COFFEE THOUGHTS SACRILEGIOUS? (July 26/96)

The summer flu flattened me recently, leaving a headache that wouldn’t go away. Aspirin and acetaminophen failed to dull the pain. I suffered for several days before I found the cure for the headache in my kitchen cupboard. I had been off coffee for nearly a week while the flu ran its course. It dawned on me that the persistent headache was a symptom of caffeine withdrawal.

You may not believe that someone who averages one cup of coffee a day would have withdrawal symptoms. But this is exactly what happened. I made a cup of instant coffee, drank it and got instant relief; several minutes later the headache disappeared.

If coffee hadn’t cured my headaches before, I wouldn’t have thought of trying it. Several people mentioned having head pain for days when they gave up coffee and this also prompted me to try caffeine for my headache.

Obviously, I’m hooked on coffee and in one sense this makes me a drug addict. I’m not alone, however. Millions of people world-wide kick-start their day with a mug of java. The consumption by North Americans alone is estimated at billions of cups annually.

You may think it nonsense to suggest anyone who needs a daily injection of caffeine is an addict. You’ll change your mind about this if you try to give up your daily cup of coffee. As for coffee or the caffeine in it being a drug – used here in the sense that a drug is an substance that causes addiction or habituation – you can argue with experts about the pros and cons of this.

Coffee is definitely addictive but, on the other hand, it’s a pleasant, stimulating drink. One or two cups of coffee a day may do you more good than harm. I’ve seen reports that a mild coffee habit greases the workplace and makes people more productive and, in some cases, more creative. While the reports came from food companies that control the coffee bean market, there’s some truth in them.

You probably heard the latest report: that you can safely drink as many as five cups of coffee a day without worrying about caffeine increasing your blood pressure and increasing cholesterol levels. The report didn’t associate blood pressure and cholesterol with caffeine, but both are affected adversely by high coffee consumption.

There may be other problems as well for people who drink coffee excessively. From the Nutrition Almanac:

“If consumed in excess, coffee can cause increased nervous symptoms, aggravate heart and artery disorders and irritate the lining of the stomach. (Coffee may also cause) vitamins to be pumped through and out of the body before they can be properly absorbed.”

On the negative side as well, the book Drugs Through the Ages includes coffee in its history of drug addiction and mentions its “psychoactive properties.” Webster’s dictionary defines psychoactive as “affecting the mind’ or behaviour.”

On the positive side, a cup of black coffee contains only three calories, has no cholesterol and only a trace of fat. Coffee also has a smattering of nine minerals, two vitamins and carbohydrates. Add two per cent milk and you almost but not quite have a health drink.

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