Why Caffeine Is the Perfect Addiction for a Worker Bee Society


According to a new study released this week, caffeine turns human beings into efficient worker bees. Led by Katharine Ker of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the study found that caffeine "significantly reduced the number of errors" made by workers in a series of 13 trials. "One trial comparing the effects of caffeine with a nap found that there were significantly less errors made in the caffeine group," reads the official report.

What? Coffee beats naps?

"The results of the trials suggest that compared to no intervention, caffeine can reduce the number of errors and improve cognitive performance in shift workers. ... Based on the current evidence, the review authors judge that there is no reason for healthy shift workers who already use caffeine within recommended levels to improve their alertness to stop doing so."

The study focused on "shift workers" — that is, those who work at times other than 9-to-5. Granted, sleeping by day and working by night can throw body clocks off-kilter, so such workers are atypical. But the LSHTM report was picked up and spread so quickly by the mainstream media as to confirm that caffeine is America's favorite legal high because it fuels capitalism. Not that capitalism totally sucks, but still: It's good to know why you're being sold central-nervous-system stimulants. Crack users aren't good workers. Neither marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin, nor LSD increase workplace efficiency. (Neither does alcohol, yet alcohol is just as cheap and legal as caffeine. But alcohol has been ingrained in human culture for too long to yank it out, as Prohibition proved.)

"Caffeine Drinkers Make Fewer Mistakes," blares the Web site for Denver's ABC station, KMGH. Other headlines capping the same story in other mainstream venues include "Study: Caffeine Makes You Do Better Job," "Morning cup of coffee can increase workplace performance," and "Caffeine Helps Shift Workers Avoid Mistakes." "Caffeine may curb errors," asserts the UK's Guardian. "Coffee is best perk for sleepy workers," confides India's national daily paper The Hindu. "Shift workers knew it, researchers confirm it: Caffeine helps," roars the Los Angeles Times.

Well, that's convenient.

Anything to further enhance caffeine's image in the public mind: Hey, it's not just delicious and fun to drink. Starbucks, Rockstar and Red Bull aren't merely some of the world's most recognizable brands. Caffeine doesn't just let you play World of Warcraft longer, faster and harder. It helps you work, mistake-free, as do your contact lenses and your college degree. And in this economy, who can afford to make mistakes at work?

This counts for students, too. While coffee represents a $60 billion-plus global industry, supported almost entirely by adult consumers, energy drinks comprise a $6 billion-plus global industry whose demographics tilt younger. According to Simmons Research, 31 percent of American teenagers — about 7.6 million — regularly consume caffeinated energy drinks. Kids with caffeine habits enrich not only companies that sell caffeine but also companies those kids will work for when they grow up — unless too much caffeine makes them sick or even kills them before that.

As coffee culture booms, auxiliary industries leap into the act. Linking to a story in the Fayetteville, NC Observer headlined "Rising Coffee Popularity Among Teens Raises Health Concerns," the trade journal VendingMarketWatch.com tells its readers: "The most important takeaway from this report for vending and coffee service operators is the continued rising popularity of coffee among young people. The coffee business is the healthiest segment of the refreshment service industry."

A report given at the 2006 American College of Emergency Medicine Scientific Assembly raises alarms about "caffeine abuse" increasing emergency-room and ICU admissions among teens and college-age youth experiencing "rapid heart rate, chest pains, palpitations, anxiety, or other symptoms of stimulant abuse such as nausea and vomiting." Led by Northwestern University's Danielle McCarthy, the researchers urged emergency-room doctors to consider caffeine as a cause of the severe symptoms detailed above. A 2008 study led by University of Massachusetts Medical School toxicologist Richard Church confirmed the caffeine-overdose spike, citing 4,600 caffeine-related calls to poison control centers nationwide within a single year. Over half of those calls involved patients aged 18 and under.

As of this year, the National Institutes of Health classifies caffeine as a "poisonous ingredient" and recommends telephoning the National Poison Control Center in cases of suspected overdose. ("Do NOT make the person throw up unless told to do so," warns the NIH.)

How much counts to abuse? A standard cup of brewed coffee contains between 80 and 100 mg, but caffeine's effects depend on body weight. The new London School of Hygiene report gives a thumbs-up to workers "who already use caffeine within recommended levels." While not recommending any caffeine at all, the Mayo Clinic classifies 200 to 300 milligrams of it a day as "moderate," warning that more than 500 mg a day "can cause insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, nausea or other gastrointestinal problems, fast or irregular heartbeat, muscle tremors, headaches and anxiety."

Two different species of coffee bean, arabica and robusta, are grown commercially for coffee. The better-tasting, better-smelling, but more delicate arabica require stricter growing conditions and are thus costlier; the hardier robusta beans yield more quantity per acre and thus sell much more cheaply. Robusta contains twice as much caffeine as arabica. If you don't know which species was ground to make whatever you're drinking, then you can't know how much caffeine is in your bottle, can or cup.

Operated by two pro-caffeine New Zealanders, the extremely useful Energyfiend.com Web site includes a caffeine database that lists the exact caffeine contents of commercial drinks. A can of Red Bull contains 80 mg, just like a cup of coffee. While a Starbucks Tall Caffe Latte or Tall Cappuccino contain 75 mgs of caffeine and a bottled Frappucino contains 90 mg, a Starbucks Tall Coffee contains 260 mg and a Grande Caffe Coffee contains a whopping 330. Many energy drinks — such as SLAP, Celsius, Xyience Xenergy, Adrenalyn Stack, Upshot, and Brawndo — have 200 per can: about as much as two cups of coffee. Rockstar Zero Carb, Rockstar Energy Shot, and Rockstar Roasted contain 240; Rockstar Punched Guava contains 330. Wired X344 has — surprise! — 344. "MASSIVE CAFFEINE, MASSIVE ENERGY," reads its promo. "Fuel Your Body. Get Wired. Stay Wired."

Although a one-ounce bottle of 5150 Juice contains 500 mg, it isn't meant to be swigged straight but rather added to whatever else you're drinking. An alleged testimonial on the company's homepage proclaims: "I drank a Diet Dew with the 5150 and it hit me like a bullet to the brain."

Which, hey, is a good thing.

Eighty-five percent of the 12- to 18-year-olds who participated in a 2009 Drexel University study consumed caffeine regularly: 144 mg daily on average, although 11.2 percent of them drank over 400 mg daily.

Yet despite its legality, its popularity among and easy accessibility to children, despite its profile as a pleasure and a necessary pick-me-up and now a job-maintenance strategy, "Caffeine is quite addictive in the sense that it is a psychoacive substance. It stimulates certain chemical systems in the brain and this keeps you awake," says Harold Urschel, chief medical strategist of the Dallas-based addiction-management company EnterHealth.com and author of Healing the Addicted Brain (Sourcebooks, 2009). "If you use it on a daily basis, you develop a tolerance, just as you would to pain pills or other drugs. After a while, you need more and more to produce the same effects. Unfortunately, along with waking you up, caffeine also makes you agitated, irritated and anxious — and those effects increase along with your daily dosage of caffeine. You get acclimated to caffeine's wake-up aspect, but never to its agitation, irritation and anxiety aspects."

So if you now require three Rockstars daily to feel alert when one used to suffice, you're equally alert but three times as jittery these days as back then when you used to drink just one.

These effects are even more extreme in people with anxiety disorders or clinical depression, Urschel explains.

"We're not sure why at this point, but whatever caffeine does in the brain makes the symptoms of those conditions worse. Your brain has changed because of your mental illness. Your neurochemical changes are out of balance, so you've become exquisitely sensitive to caffeine. You could have one cup of coffee on Monday morning and still be feeling its effects on Wednesday night. It's that bad."

Addiction is a multipronged definition, Urschel says. To be considered addictive, a substance must cause "social problems in your life and medical problems in your body," and produce withdrawal symptoms in those who have developed a tolerance. Caffeine's main withdrawal symptom is headaches, often severe.

The other prong is ritual: an almost spiritual aura attached to acquiring, preparing and consuming the substance, whether it's stirring in Sweet'N Low or tying off veins. Unlike those kicking illegal drugs, ex-caffeine addicts can at least maintain the ritual by switching to decaf. Urschel did exactly that when "I got hard evidence that my three daily cups of Starbucks and two cans of Diet Coke were hurting my heart."

Marina Kushner, author of The Truth About Caffeine (SCR, 2006), doesn't even do decaf — "because even decaf isn't caffeine-free." Working as a reporter at a daily Moscow newspaper, Kushner drank coffee "constantly — not by the cup but by the pot." Twenty years into her habit, she was up to three pots a day. She says she had devastating health problems — but didn't connect them with caffeine.

"Chronic fatigue. Depression. Anxiety. Twitching eyelids. Insomnia." Kushner ticks off the list. "Terrible skin problems. An extremely oily face with acne, rosacea and scaly dry spots. Sweaty palms — I had to wipe my hand before shaking anyone else's." Fibrocystic breast disease manifested in benign but very painful lumps.

"I didn't realize that all of this could have been caused by the same thing, and none of my doctors ever thought of that. Doctors just give you pills. I looked at my bad health and thought: This is who I am, and this is who I have to be."

Then a bout with insomnia kept her awake for a week: "I looked like a zombie or someone with Parkinson's disease. I shuffled. I couldn't make a sentence. I kept just opening my mouth and closing it, like a fish. Sleep is everything, and caffeine deprives you of sleep."

Putting two and two together, she quit cold turkey.

"It was actually awful," she says of her four-day withdrawal. "Pain. Depression. Cravings. Trembling. Weakness — and knowing that the only remedy that could help you is caffeine."

No-Doz aside, it's possible but very difficult to ingest lethal doses of caffeine. Energyfiend.com hosts a Death by Caffeine page featuring this test: Type in your beverage of choice (I picked AriZona Green Tea Energy, because I liked the name) and weight (135 pounds), then clicked the "Kill Me" button. The answer: "It would take 45.39 cans of AriZona Green Tea Energy to put you down."

Uh oh.

The research piles up: For instance, a 2008 Kaiser Permanente study found that pregnant women who consumed 200 mg or more of caffeine per day were twice as likely to miscarry as pregnant women who consumed no caffeine. Yet pro-caffeine studies get most of the mainstream-media buzz. "Study Suggests Caffeine Can Help Liver," reads a headline at the Washington Post. "Daily Dose of Caffeine May Cure Alzheimer's," reads one at FoxNews.com. "Study: Caffeine May Boost Memory," reads another at CBSNews.com.

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go.

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