Like a number of things, coffee, or rather caffeine, seems to be good for you and then bad for you depending on what year we are in.
Currently, caffeine “contributes much more to your health than it takes away.” Says who? Says food, drink and psychedelics writer Michael Pollan. Caffeine has been shown to improve focus and memory, and even your ability to learn. Did you pull some caffeine-fueled late-night study sessions in college? Did it work?
Caffeine doesn’t help most people sleep. I avoid it after 3 pm but my wife can have an espresso before bedtime and sleep the same.
I don’t know if I’m so much a caffeine fan as I am a coffee and tea fan. I even like herbal teas (no caffeine and technically not tea but tisanes) and decaf drinks. But considering that caffeine keeps me awake at night, I suppose that my morning coffee must do the opposite. I do know that when I tried going decaffeinated I experienced severe headaches for a week. Withdrawal from cold turkey.
I have read a half dozen books by Pollan and written about him before. He is a good, serious and interesting writer. Pollan wrote Caffeine: How coffee and tea created the modern world as an audiobook. It’s not that the Enlightenment occurred because of coffee but “Isaac Newton was a big coffee fan… and Voltaire apparently had 72 cups a day,” writes Pollan.
Ah, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution. Big things that owe something to the coffee house. These places appeared London around 1650.
Coffee houses quickly found their clientele which gathered around interests, like literature, and professions, like writers, poets, philosophers and scientists. There was even one dedicated to selling stocks. Eventually, that one became the London Stock Exchange.
Sober and civil drinking – pub – changed the way people thought and worked. Well, alcohol was safer than most drinking water. But boiling water had benefits then too.
Pollan has also written This Is Your Mind on Plants which is a broader look at how we rely on plants. They give us sustenance, beauty, medicine, fragrance, flavor, fiber. But the book’s focus is on how they change our consciousness. Plants can stimulate or calm. They can temporarily tweak our consciousness or completely alter it.
We don’t think of caffeine as a drug. We don’t consider daily users as addicts. Well, it is legal, socially acceptable and readily available. Pollan wants people to rethink that. Drug or medicine? You can make a drink from the leaves of a tea plant and that’s fine. Make a drink from the seed head of an opium poppy and you break a federal law. In This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan goes deep into three plant drugs – opium, caffeine, and mescaline.
It probably seems odd to you to group caffeine in with opium and mescaline. It seemed odd to me considering those first London coffee houses were almost the opposite of the pubs and opium smokers. And those philosophers like Kant, Voltaire and Kierkegaard weren’t just having a cup with breakfast. They were mainlining their caffeine and it seemed to work.
I’m writing this at 6 pm. No caffeine since 1 pm. I wonder what I would have written after several 16 once dark roasts at 11 am.
Listen to Michael Pollan talk about how he gave up caffeine entirely for three months while working on his audiobook, Caffeine, and he says “I recommend it. I had some great sleeps.” But he also had an unexpected loss of confidence and lack of focus as he went through withdrawal.