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."


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