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The Coffee Junkie’s Guide to Caffeine Addiction

We’re hooked like never before. Is that bad?


Photographs by Mitchell Feinberg. Food styling by Sara Jane Crawford.  

It’s a sunny spring afternoon in midtown, and a few hundred feet above Times Square, things are unusually calm on the 30th floor of the Viacom building. Michael Dare, the director of special events for MTV Networks, has just completed a run of twelve-hour days assembling the Night of Too Many Stars, a fund-raiser hosted by Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, and its after-party at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Today, a Monday, Dare has a few moments to catch his breath before heading into the maelstrom of upfront sales events for cable-TV advertisers. He can just enjoy a cup of green tea, trying to detoxify from what he calls his “dysfunctional relationship” with caffeine.

Dare, 39, never drank coffee growing up in Montana. His love affair began after he moved to New York in the early nineties. “First it was mornings, and then it was afternoons, and then it was mornings and afternoons,” he says. “Lately, I’ve been kind of freaking people out. I’ve been ordering five-shot sugar-free grande soy lattes. People look at me like I’m a freak. But at least they remember my order, right?” On a really busy day, he says, he’ll take six shots. A couple of years ago, while working on a rebranding of the USA Network, he was tossing back four or five of those a day.

Dare knows that drinking 30 shots of espresso every day probably isn’t great for him. And he’s been having trouble sleeping lately, which is why this week he’s attempting to rein in his caffeine habit (For the record, green tea has a small amount of caffeine). But he knows that’s easier said than done. “I’ll quit for a month and do fine, but then I’ll be out with friends and smell coffee beans,” he says, pausing to conjure the aroma. His most recent attempt to quit ended at a cute little roadside café in Costa Rica. “It starts with a cappuccino,” he says. “And then I’m off to the races.”

Michael Dare may be an extreme example, but his story is still telling. Ever since Howard Schultz and his now-ubiquitous Starbucks outlets turned us on to the pleasures of very strong, often Venti-sized coffee, Americans have been guzzling copious, recently unprecedented, amounts of java. Per capita national coffee consumption, which had been on the decline since the forties, has risen almost 20 percent since 1995, and the amount of caffeine we consume has almost surely shot up even more than that. Starbucks and its competitors may not be Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson (companies that deliberately conspired to get us hooked on known carcinogens), but they’re certainly not shy caffeine enablers. Coffee shops now beckon from every other corner (Dare can choose from three Starbucks stores within 500 feet of his office). Serving sizes are far bigger than they used to be (a Starbucks Venti is twice the size of a traditional corner-coffee-shop cup). And a typical cup of coffee is, ounce for ounce, a lot stronger than it once was. A Wall Street Journal laboratory analysis of the caffeine levels in takeout coffees found that the coffee served at Starbucks and other gourmet coffee shops had more than 50 percent more caffeine than traditional drip coffee.

The other players in the coffee-selling business, meanwhile, have been following the Seattle giant’s lead. Innumerable coffee boutiques have sprung up in Starbucks’s wake. Dunkin’ Donuts, once famous for serving passable coffee quickly, now serves a full range of gourmet coffee drinks, and McDonald’s has begun whipping up lattes at many of its 14,000 stores. And it’s not just coffee purveyors who are peddling more and more caffeine. The twelve-ounce can of Coke has swelled into the twenty-ounce bottle. The market in energy drinks such as Red Bull has reached $4.4 billion. And you can buy caffeinated water, gum, candy bars, mints, beer, diet supplements, and lip balm.

In a relatively short amount of time, we have become a nation of caffeine addicts. Science has barely had time to study the effects of consumption at this volume. New research does, however, suggest that caffeine may not give us the instant jolt of productivity, alertness, and happiness we think it does. And most of us, it turns out, are using the drug all wrong.

Had coffee been cooked up in a university laboratory instead of evolving on an anonymous bush somewhere near the equator, it might have won someone a Nobel Prize (and made him obscenely rich). Caffeine is the world’s most widely used psychoactive substance because it works, and quickly. Caffeine enters the bloodstream almost instantaneously upon ingestion. Within 30 to 45 minutes it has permeated nearly every cell in the body. Because it slips effortlessly across the blood-brain barrier—a sort of filter that prevents bacteria, viruses, and most drugs from entering the brain—it penetrates the cerebral cortex unimpeded. Once inside the central nervous system, caffeine is believed to plug up the receptors of adenosine, a neuromodulator that acts like a brake on nerve cells firing their messages across synapses. With the neural sluice gates open, more messages flood through, resulting, it’s said, in a sense of heightened mental quickness. “It makes people feel good, it increases their arousal and alertness, and makes them more friendly and sociable and talkative,” says Laura Juliano, an American University psychology professor, coffee researcher, and substance-dependence expert. Adenosine is also linked to the onset of sleep; rats injected with it have been observed to keel over unconscious, then wake up a few minutes later. When we pull a coffee-fueled all-nighter, “we’re blocking the adenosine telling us to go to sleep because we’re tired,” says James Lane, a professor of psychology at Duke University Medical Center who has been studying the effects of caffeine since the eighties. Caffeine also greatly aids physical endurance and athletic performance, allowing one to go longer and stronger to such an extent that the International Olympic Committee once limited its use as a performance enhancer, though it lifted the restriction in 2004.

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