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The Dark Side of Coffee

Coffee as a drink that has been around for millennia, as well as being widely consumed by billions of people. It’s a very social drink, can be infinitesimally versatile (varieties, flavors, brewing methods, etc.), and is often touted for its health benefits. What’s not to love about coffee? Coffee (like many things in this world) has a dark side. There are several points I could discuss, but its biological impact on our health will be the focus. Coffee’s negative effects stem primarily from caffeine. Caffeine is a drug, specifically a stimulant that tends to increase the activity of the brain and nervous system.

It can make one feel more active, less tired, or delay tiredness. However, that characteristic of caffeine is what can make it very unhealthy. Caffeine (as I detailed in my coffee nap post) works by competing with serotonin, the sleepy molecule, in the brain. So long as a significant amount of caffeine persists, serotonin can’t do its job. In the short term and upon waking up, that’s okay, as it’s exactly what people want. However, in the long term, it’s not easy on the brain. We need sleep for a reason, and that’s primarily to clear the brain of toxic metabolic waste that accumulate while awake.

Caffeine persists in the body a lot longer than you would think. In average healthy adults, caffeine has a half-life of about 6 hours, taking an additional 6 hours to fully metabolize it. Though its noticeable effects will have long subsided after 6 hours, its still locking serotonin out 6 hours after. As such, people can have a harder time falling asleep, as well as sleep less, have less quality sleep (deep sleep), and spend more time awake (we wake up many times during sleep, but they’re so short in duration we never notice it). Also, the 6 hours half-life is just an average; the range for caffeine’s half-life in people can range from 1.5 to as long as 9 hours.

For many, the simple fix to this is to simply stop consuming caffeine 12 hours before we would sleep. For those cursed with a slower metabolism of caffeine, it’s probably best to avoid caffeine altogether. Thankfully, decaf coffee (97% caffeine removed) does exist, which tastes just as great and retains the same health effects of coffee. Nevertheless, it’s essential to adapt if it means bettering our own health. Balance, moderation, and change can fix many problems. Drink responsibly! Or not. Or not drink at all.