Coffee consumption: where is the balance?

Why you might feel in need of coffee, even during quarantine.

It has been more than a month under the stay-at-home order, and our relationship with coffee is changing. Maybe you’re a night owl and still need a cup of coffee to stay awake for the next day. Or maybe you’re having trouble going back to a regular sleep schedule and finding a balance between caffeine and sleep.

Isabella Meneses, a graduating masters student in journalism at USC has been drinking coffee as a daily routine for the past six years. It’s been difficult for her quit, even though she’s away from school.

“I try to not drink it every day since I’m just at home, but I get migraines when I don’t drink it and I’m exhausted at 7 p.m even if I slept 8-to-9 hours the night before”, she said.

What Isabella describes might sound like an addiction to coffee, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Here is a breakdown of why some might feel a need for coffee, even during quarantine, and what you can do to try and break the habit:

Am I Addicted to Coffee?

Coffee makes us awake because it inhibits substances that the human body produces to cause sleepiness. Caffeine’s inhibitive function on them is what makes people dependent on it.

Dr. Peter Pressman, an expert in internal medicine and neuroscience told Annenberg Media that although people may feel a dependence on coffee, such dependence is too mild to be identified as “addiction.” That’s because coffee doesn’t produce any neurological changes like a drug such as tobacco might.

According to Pressman, the psychological aspect plays a more significant role in developing caffeine dependency. People who are very high strung when coping with stress may experience more difficulty staying away from coffee.

Usually, that withdrawal symptom will last from 48 hours to an entire week. To deal with the syndromes, Pressman suggested people take baby steps: reduce the amount and frequency of coffee intake on a gradual basis.

“There's no magic to this. It's just a matter of how you cut down slowly”, Pressman explained.

What does healthy coffee consumption look like?

A study in 2018 showed that 92% of college students routinely consumed caffeine, with coffee being the most popular source.

According to Dr. Roger Clemens, adjunct professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the USC School of Pharmacy, people vary individually in their sensitivity to caffeine because of their different metabolizing abilities that are decided by genes. The time for people to eliminate the caffeine in their body, therefore, also varies.

That’s why it’s important for people to make individual management of their coffee consumption in order to maintain a delicate balance.

Usually, 300-400 milligrams of caffeine consumption per day is considered safe for adults. In Starbucks terms, that would mean having roughly between a Grande brewed coffee (330 milligrams of caffeine) and a Venti (415 milligrams of caffeine).

The time that you drink coffee is important, too.

“Know how much time it takes for a half of the product to eliminate or metabolize,” Clemens said. He recommends that most people stop drinking coffee before 4:00 PM.

For those who are particularly sensitive to coffee, however, it’s best to avoid drinking it altogether.

“If you have on heart medications or (are taking) blood pressure medications, you should probably not be consuming caffeine or caffeine, Clemens said. "It could alter your heart rhythm.”

Culture vs Individual

The culture we are living in also plays an important role in our coffee habits. When looking at caffeinated drinks, Eastern culture favors tea while American and European cultures prefer coffee. The average American, after all, consumes about three cups of coffee per day.

“A lot of people drink coffee because it’s part of our culture,” Clemens said. “We need to understand the culture as well as we need to understand the product.”

After all, not everyone is a coffee lover. Matt Mitchell, senior student majoring in Acting, said he just never liked the taste of coffee. Instead, he drinks tea as an alternative source of caffeine.

“Tea is nice because it has caffeine, but also feels very soothing,” Matt said.

It’s perfectly fine to refuse.

“It’s easy to say no. If you find that it doesn’t agree with you, it gives you sleepless nights, you avoid it. It’s pretty simple to do so. Don’t feel forced that you have to consume coffee when it’s in front of you.” said Clemens.

Still Need Caffeine? Look at Other Options

For people who are sensitive to coffee but love the taste, decaffeinated coffee is a good substitute. Coffee becomes decaf when it is treated with a supercritical carbon dioxide, eliminating almost all the caffeine in the drink.

Compared to Starbucks Bottled Cold Brew, which has 215 milligrams of caffeine, the Starbucks Decaf Coffee only has 25 milligrams. But the trade-off comes from the fact that decaffeinating also removes some of the potential bioactive compounds that may be beneficial for people.

Another option would be tea. Tea contains caffeine at a much lower level - usually between 10 milligrams and 55 milligrams per cup. The natural antioxidants in tea, especially green tea, can be beneficial for us to reduce the risk of certain types of diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

Then there’s energy drinks. A 16-oz. energy drink usually contains 70-240 mg of caffeine, while a single energy shot can have 113-200 mg. Some brands even exceed 300 mg.

Ultimately, considering how much coffee one consumes on a daily basis starts with an understanding of what works best for our body. Making whipped coffee does add some fun to life under quarantine--but make sure it’s not giving you sleepless nights.