Tag Archives: Nutrition Action

Caffeine

I’m addicted.

I admit it.  I’m addicted to caffeine.

I find that I increasingly need caffeine.  It’s become an absolute necessity.  I drink 3 to 4 cups of coffee from about 8 a.m. till about 4 or 5 p.m. Why?  Because I like it.  And because it helps me stay awake when I need to be.

First, a little bit about my relationship to caffeine. 

I remember how my mother drank coffee all day long.  Once I asked her if I could taste it.  I figured that it had to be delicious or she wouldn’t drink so much of it.  So when she said I could taste it, I took a sip.  Yuck!  It tasted terrible.

I didn’t try coffee again until my first year of college, when I discovered that it was drinkable if I put enough milk and sugar in it.  I decided to try it when late-night studying began to take its toll.  I found I’d doze off in class the minute the professor turned off the lights and showed slides on a screen at the front of the classroom.  But I discovered that if I had some caffeine in my breakfast coffee, I could stay awake.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that consuming caffeine is a necessity.  Especially before sitting in a theater, when (as in college classrooms) the lights are dimmed and I need to stay conscious to enjoy a film, a play, a concert, a ballet performance, or an opera.  Although the pandemic has cramped my style, suspending my theater-going, for example, I’ve continued to rely on caffeine while I read or watch TV at home.

Now let’s look at some of the science behind caffeine.  I won’t bore you with the wonkiest stuff, but you probably want to know something about it.

I found this info in the March 2021 issue of Nutrition Action, a monthly newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), my go-to source for honest reporting on healthy food choices and the like.  Here’s a summary of the most useful info:

How does caffeine work?  It blocks adenosine receptors in the brain.  Huh?  What’s adenosine?

Adenosine is a natural sedative.  When it builds up, you feel drowsy.  But when caffeine blocks it, you don’t.

But watch out:  You can build up a tolerance to caffeine.  What happens is this:  The more caffeine you consume, the more adenosine receptors your brain makes.  So you need even more caffeine to block those extra receptors and keep you alert.

But how much is too much?  The FDA says that most adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams a day.  This is roughly the amount in two large cups of coffee at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts.  But the amount of caffeine in your home-brewed coffee can vary.  And caffeine’s impact on people varies.

So you need to judge the impact it has on you.  If you’re having trouble sleeping, or too much coffee makes you feel jittery, you probably need to cut back on how much you imbibe, and pay attention to when you’re imbibing.

You can try to break up with coffee, as famed author Michael Pollan has.  He reports “sleeping like a teenager” and waking “feeling actually refreshed.”  But that experience may not work for everyone.

One study asked 66 young caffeine users–who were having trouble sleeping–to go “cold turkey.”  But during the a week with no caffeine, they spent no more time asleep and took no less time to fall asleep than before. 

Still, it’s probably wise to avoid caffeine right before bed.  Studies show that people generally take longer to fall asleep and get less deep sleep when they have caffeine right before bedtime.

Coffee consumption has shown some real benefits.  A lower risk of type 2 diabetes, for one thing.  Better exercise-performance for another.  (Although few studies have looked at the exercise-boosting effect in older adults, one study of 19 Brits aged 61 to 79 showed that they performed better in a battery of physical tests after they consumed caffeine.)  Finally, studies have shown that people who consume more caffeine have a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

I get my caffeine in a variety of sources, including coffee, tea, and cola drinks. I also happily consume coffee candy (my favorite is Caffe Rio, available at Trader Joe’s) and coffee ice cream.  I also heartily recommend the cappuccino gelato at my local gelato shop.  But let’s face it:  a cup of coffee packs the most punch.

The recent advent of cold brew coffee allows coffee-drinkers to get their caffeine in a less acidic form.  According to one source, cold brew is over 67 percent less acidic than hot brewed coffee because the coffee grounds aren’t exposed to high temperatures.  Result:  cold brew appeals to some of us because it’s sweeter, smoother, and less bitter. (But don’t confuse it with iced coffee, which has the same acidity as regular hot coffee.  The ice can dilute it, however.)  I’ve tried cold brew and like it.  I keep a bottle of it in my fridge and frequently drink some.  But it’s much pricier than my home brew, at least for now.

New sources have popped up.  One may be bottled water.  In the bargain bin at a local supermarket, I once came across a bottle of Sparking Avitae, whose label states that it’s caffeine plus water and natural fruit flavors.  It claims to have “about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee,” thereby giving you “instant go with added fizz.” According to the manufacturer, it includes “natural caffeine derived from green coffee beans.”  I’m not sure this product is still available.  Possibly something like it is.  My original purchase is stashed in my fridge, but I’ve never tried it.

Even newer:  I recently spied an ad for a cosmetic product called “Eyes Open Caffeine and Peptide Eye Cream.”   Yes, eye cream.  This one claims to be “supercharged with caffeine,” adding that it can “reduce the appearance of puffiness and dark circles.”  Does it work?  Who knows?  I’d guess that it probably works just about as well as any other eye cream.  Dermatologists generally tell their patients not to expect very much from any of them, no matter their price or their claims. 

To sum up, I confess that I ally with Abbie Hoffman, the “Chicago 7” trial defendant.  When the prosecutor asked him whether he was addicted to any drug, Abbie said “Yes.”  Which one?  “Caffeine.”   [Please see Post #9 in my blog series, “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” published on 4/20/21, where I noted this amusing bit of testimony.]

My favorite coffee mug says it all:  Its vintage photo features a stylish woman in glamorous riding gear, holding the reins of her horse, saying “You can lead a horse to water…but I could use a triple expresso.”

And let’s not forget my sticky-note pad featuring a stylishly-coiffed woman, circa 1928, drinking what’s clearly a cup of coffee.  She boldly announces:  “Given enough coffee, I could rule the world.”  

Well, maybe coffee-drinkers like me should actually try to rule the world.  We might do a better job than most of those who’ve been in charge.

Okay.  I’m addicted.  And my path ahead is clear. 

I’ll continue to reap the benefits of caffeine while at the same time I steer away from any potentially harmful impact.

Maybe you’d like to join me on this path?

I Shouda Ran

I just came across some great news for joggers.  Researchers have found that strenuous exercise like jogging does NOT boost the risk of arthritis in one’s knees.  A recent study enlisted nearly 1,200 middle-aged and older people at high risk for knee arthritis.  Result?  After 10 years, those who did strenuous activities like jogging and cycling were no more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis than those who did none. (See the July/August 2020 issue of Nutrition Action, noting a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

And according to a writer in The Washington Post, most data show that running actually helps keep knee joints lubricated.  (See the report by John Briley on August 6, 2020.)

Hmmm…

So…maybe I shoulda ran?

What?

I’ll explain.

When my daughters were small, my husband and I often relied on PBS kids’ programming to keep us from going bananas whenever we were home with them for more than a few hours.

I’m still indebted to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for offering wonderfully positive content that expanded our daughters’ minds.

I can still remember many of Fred Rogers’s episodes and his delightful music.  The recent films (e.g., “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) that highlight his music and the many layers of his unfailing kindness are moving tributes to everything he did.  (I obliquely noted Rogers’s important role in our family when I briefly mentioned him in my 2011 novel, Jealous Mistress.)

Similarly, I can’t forget countless “Sesame Street” sketches and songs we watched over and over again. In addition to stalwarts like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, I loved less-prominent Muppet characters like Don Music, who’d take out his creative frustrations by crashing his head on his piano keyboard.

One “Sesame Street” sketch I vividly recall focused on words than rhymed with “an.”

The setting is a rundown alley in a big city.  Tall buildings loom in the distance.  As the sketch begins, two Muppets garbed as gangsters breathlessly arrive at this spot.  The savvier gangster tells his partner Lefty that “We got the ‘Golden AN’.”

The word “AN” is clearly written in bold upper-case letters on a metal object he’s holding.  Explaining their “plan,” he points to a “tan van” and says, “This is the plan. You see that van? You take the Golden An to the tan van.  You give it to Dan, who will give it to Fran.”  He adds:  “Everything I’m telling you about the plan rhymes with AN.”  He takes off, leaving Lefty alone.

Lefty, who’s pretty much of a dolt, repeats the plan out loud a couple of times while a Muppet cop is watching and listening.  The cop approaches, identifies himself as “Stan…the man,” and tells Lefty he’s going to get “10 days in the can for stealing the Golden An.”

Lefty then chides himself:  “I shoulda ran.”

This carefully crafted sketch was clearly intended to teach little kids about words that rhyme with “an,” although much of it seemed aimed at parents and other adults watching along with the kids.  How many little ones knew the meaning of “the can”?  The bad grammar in the sketch (“I shoulda ran”) was forgivable because kids watching “Sesame Street” didn’t really notice it, and the whole thing was so darned funny.

But what has stayed with me over the decades is the final line:  I shoulda ran.

When I was growing up, I always liked running fast, and I rode my fat-tire Schwinn bike all over my neighborhood.  So I wasn’t indolent.  But as I grew older and entered public high school in Chicago, I encountered the blatantly sexist approach to sports.  Aside from synchronized swimming, my school offered no team sports for girls.  So although I would have loved to be on a track team, that simply wasn’t possible.  Girls couldn’t participate in gymnastics, track, basketball, baseball, tennis, or any of the other teams open to boys our age.

We were also actively discouraged from undertaking any sort of strenuous physical activity.  It was somewhat ironic that I applied to be, and became, the sports editor of my high school yearbook because I was completely shut out of the team sports that I covered in that yearbook .  And I foolishly gave up my coveted spot in the drama group to do it—what a mistake!

I had a somewhat different experience during my single semester in school in Los Angeles, where I spent the first half of 8th grade.  Although sexism was equally pervasive there, girls at least had a greater opportunity to benefit from physical activity.  Because of the beautiful weather, we played volleyball outdoors every day, and I actually learned not to be afraid of the ball!  I was prepared, when we returned to Chicago (reluctantly on my part), to enjoy a similar level of activity during my four years of high school.  But that would not happen.   The girls’ P.E. classes were a joke, a pathetic attempt at encouraging us to move our bodies.  And things didn’t begin to change until 1972, when Title IX was enacted into law.

Over the years, I continued to ride a bike wherever I lived and whenever weather permitted. I took up brisk walking and yoga as well.  And I sometimes thought about running.

Jogging– less intensive running–took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Why didn’t I begin to jog?

There was a bunch of reasons.  First, I was afraid of damaging my knees.  I’ve always loved aerobic dancing, the kind popularized by Jacki Sorensen.  I’d jump along with the music in my favorite Jacki tape, and I began to notice that jumping was possibly beginning to wear away the cartilage in my knee joints because occasional pain resulted. So I kept dancing, but I stopped jumping.  I figured that running would place even further stress on my knees.

And then there was Jim Fixx.

I didn’t know a lot about Jim Fixx.  He became a media celebrity when he published his best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running, in 1977, and his claims about the health benefits of jogging suddenly showed up on the news.  But in 1977, I had a brand-new baby and a toddler, along with a challenging part-time job, and I couldn’t focus on starting something new like jogging.  By the time I was getting ready to launch into it, I heard the news that Fixx had died of a heart attack while jogging.  He was 52.

Fixx’s death shook me up.  I didn’t know at the time that he may have had a genetic predisposition to heart trouble and he had lived a stressful and unhealthy life as an overweight heavy smoker before he began running at age 36.   All that I knew was that this exemplar of health through running had died, while jogging, at age 52.

Chicago weather also stood in my way.  Happily ensconced in an area that allowed our family to ride our bikes along Lake Michigan and quiet residential streets, and where I could take long and pleasant walks with my husband, I was reasonably active outdoors during the six months of the year when good weather prevailed.  But during the harsh winters, confined indoors, I had less success.  I played my Jacki tapes, I tried using a stationary bike (it never fit me comfortably), and I sampled a local gym.  But I didn’t pursue strenuous exercise.

Now, learning about the recent evidence I’ve noted–that, if I’d jogged, my knees might have been OK after all–I regret that choice.  My current climate allows me to be outside almost every day, and I take advantage of it by briskly walking about 30 minutes daily, much of it uphill.  So that’s my workout now, and it’s a pretty good one.

But I probably would have loved running all those years.

It’s a bit late to start now, but I can’t help thinking:  I shoulda ran.