Food Geek: Drinking Coffee for Science

Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae

“So today is the day you drink coffee?” my roommate Jessica asks me. It’s ten-thirty in the morning on my day off, and I’m drinking tea at our kitchen table. I like tea, as you may have gathered from some of my previous columns, and not just as a method of caffeination.Tea is comforting, warm, calming, energizing. It’s the blanket fort of drinks.


“Are you terrified?”

“Yep.” I don’t drink coffee, as a rule. The rule being “Coffee makes Nicole insane.” Coffee is like a Hummer with an AK-47 mounted to the top of it. It gets the job done, but there’s bound to be collateral damage.

“Worst case scenario,” she says, “Is that you shout at a stranger and poop in public.”

“I’ve only actually done one of those things.”

“There’s always tomorrow.” My roommate Jessica: always looking on the bright side.



1:45pm: I order a small cappuccino. At my cafe, these have about two ounces of espresso in them, plus equal parts of steamed milk and foam. The barista makes it beautifully, a creamy circle of white foam with a dark halo of espresso. The first sip hits my taste buds like a freight train. The caffeine hits my brain like the caboose. It takes me four tries to type the word “bicycle”.


The second to last time I quit drinking coffee, two years and three jobs ago, I ended up screaming at a co-worker before I’d even clocked in. It was over a relatively minor act of assholery, but I erupted into a profanity-spewing volcano of unbridled rage, shoving him bodily out of my way and calling him a fucking asshole and a dickbag while my boss and three coworkers looked on anxiously, not about to step in. Several hours later, I apologized. Several weeks after that, I quit the job and quit drinking coffee, realizing 1.) that co-worker was actually a fucking asshole who deserved to get shouted at, and that job sucked anyway, and 2.) there seemed to be a correlation between my caffeine consumption and my moodswings.

The last time I quit drinking coffee, it was while my sister was visiting me in Chicago. Having witnessed a mid-afternoon meltdown after drinking coffee during brunch, we conceived a comic idea in which drinking coffee turns me into a giant tentacled monster spouting stream-of-consciousness rage. I destroy the city, and then my sister has to throw a corgi at me. It makes sense in the context of our relationship, trust me.



2:03pm: I finish the cappuccino. My fingers and eyelids are both twitching. My eyeballs feel weird, like I can feel the individual veins and capillaries pulsing.



Working in a cafe, I watch people gulping down coffee right up until the moment we close, handing over their cups for refills with trembling fingers. When folks ask me about our coffee, its tasting notes and acidity levels and country of origin, the most I can do is read the descriptions off the bag. When I tell them I don’t drink coffee, they give me a look that reminds of the looks that the kids who couldn’t watch television at home got: sympathetic and bewildered all at once.

Being a barista who can’t drink coffee kinda feels like being the Little Mermaid sometimes. Every so often, when retreating to my cave full of caffeine paraphernalia isn’t enough, I make my way to the surface to gaze upon the happy people that live in the Land of Coffee.

Deciding to spend a gray October day in Bridgeport Coffee House feels like that moment in The Little Mermaid after Ariel saves Prince Eric and she’s on a rock singing and the waves come up behind her and there’s a swell of triumphant music, because she’s gonna be PART OF THAT WORLD.

That metaphor sounded a lot better in my head.



2:35pm: I’ve been warned that espresso has less caffeine that regularly brewed coffee, but what the fuck, I already feel like I’m dragging ass. My brain feels weird and wired and I’m still having trouble spelling, but I’m ready for a nap. Time for more? Time for more.

2:40pm: The cafe au lait is another miraculously beautiful creation. It tastes stronger and a little smokier than the cappuccino. It just took me three tries to spell “cappuccino”. I get a biscotti too, since it’s probably a bad idea to have this much caffeine on a half-empty stomach. It only takes me two tries to spell “biscotti”



Searching for information on caffeine causing mood swings, most of the returns were from websites that I don’t trust as far as I can metaphorically throw: Paleo Hacks, Natural News, Live Strong. Bypassing those, I found one article on a support network for folks with bipolar disorder. Their article cites research in which twins with psychiatric disorders were interviewed about their caffeine consumption. While there was a definite association between level of coffee consumption and the incidence rate of psychiatric and substance abuse disorders, the researchers were quick to point out that there didn’t appear to be any associated risk.

According to the abstract of an article printed in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, “Moderate caffeine intake (< 6 cups/day) has been associated with less depressive symptoms, fewer cognitive failures, and lower risk of suicide.”

(As a personal aside, if five cups of coffee a day is considered moderate, I’d hate to see what this researcher’s idea of excessive is.)

However, it goes on to say that, “in rare cases high doses of caffeine can induce psychotic and manic symptoms, and more commonly, anxiety. Patients with panic disorder and performance social anxiety disorder seem to be particularly sensitive to the anxiogenic effects of caffeine, whereas preliminary data suggests that it may be effective for some patients with obsessive compulsive disorder.”

In my years of using google as a tool of self-diagnosis, I’ve come to the conclusion that I probably don’t have OCD, but I have had my share of anxiety attacks, manias, and depressive episodes. I don’t think screaming at an asshole co-worker counts as a psychotic symptom.




2:50pm: Everything is amazing. I honestly can’t tell if everyone in this cafe is hitting on me or if they’re just friendly or if I’ve met them before and can’t remember.

3:15pm:  I’ve announced on Facebook that I’m drinking coffee for a column. My sister immediately comments: “READY THE CORGIS.” Just in time, because everything is horrible again.

3:20pm: Everything is seriously horrible.

4:23pm: My bowels are doing something unspeakable. Oh god. I forgot about this part of drinking coffee.



Jessica sends me encouragement via Facebook: “Nicole, just don’t stop writing. I have this feeling you’re going to strike gold.”

I write back, “My guts are churning and I feel like I’m gonna die. If by ‘strike gold’ you mean ‘shit my pants and/or cry’, then yeah.”

But it’s disingenuous. Though my gastro-intestinal tract has been doing some alarming things, on the whole, I feel okay. Kinda tired, but okay.



6:34pm: A brief burst of energy gets me back home, but now I’m stuck on the couch, unable to summon up the energy to make dinner or go to my martial arts class. How do people do this?



As a tween, a friend and I once popped wee fistfuls of No-Doz and then spun around in my living room until we fell down while listening to Ani Difranco’s “The Million You Never Made” on repeat. A year or two later, I snorted some Ritalin after eating a tab of acid. I spent the next two hours packing and unpacking my bookbag full of things I might need “in an emergency”: stuffed animals, wiffle balls, a half-empty pack of cigarettes, a whip from a costume shop. I drank an entire carton of orange juice to try and get rid of the bitter taste of pills in the back of my throat.

The point is, a cappuccino and a cafe au lait are definitely not my worst experience with stimulants. But I still prefer tea.

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