Gareth I. Jones
6 min readSep 12, 2016

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Coffee, you’re doing it wrong

In our office (as there probably is in yours), we have a guy you’re not allowed to talk to until he has had his morning coffee. We all know at least one person who is so reliant on coffee that if Lavazza did drips, they’d be the first to sign up.

But I think we have made a big mistake with coffee, and if we don’t quit soon then there’s no point even bothering.

Every year for Lent, I do something stupid and give up things that I rely on just to see how much of a slave I am to desire. In the past, I’ve survived six weeks without TV, 46 days and nights without alcohol, and from pancake day to Easter Sunday without meat. This year, I gave up tea and coffee, and managed to stick to it until my summer holiday in Italy.

Firstly, giving up coffee is hard, and I mean <b>hard</b>. The headaches for the first two weeks are insufferable. I was clearly way more addicted to this substance than I realised, and I was probably only on three or four cups a day.

Apparently, I’m not alone here, the headaches are caused by changes in cerebral blood flow velocity, for reals. In fact the newest version of the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, obvs], DSM-5 published in 2013, now lists caffeine withdrawal as a mental disorder.

But, despite this, after that fortnight I felt good – really good. I could work from 7am to 11pm without yawning, and felt like my energy levels were a lot more balanced. I was drinking more peppermint tea and camomile, which made me rage less, my teeth were whiter, and I looked like more of the hipster that everyone already assumed I was.

After Easter had been and gone, I didn’t really feel like I was missing out on coffee, so just kept to it, but while away in Milan, I realised the error of my ways.

Coffee isn’t a life support system, or the source of our powers, but it is a drug that makes our brains behave differently. It’s important to remember that the way that coffee affects you is usually a combination of a couple of things, it’s genetics, brain chemistry, and the relationship you have with caffeine, but the science behind how it works is pretty simple.

The hormone in our brains that controls how tired we are is called adenosine. Adenosine works a little bit like a timer. When you wake up in the morning you are (depending how well you have slept) reset and back to zero. Throughout the day your timer keeps on going up and up until eventually you feel sleepy enough to go to sleep, maybe that’s 12 hours on your timer or maybe it’s 16 or 20, eventually you need to reset and go to sleep. What caffeine does to the timer is to press pause. Your tolerance and the unique way in which caffeine affects you, will depend on how long for; whether it’s an hour until you find yourself reaching for another mug or it’s 10 hours later and you are lay in bed wishing you’d not met a client in Cafe Nero. There are even studies that prove coffee can help you learn, or put a stop to that pounding headache you’ve spent all day desperate to get rid of.

So it works. It does affect us and it is useful, but are we using it to its full advantage?

A study done by the University of Vermont College of Medicine and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, suggests no. They studied what happened when you deprived people of that dark brown liquid that they relied on so heavily, what they were looking for was the cause of those caffeine headaches that I had suffered with so badly, which they found, but what they also found was that chronic caffeine consumption had “no net benefits”. In other words, all that good stuff that coffee can do to your brain power doesn’t increase if you drink it constantly, the only thing increasing is your addiction to it.

If we aren’t getting everything out of it that we need this way, there’s got to be a better way, right? Well, sort of.

Studies done at the University of Loughborough have shown that a 15 minute sleep directly after coffee meant that the poor tired people taking part in the study were less likely to make mistakes on a driving simulator, than their counterparts who were given coffee on its own or took a nap after a decaf placebo. There was also a study in Japan that found that a coffee nap would improve your memory.

This lovely photo is courtesy of Charlotte Stack

Let’s go back to that timer analogy. The 15 minute sleep (or even just lying there trying to sleep, the study found that was also effective) acts as the reset button on your adenosine, it typically takes around 15–20 minutes for coffee to travel to our gut where the caffeine enters our bloodstream. The theory is that the ‘pause’ in your adenosine timer comes earlier and then sustains you longer. That all sounds great but we all lead busy lives and find time and even the right place for a quick 15 minute nap isn’t always possible. Perhaps what we should be doing is focussing on making coffee naps part of our everyday by making them possible in workplaces to increase productivity, some companies like Google already have this in place.

Getting the most from your coffee could be as simple as paying attention to the way it affects you, are the headaches and sleepiness that you are experiencing when you are low on coffee down to your lack of sleep and low energy levels or is it actually caused by your addiction and the withdrawal from that?

So my new habit is this: don’t drink coffee unless you need to kick your creativity up a notch. Drinking it to survive is depriving your team of a creative asset, and replacing it with a grouch who physically can’t operate without their 8:30 kick starter, or else the headaches of doom set in.

Maybe you have already given up the brown stuff. Would you go back knowing the power it can unleash in your brain or is the fear of those withdrawal headaches enough to put you off for life?

More fun coffee facts:

https://www.bulletproofexec.com/the-benefits-of-coffee-your-brain-on-caffeine/

http://coffeeandhealth.org/topic-overview/coffee-and-the-mind/

http://fusion.net/story/166708/what-caffeine-does-to-your-brain/

http://www.ncausa.org/

https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/latest-science/adolescent-caffeine-use-cocaine-sensitivity

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090501162805.htm

http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/07/26/what-caffeine-really-does-to-your-brain/#2406e2e3656f

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.