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Food and drink: Mojo not workin'?

Maybe it's your cuppa joe

"The initial cause of any action always lies in external sensory stimulation...," wrote the Russian physiologist, Ivan Sechnov, in Reflexes of the Brain in the mid-1800s, maybe while sipping a cup of coffee.

How many people for how many centuries have tapped into caffeine in its myriad forms as the perfect stimulant to kick-start nervous systems and spur action, mental and physical?

Sometime between the 4th and 15th centuries, coffee use drifted from its origins in Ethiopia, where it was mixed with butter and made into an edible paste, into Yemen, then southern Arabia. Ancient Sufis drank coffee as a dark liquor to keep themselves awake for night prayers centuries before Europe's café culture knew it existed. The Chinese have been brewing and drinking their caffeine as tea for maybe 4,000 years.

Now caffeine is the most widely used legal stimulant of choice. About 90 per cent of North Americans use caffeine every day, mostly in the form of coffee or tea.

I have an Iron Man/marathon man-type friend who uses a line-up of caffeine-laden products, including gels, drinks and NoDoz to speed him through his competitions. Another pal joyfully sucks the caffeine out of used tea bags to get a bigger hit after the brew has brewed.

Some have to have their coffee fix by a certain time. For Jane Burrows, who once single-handedly comprised at least half of the Whistler Question staff, that's 11 a.m. or it's curtains for her, while hubby Paul never touches the stuff. (Like others in the minority of non-caffeinated souls, if he succumbs, say, to be social or for the luxurious taste, it means climbing the walls for hours.)

So a lot of people were wondering what the heck last week when the University of Bristol released a report that concluded there's a good chance the stimulating effects of caffeine may just be an illusion, at least for caffeine addicts.

Tests on 379 individuals, who abstained from caffeine for 16 hours before being given either caffeine or a placebo and then were tested for a range of responses, showed little variance in levels of alertness, says the report.

Peter Rogers, from the University of Bristol's Department of Experimental Psychology and one of the lead authors of the study, stated in a university press release, "Our study shows that we don't gain an advantage from consuming caffeine - although we feel alerted by it, this is caffeine just bringing us back to normal. On the other hand, while caffeine can increase anxiety, tolerance means that for most caffeine consumers this effect is negligible."


Participants were either non- or low caffeine consumers or medium to high users. Each rated their level of anxiety, alertness and headaches before and after taking either caffeine or the placebo. They also did computer tasks to test their memory, attentiveness and vigilance.

The medium/high caffeine buffs who received the placebo reported a decrease in alertness and an increase in headaches - neither of which were reported by those who received caffeine.

But, and this is a big "but," their post-caffeine levels of alertness were no higher than the non-/low consumers who received a placebo. It all suggests that caffeine only brings coffee drinkers back up to what might be called "normal" levels of alertness.

As for anxiety, the study's authors also found that the genetic predisposition to anxiety didn't stop coffee drinking. In fact, people with the gene variant associated with anxiety tended to consume slightly larger amounts of coffee than those without it, suggesting that a mild increase in anxiety might be a part of the buzzy attraction of caffeine. So much for yoga.

Still, there's something the study misses.

"...They seem to think every coffee drinker is just in it for the caffeine buzz and the alertness it offers," says former Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre Café manager Albert Kirby, from his new posting with Four Seasons in Toronto. He uses a massive green "ugly mug" for coffee, with what looks like a tapeworm snaking around the outside.

"Does every person who drinks orange juice simply do it for the vitamin C?... I like the comfort in the ritual of coffee, and not necessarily the effects that it has."

True enough, but if you do like caffeine's buzz, or at least what you used to think of as the buzz, and you think the University of Bristol is onto something, you might want to try what Rob McCauley calls "holistic caffeine."

Yerba maté, from a plant of the same name that's a member of the holly family, was originally harvested along the Parana-Paraguay river system long before the king of Spain even dreamt of South America.

Now yerba maté is a cool (hot?) drink for good reason.

"Caffeine is part of the chemical family called xanthine alkaloids, and there are three of those compounds in maté," says Rob, who is one of the owners of Northern Nites, which distributes Guayaki yerba maté products in Canada, including Whistler. He's been drinking maté every day since he discovered it three years ago.

"There's caffeine, of course, like coffee, there's theobromine, which is what you find in chocolate, and also theophylline, which you find in tea and which is a metabolism enhancer." (Tea also contains theobromine.)

According to Rob, who's quick to acknowledge he's not a biochemist, not only does theophylline boost your metabolism - waistline reduction, anyone? - it works with the theobromine to balance the downside of caffeine.

The theophylline also counters the spiky flight-or-fight adrenaline rush from caffeine that can make you feel anxious and, later, drained or depleted because you've been over-stimulated and running on high.

The theobromine helps with that too, plus it produces a mild euphoria. Also, maté contains all kinds of vitamins and minerals, including B-complex, antioxidants and amino acids.

"It [maté] is more of a holistic stimulation," Rob says. "When you're drinking coffee you're running on credit because you're getting stimulation from the caffeine alone and then you go into deficiency - you have to pay it back."

Just what the researchers at the University of Bristol concluded.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who can't drink coffee.