Is the Jolt You Feel From Coffee Real?

If you're a regular drinker, a cup of joe may give you no edge

While stuck in Memorial Day traffic, my girlfriends and I played a variation of the game “would you rather,” debating which food or drink we would rather give up. The clear winner: coffee. We all said that, forced to choose, we’d give up French fries, ice cream and chocolate in order to have our morning brew. Call us coffee aficionados. Or just addicts. None of us could fathom sitting down to work each day without that cup of java in hand. It’s the slap in the face I need to get focused every morning. Or, so I thought, anyway.

According to a study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, that morning cup doesn’t give coffee drinkers any real boost. It just feels that way, say the Bristol University researchers, because it alleviates the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, like fatigue, sleepiness and irritability. In other words, we wouldn’t be so tired and in need of coffee if we didn’t have a caffeine addiction to begin with. It gives us no edge over non-coffee-drinkers – it simply restores us to their level of mental alertness. You’re probably thinking, but how can that be when caffeine is a stimulant? Well, researchers found that people who drink coffee every day quickly develop a tolerance to coffee’s stimulating effects. As with other drugs, the more coffee you drink, the more you require to experience the same effects, until you plateau.

To test this effect, researchers asked 162 non-caffeine-drinkers and 217 caffeine drinkers to abstain from caffeine for 16 hours. Participants were then given a caffeine pill or a placebo. In people who regularly drink caffeine, abstaining reduced their alertness, and the caffeine only returned them to a normal state of attentiveness. The caffeine did not increase alertness in non-coffee-drinkers.

The moral of the story here: if you only drink coffee for its stimulating effects, well, you might as well cut your losses and give up coffee now. But if you love the taste, smell and ritual of drinking coffee as much as I do, there’s nothing wrong with a couple of cups a day. Even if you it doesn't give you a real edge over your non-caffeinated colleagues, there are other benefits. According to Harvard Medical School, moderate coffee consumption is linked to lower rates of liver, colon, breast and rectal cancer. And it may help prevent diabetes. While this study helped put my habit in perspective, and made me realize that I might not actually need my daily brew, I still love it. And if forced to choose, I’d still give up French fries and chocolate before my precious java. I’m just glad I don’t have to.

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