Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World, by Michael Pollan (author, narrator)

Audible Original, January 2020

Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world, and the only one we routinely give to children recreationally, in soft drinks.

But why? And what effects does it really have on us?

Michael Pollan decided to find out.

In this short book, he looks at the history of caffeine, both the coffee plant and the tea plant, and I'm going to say right here that you don't have to rely on Pollan's own statements to know that he's a coffee drinker rather than a tea drinker. It's clear in how much time he devotes to our two favorite sources of caffeine. He also looks closely at how caffeine affects our lives, work, and how we organize our economic lives.

Unlike other popular drugs, like alcohol or marijuana, or psychedelics, caffeine gives us clearer brains, better focus, an increased ability to do clear, logical, linear thinking. Scientific tests show it really does give a boost to memory. We get a boost of energy, enabling us to keep working effectively at times our bodies would otherwise want to start shutting down and going to sleep. That has had a substantial beneficial effect for business and industry. It has helped make the modern world possible.

But what about the effects on us?

That extra energy from that cup of coffee or tea or soda  isn't free. It blocks the absorption of dopamine, produced in the brain when we need sleep, and lets us remain active. It doesn't block the production of dopamine, or the bodily reactions to hours of wakefulness and work that cause the body to produce dopamine. The result, when we finally do sleep, is disrupted and interrupted sleep.

Caffeine is addictive. If you stop using it, you have withdrawal symptoms that include headaches and exhaustion. We also while using it become habituated; stop your caffeine use long enough to come out the other end from the withdrawal symptoms, and when you start using again, you'll initially get a noticeably stronger effect. Keep using it, and soon you'll be  back to your previous baseline reaction, as you become rehabituated.

Pollan finds this rather more alarming than I do, but I think I know why. Pollan likes and drinks coffee, strong coffee, while I drink tea and soda. A cup of coffee typically has about twice as much caffeine as a cup of tea or a can of caffeinated soda. Pollan says this isn't that significant; drink two cups of tea, and you're just as caffeinated as after one cup of coffee. I disagree. You get that caffeine dose faster, drinking one cup of coffee, rather than two cups of tea, even if you drink the cup of coffee or the cup of tea at the same rate of speed. There's a good chance that you'll pause, at least briefly, between your cups of tea. That slows your consumption a bit more. So I think it's likely that the amount of caffeine used, and the degree of addiction, is a bit less. It isn't as alarming, to go back to it after a period of abstention, when you're stopping and restarting tea, rather than coffee.

Let's note here that that's my theory, and I'm a librarian and a tea drinker, not a scientist engaged in actual research in this area. I think it's logical; I don't know that it's necessarily true.

Another point I think is relevant, though, is that no one that has a real reason, by which I mean a reason that matters to the person doing it, to quit caffeine, either temporarily or permanently, has any real difficulty in doing so. We love our caffeine, but the addictive effect, while real, is comparatively mild. Compare it to nicotine, just for instance. Or to alcohol, for an alcoholic rather than a social drinker.

But the fact remains that we have organized much of our economic lives around access to one little molecule found chiefly in the coffee and tea plants, and in doing so we have devoted immense resources to the cultivation of these plants, spreading them to regions they never grew in before we discovered how they affect us.

We exploit these plants, but they're exploiting us, too. And they might be getting the better of the bargain.

This is a fascinating little book, and well worth the time it will take you to listen to it. Recommended.

I got this book free from Audible as part of their Audible Originals program, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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