Not all addictions are bad -- in fact, an addiction to coffee can be a real asset. I never drank coffee through college (to my detriment) and upon entering the workforce was met with the near-ubiquity of the beverage. One morning, my boss and I got to talking about coffee as he was performing an elaborate grind-and-brew-ritual. He mentioned that I should start to drink it, and I claimed he should stop (interesting side-note.... I remember encountering in college a neo-Marxist critique of Western culture that asked "Why do capitalist workplaces universally provide free coffee to their workers?" Obviously, to keep them drugged for maximum productivity...). Ultimately, he convinced me to at least consider drinking coffee regularly. Now, I've never been one to take a drug without first fully understanding it and its potential effects, so I began to research coffee.
I knew that coffee was addictive, and I had a dim notion that coffee was somehow bad for you (high blood pressure?, strokes?, cancer?). I set out to read the actual research and see if I could convince my boss to quit. Well, it didn't take long to realize what I think is now fairly well accepted by mainstream science -- that there are no serious ill-effects to moderate coffee consumption and that much like its supremely worthwhile alter-ego counterpart red wine (perhaps the subject of a later post...?), coffee can actually be quite good for you. In fact, several of the studies I ran across began as investigations into a perceived-harm that coffee might cause, and actually revealed unintended benefits to coffee consumption. One of the most striking was a study I think looking at caffeine as a cause of miscarriage (no documented correlation between moderate coffee consumption and miscarriage, BTW). What they found instead was a startling correlation between coffee drinking and not committing suicide. In effect, regular coffee consumption is a protective factor against suicide.
All-in-all, the health and well-being effects of coffee are numerous and fairly well-documented. I encourage you to do your own research if you are curious... Coffee can undoubtedly help you be more productive. So, everyone should nurture a good and healthy coffee addiction. I say nurture because an addiction of any kind is obviously something you need to have respect for and be mindful of. Addictions can easily get out of control, so they need to be tended and taken care of like gardens. Here are some tips for keeping weeds out of the garden of your coffee addiction:
Caffeine is a drug and like any other drug its effects manifest through an incredibly complicated interaction with your specific genetic makeup, metabolism, diet, personality, etc., etc. So, the benefits of coffee consumption vary from person to person, the side effects vary from person to person, the required or tolerated doses vary from person to person, and so on. The best thing to do is be observant and tweak things to your own maximum benefit. The remaining guidelines come from the results of this process for me personally and may not apply perfectly for everyone.
Coffee is a Tool -- Apply it Wisely:
One of the benefits of coffee that is emerging but still contested is that coffee actually makes you smarter (the claim is debated, but it is important to remember that even in a trivial sense, this is true: If you gave two groups an IQ test at 6am, but one group had coffee and the other did not -- of course the coffee drinkers would score better :). You'll have to judge for yourself whether coffee actually makes you smarter, but I've found that it definitely improves performance on creative, communication, and/or brainstorming tasks.
Coffee can be great for marketing tasks. Caffeine helps you make connections easier and be more creative. However, it can leave you flitting from concept to concept and make it hard to focus. It can make you more assertive and creative. It is also great for problem-solving when you're not even sure where to begin. If you are dealing with a known problem or a well-defined task that just needs to be slogged through, try green tea instead of coffee.
Manage Your Consumption to a Pre-defined Pattern:
Coffee is a drug (worth repeating), so it carries many of the potential downside characteristics of any other drug: increased tolerance over time, withdrawal symptoms (headache, fatigue), etc. You need to mange your addiction. Find a pattern that works for you, but make sure you are managing the pattern and that you are in control. For me, this works very well: 1 cup on Monday through Thurs mornings, 1/2 cup Friday, none Sat or Sunday. Then, back to 1 cup on Monday when I'm clean (I sometimes find I only need 1/2 cup on Monday after the weekend mini-fast, but then again, sometimes Monday is Monday and I need all the help I can get :).
Take a Coffee Fast from Time to Time:
Occasionally take at least a week off from coffee. I like to include regular day or two long mini-fasts (generally weekends), then roughly twice a year I take a week long (or more) break from coffee full-stop. Often I stretch it to two weeks or even a month or so. You need to give your body a break from the caffeine, let it recalibrate, and allow yourself to appreciate the boost that coffee can give you. It is also very important to combat the creeping effects of tolerance. Sometimes it can be convenient to schedule these intermissions for vacations or holidays, and sometimes not (it can be a crime to deprive yourself of a cup of pure Kona coffee over a spectacular Hawaiian sunrise).
Find Your Cutoff:
One of the very well-documented potential downsides to regular coffee consumption is that it can lead to sleeplessness. Everyone is different in their specific reaction to caffeine, so you may have to experiment a bit to find your cutoff. I'm somewhat susceptible to insomnia to begin with and for me drinking coffee past 11am is a guaranteed sleepless night. It's important to understand this, and stick to it -- sleep tends to be an under-appreciated necessity in our culture.
Drink Lots of Water:
Coffee is a diuretic. Don't let yourself get dehydrated when you're drinking coffee, especially when you're outside or exercising (see below). Always drink plenty of water -- all day long.
Don't put Crap in your Cup:
I don't like the taste of coffee. Coffee is bitter -- I've never been particularly fond of bitter things and have never even been a fan of Guinness beer (gasp!). But one more time repeat after me, coffee is a drug -- not a cup of hot-chocolate, so don't go overboard doctoring it up. There are two important reasons for this:
First and most obviously, most of the things people put in their coffee just aren't good for you (cream, sugar, sweeteners, etc.). Coffee on it's own is essentially zero-calorie and won't clog your arteries.
Second, and far more insidiously, you are not doing your addiction any favors if you turn your coffee into a treat. Coffee is a drug and a tool. Psychologically, it can be dangerous to combine the euphoric and productivity effects of coffee with all kinds of sugary/creamy goodness (Starbucks knows this all too well and has made a killing off it). Just be mindful of what you put into your cup and how it may affect or color your relationship with coffee.
In addition to an obvious energy boost, coffee serves to improve endurance and increase tolerance for pain. Take advantage of this effect to include a coffee-powered workout in our day. If your schedule allows it, try to schedule your workout for just as the coffee is about to wear off (for me, sometime between 1-3 in the afternoon). This serves several purposes:
- You still get the performance benefits of the caffeine -- this leads to higher intensity, more effective workouts.
- It gives you an endorphin/energy boost for the rest of the day and to fight off the 'coffee-crash'
- It cranks up your metabolism to help your body process out the caffeine more effectively
- It tires you out to ultimately prepare for a good nights' sleep (in case of any lingering caffeine-insomnia)
- Plus as everyone knows, workouts are just plain good for you ;)
One very important thing to bear in mind -- caffeine is a diuretic (see above), so be extra sure to stay hydrated during and after exercise -- drink water throughout.
Use Coffee to Lose Weight:
Coffee is an extremely effective appetite suppressant. Most 'diet pills' are nothing more than caffeine marked up to $50 a box. Coffee does the exact same thing and is far cheaper. But, it is important to bear in mind that it has this effect. Don't let yourself fall into the trap of having a morning cup of joe kill your appetite, then 'coffee-crashing' mid afternoon and having a binge snack/dinner because you haven't eaten enough through the day. Make sure to have a mid-morning snack, and a healthy lunch. If weight-loss is your goal, you should also make sure to get in a caffeinated power-workout (see above).
What do you think? Anyone have other good tips or special brews that make one of our favorite drugs even better?