coffee. No caffeine for eight weeks. What difference did it make? More on that later. But first, is that beloved beverage good or bad for you? How much is too much? And is decaf just code for drinking warm mud?
Coffee is complex: a cornucopia of more than 1000 chemical compounds including antioxidants such as chlorogenic acids and melanoidins, diterpenes and caffeine. It’s this last controversial element that’s caused coffee to be demonised throughout history. A delightfully quaint article in a 1912 edition of the Salt Lake
Tribune damned caffeine as a “powerful poison”, adding that “much coffee drinking causes nerve storms” and “unsteady nerves are the foe of beauty”.
“Nerve storms” may be a little dramatic, but excessive amounts of caffeine cause dizziness and headaches, restlessness and excitability, anxiety and irritability, trembling hands, sleeplessness and the aforementioned rapid heartbeat.
Then there’s the addiction aspect. Some people can become physically dependent. Take it away and they can have withdrawals, with symptoms such as fatigue, headache and irritability.
So why is it universally adored with about 500 billion cups consumed worldwide every year? Because it tastes so fine, smells divine and the caffeine component stimulates the central nervous system. This means it alleviates fatigue, increases alertness and improves concentration. From lungo to piccolo, macchiato to ristretto, is coffee toxic or a tonic?
“I would say coffee, overall, is good for you,” says Dr Alex Hodge, gastroenterologist and liver disease specialist at Monash Health in Melbourne. Hodge studied 1018 patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, hepatitis C and hepatitis B virus.
“Drinking two or more cups a day is associated with a reduction in what we call ‘liver stiffness’, which is a marker for inflammation and scarring – so, liver damage, essentially. And this is accounting for things such as age, gender, medications, alcohol consumption, smoking habits – all those other co-factors,” Hodge says. “We know other coffee compounds such as chlorogenic acid can reduce inflammation and we think that diterpenes actually have an antitumorigenic – or anticancer – effect on the liver.” And it’s not just the liver that can benefit. “Drinking coffee has also been associated with fewer incidents of neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, with a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes,” Hodge says. “There’s limited but emerging evidence that coffee is associated with lowering the risk of several cancers including colorectal, liver, ovarian, pancreatic, oesophageal and endometrial. It has all those beneficial associations.” Isn’t it great when medical science backs your guilty pleasure? “If you look at all the studies, regular use of coffee seems to have a benefit,” Hodge says. “We do recommend coffee in our clinics. It is not a treatment, but we certainly don’t stop people drinking it.”
Not such a good report card for coffee’s daggy stepsister, tea, though. Hodge’s study didn’t find the same results when he analysed liver patients’ consumption of tea. “It did nothing. No effect,” he says.
So we’ve established coffee – in moderation and in its purest form – is good for your health. It’s also a great social lubricant.
“Let’s catch up for a coffee” is code for let’s meet and have a warm and engaging chat. You don’t say: “Let’s hook up for a milkshake. Or pho. Or some smashed avo.” It’s coffee that brings people together.
But what if all the social interaction and ritual surrounding coffee is simply masking a more sinister truth: addiction. For all our insistence on “catching up over a coffee” or holding meetings in cafes, what if all we are actually doing is enabling ourselves to indulge in our chosen addiction?
“When you go for a coffee you need to ask yourself, are you doing it because you just like the coffee, or because you need the hit,” says dietitian and health writer Thea O’Connor.
“One of the main criteria for an addictive behaviour is repeatedly saying you’re going to cut back but never actually doing it. And think how much this addiction is actually embedded in our everyday