Coffee and workplace: between productivity and exhaustion
“I like coffee because it gives me the illusion that I might be awake.”
GIVE ME THAT CUP…
Have you ever observed how much coffee is drunk in an average office per day? Chances are that quite a lot. Studies show that an average employee drinks about 1000 cups of coffee per year at work.
The bitter dark drink has become much more than just a drink — it is a way to socialize with colleagues and friends, an excuse for a break (that “coffee break” you hear about at every conference, meeting, and workshop), carry through a long afternoon in front of the screen or not fall asleep on that boring meeting.
Coffee has become a natural attribute of a modern working person’s lifestyle. Some companies even opt for coffee lounges with top-quality caffeinated drinks for employees as part of their talent attraction strategy. Many of us consume it daily without ever questioning the habit. However, what if we do?
We all see dozens, if not hundreds, of studies published on the benefits and dangers of coffee, which are often contradictory and therefore very confusing. This article is meant to help you draw a final line in your relationship with coffee, based on a few fact-based considerations. But before let us look at how coffee interacts with our brain and body.
COFFEE AND BRAIN
The active ingredient of coffee is caffeine; the most widely consumed legal psychoactive substance in the world. It easily crosses the blood-brain barrier, a protective mechanism preventing dangerous molecules from entering the brain, and reaches the bloodstream and main body organs. It immediately alters the neurochemistry, affecting a number of neurotransmitters — the brain’s chemical messengers.
In particular, caffeine interferes with neurotransmitter adenosine. In wakeful hours the levels of adenosine in the brain rise each hour and contribute to increasing levels of sleepiness which develop and reach their peak in the evening. Caffeine binds to the adenosine receptors mimicking them, taking away the place of adenosine. Thus instead of slowing down, the nerves cells get more activated and we do not feel any signs of sleepiness or fatigue, even if we are actually getting tired and losing energy.
Sensitivity to caffeine varies from person to person, depending on their age, levels of stress, when and how they consume caffeine, their diet, quantity, and quality of sleep, etc etc. Individual genetic makeup can also determine the effect it has on your system and how you metabolize it, in particular, due to the gene called CYP1a2 — an important enzyme that breaks down toxic chemicals, drugs, hormones, and other products of metabolism in order to eliminate them from your body. It has been found that CYP1A2 activity has a remarkable degree of variation (up to 40-fold) between individuals based on their genes, ancestry, and environmental factors.
Caffeine also strongly affects the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis: the linked system of the hypothalamus, pituitary glands in the brain, and the adrenal glands. The HPA axis influences the body’s ability to manage and deal with stress, both at rest and during activity. Let us see in detail how caffeine interferes with this system.
COFFEE AND HORMONES
The adrenal glands secrete two key hormones when we are confronted with stress: adrenaline and cortisol, which both trigger the fight-or-flight response. Caffeine stimulates adrenal glands, which in turn put the body on alert and make it ready for action. Adrenaline increases breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure, while cortisol frees up stored glucose (sugar), which we need in greater amounts during times of stress.
Every time we drink coffee, we activate the body’s fight-or-flight response, but the problem is that there is actually no threat to fight or flee from. This response is in fact “expensive” for our organism because it requires immediate mobilization of multiple resources, for instance with regards to blood pressure, digestive system, heartbeat, etc. When it is on, it is like when you suddenly press full gas in your car engine. When you do it too much and too often, the engine and the tires wear off and break. A similar outcome may happen to your adrenal system if the stress response is activated too much.
Consider the fact that a modern employee already experiences high levels of chronic stress because of long hours, 7/7 work culture, and unpredictable workloads. Adding regular and intense coffee consumption to it depletes our physical and psychic resources even further and eventually may lead to a condition called adrenal fatigue. Even if there is no common agreement on whether this condition is real, what may be real and perfectly natural is permanent tiredness, the sleep of bad quality, and cravings for stimulants. Note that cortisol is released after drinking coffee whether you are under stress or not, and whether you feel the caffeine kick in or not.
COFFEE AND SLEEP
Cortisol production is naturally high in the early morning because one of its functions is to help you wake up and rise for the day. People who constantly overproduce cortisol, through stress and/or caffeine intake alter their hormone production so that in the morning their cortisol is low. In this case, they look for coffee first thing in the morning and so the vicious cycle sets in.
If you drink coffee later in the day, elevated cortisol can interfere with the body’s natural circadian rhythms. High levels of cortisol can interfere with a good night’s sleep because it can keep you from entering Stage 3 and 4 sleep; the deep, rebuild, and repair sleep your body needs for recovery.
COFFEE AND NUTRITION
“Caffeine depletes the body of B vitamins, which you need for proper brain and nervous system functioning and for converting food to energy”, says M. Murray, one of the world’s leading authorities on natural medicine. Worse than that, it also prevents absorption of iron, which can lead to anemia, a condition in which you have too few oxygen-carrying red blood cells (a major contributor to fatigue). It also prevents the absorption of other essential minerals, such as iron, calcium and magnesium.
Chronic long-term exposure to cortisol also disrupts the body’s metabolism and causes elevated blood sugar, contributing to insulin resistance, a situation in which the body cannot effectively deliver glucose into the cells of the body. When insulin fails to unlock our cells, the appetite is increased while the body’s ability to burn fat is decreased.
Coffee drinking is also correlated with higher consumption of sugar, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle, further leading a modern office worker to loss of health and shape.
COFFEE AND PHYSICAL DEPENDENCY
S. Cherniske in his book “Caffeine Blues” writes that “…research conducted by the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine shows that low to moderate caffeine intake (as little as one 14-ounce mug per day) can quickly produce withdrawal symptoms”.
Not all people develop a physical addiction to caffeine. The best way to check whether you have it is to not take it and see how it feels. If you feel a strong headache, brain fog, anxiety, tremors, and irritability, you have a physical dependence.
Certain types of people should especially consider quitting coffee for a period of at least one month or forever. They share the following characteristics:
- Can’t start a day without coffee and needing a “kick” in the afternoon
- Emotionally and physically unbalanced: poor energy or swings, inconsistent sleep, irritability, anxiety, unhealthy weight.
- Crave foods high in sugar, salt, and fat
- Diet rich in grains, dairy, sugar, and meat (75% or more) that creates an acidic body pH, leading to inflammation
- Digestive issues, such as stomach pain, flatulence, bloating, and constipation
- Frequent urination
- Morning fatigue — having difficulty waking up and being fully alert
- Poor stress resistance.
The best replacement for coffee is still water. Remember that the human brain is about 75% water and that water is the medium for most chemical reactions in the body, especially those metabolic reactions involved in energy production. When functioning on a full reserve of water, you will be able to think faster, be more focused, and experience greater clarity and creativity.
However, if you need a ritual with a soothing drink, there are multiple healthier options available.
For instance, organic green tea made from the entire leaf. Green tea also contains caffeine, but much less of it. More importantly, it doesn’t act in the same way: unlike coffee, it contains a combination of catechins (disease-fighting flavonoid and antioxidant) and L-Theanine (amino acid). Catechins and L-Theanine work together to offset the crash which happens when after drinking coffee caffeine leaves the body. Catechins in tea have been proven to slowly release the caffeine instead of being released all at once while L-Theanine relaxes the body and neutralizes caffeine’s bad effects without reducing the energy boost. This means sustainable energy that will last through the day, coupled with high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
You may also check out multiple recipes of caffeine-free lattes here.
CONCLUSION: COFFEE AND WORKPLACE
Sipping coffee at work boosts concentration and leads to feelings of increased physical and mental energy. Notice, it actually does not increase them but only gives such a feeling: “Caffeine doesn’t add energy to your system, it just burns up your reserves at a faster pace. You get a short-term boost at the expense of long-term jitters and fatigue.” (M. Murray.)
Studies also indicate that coffee may help you against brain ageing, prevent Alzheimer, provide relief from pain and improve memory, the list to be continued. However, it does it for the price of increasing your cortisol levels, disrupting multiple vital functions of your body, and playing tricks with your brain chemistry. It is up to you to decide whether the benefits are worth the harm.
Here are a few suggestions to remove or reduce the impact of coffee on your wellbeing and that of your team:
- Do not throw the coffee machine. Instead, educate your employees and let them make a healthy choice for themselves.
- There are multiple ways to make your workplace attractive instead of an expensive coffee machine or a coffee lounge, for instance freely available whole food snacks and sugar-free healthy drinks.
- Organize an organization-wide game experiment, for instance, “A month free of coffee”. Turn it into a game with awards at the end.
- However be mindful of the importance of breaks, which help the brain stay productive and also play an important role in team cohesion. Call them “water breaks”, “exercise breaks”, or “mindful breaks”.
If you really cannot imagine your life without coffee, at least choose organic quality beans and do not increase your intake at times of stress (because your body is already flooded with cortisol and you need a restorative sleep). Better drink it when you are relaxed and enjoy it in a company once in a while.
With modern life being already full of stress, we should choose our habits strategically, so that instead of short-term energy we would have it long-term and sustainably. Of course, reducing or quitting coffee alone is not enough: natural sources of energy like exercise, a nutrient-dense diet, and stress reduction techniques should be added to the daily routine.