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

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