That all said, what if the uptick in energy, alertness, and smarts we feel after drinking a cup of coffee isn’t a real uptick at all? What if it’s an illusion? A group of cutting-edge caffeine researchers believes that might be the case.
Anyone who consumes caffeine on a regular basis—especially someone who consumes a lot of it—knows what happens if he skips his morning coffee: fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, headaches. Research has shown that drinking just 100 milligrams of caffeine a day (an eight-ounce cup of almost any type contains at least that much) is enough to develop a dependence and trigger withdrawal symptoms. The escape from the clutches of withdrawal is a big part of what makes the day’s first cup of coffee so wonderful. “Feeding that dependence feels really good,” Juliano says. The implication: The positive feelings we associate with drinking coffee don’t represent a net gain in energy or alertness; they’re really the result of withdrawal maintenance.
When Griffiths and Juliano teamed up to review 170 years of caffeine research, much of which confirmed the drug’s reputation as a brain booster, they noticed a pattern: Most studies had been done on caffeine users who, in the interest of scientific rigor, were deprived of the stimulant overnight. Because caffeine withdrawal can commence in just twelve hours, by the time each study’s jonesing test subjects were given either caffeine or a placebo, they had begun to suffer headaches and fatigue. For the half that received the stimulant—poof!—their withdrawal symptoms vanished. The other half remained uncaffeinated, crabby, and logy, and guess which group scored higher on cognitive tests time after time? The boost the test subjects who got the caffeine felt may have simply been a function of having been deprived of the drug. “They were restoring performance and mood that was degraded from low-grade withdrawal,” Griffiths says. Without the withdrawal, the caffeine may not have had any effect.
“You seem to get the most beneficial effects if you don’t use caffeine often,” says one researcher. “But that’s not how people generally consume it.”
At least one researcher is certain that’s true. Jack James, head of the school of psychology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, has been studying caffeine for 25 years and is probably the biggest skeptic of the drug’s positive effects. “Considerable scientific effort has gone into clarifying to what extent benefits generally attributed to caffeine represent genuine net effects of the drug or reversal of withdrawal effects,” he says. “In short, although caffeine is widely believed to be beneficial to mental performance and mood, controlled studies show that these perceived benefits are largely illusory.” Even caffeine’s reputation as a sleep-fighter is overrated, James believes; fatigue, he notes, is just another symptom of withdrawal. So the extra alertness we feel after drinking a cup of coffee may be another withdrawal-maintenance mirage.
In keeping with this heretical thinking, researchers have been tinkering with new ways to maximize caffeine’s benefits while minimizing the drug’s unwanted side effects and health risks. Recent studies, some of them funded by the military in order to calibrate peak performance of combatants, have demonstrated that instead of dosing ourselves with caffeine bombs two or three—or in Michael Dare’s case, six—times daily, we’d probably get better results from caffeine by taking in multiple small amounts throughout the day. One experiment conducted by Harvard researchers found that subjects given the caffeine equivalent of two ounces of coffee every hour maintained their alertness, scored well on cognitive tests, and suffered little detriment to their nighttime sleep—even though they continued to ingest it up until 90 minutes before bedtime. Troops in Iraq are given Stay Alert gum, which comes in 100-milligram doses. The upside of slow-drip consumption is that your body isn’t subjected to caffeine’s roller-coaster ride. You get the highs without the lows, or the withdrawal. Another novel idea is to use caffeine not as a faithful companion but on an as-needed basis only. Most of the researchers I spoke with use caffeine this way, taking small doses (say, 50 milligrams) occasionally, and not every day. “You seem to get the most beneficial effects if you don’t use it often,” says Duke’s Lane. “But that’s not how people generally consume it.”
He’s right, of course. Coffee isn’t just a drug-delivery system. It’s a social and cultural phenomenon. It’s a totem of a new day’s potential, a business-meeting staple, an excuse to linger after dinner and talk. And it tastes good. All of which makes it difficult to quit. One survey found that 13 percent of caffeine users had been told by a doctor or therapist to cut back or eliminate caffeine because it was causing them medical or psychological problems but had been unable to do so.
A couple of weeks after my first chat with Michael Dare, I checked in to see how he was faring with his green-tea-only regimen. He’d made it through the upfronts with only a single relapse, triggered by a walk through his neighborhood’s gauntlet of Starbucks on an especially sunny day. “I did manage some restraint and limited myself to a tall four-shot soy sugar-free dolce latte with two Splenda, rather than my megashot usual,” he reported. Since all but quitting caffeine, he reported, he’d been dozing off faster and sleeping more soundly at night, with no measurable drop-off in productivity during the day. “I’ve been alert and able to concentrate in a seemingly smoother fashion,” he said. “Coffee seems to be more frantic on the system.”
I thought back to our first conversation, in which Dare had described in mesmerizing detail the joy he found in the ritual of removing the top of his freshly poured latte and swirling in his sweetener. Despite his success so far, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was just one stressful premiere party away from slipping back into his old, bad relationship. In an e-mail he later sent me, he seemed to be reading my mind: “Don’t hold it against me,” he wrote, “if one of these days I fall prey to the daily coffee grind again.”