Pollan said he didn’t fully understand how addicted he was to the drug — also known by its scientific name: 1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine — until he got off it. All the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal were there, he noted, including headaches, fatigue, and perhaps most insidious for a writer trying to tell a compelling story, difficulty concentrating.
As his work progressed, he also realized that because caffeine is so ubiquitous — more than 90 percent of people on the planet consume it daily, and we even regularly allow children to have the drug in the form of soda — constant personal caffeination “has simply become baseline human consciousness.”
During the talk Pollan delved into the science, discussing how the tiny caffeine molecule acts on the central nervous system by suppressing the neuromodulator adenosine that helps make us sleepy. Caffeine, one-quarter of which can stay in your system for up to 12 hours, then becomes the solution to the problem it creates, he said, making people who are sleep-deprived from their caffeine consumption the day before eager for a morning hit to charge them up for the day ahead.
Pollan explains in a section of the audiobook on the substance’s origins that caffeine was first discovered in China around 1000 B.C. in the form of tea. The discovery of coffee is traced to Ethiopia around 850 A.D. According to the legend, a herder who noticed how jumpy his goats got after eating the berries of an arabica plant gave some of the berries to a local monk, who used them to concoct the world’s first cup of coffee. As time went on, caffeine’s history took a dark turn. Growers and sellers built the industry on the backs of enslaved people forced to harvest both the coffee beans and the sugar needed to sweeten the bitter drink that had become increasingly popular in the West.
In his work, Pollan addresses the question of whether caffeine has been a boon or bane to human civilization. He concludes that the price has been undeniably high, possibly too high, with its historical connections to a brutal system of production and the back-breaking work involved in growing and harvesting coffee that continues today. Then there is the havoc it wreaks on our sleep — particularly the deep, slow-wave sleep that is critical to memory.
But Pollan highlights the positives as well. He notes that before there were ready supplies of potable water, boiled beverages, like coffee or tea, “were the safest thing a person could drink,” with the most commonly available alternative being alcohol. He also points out the continuing health benefits attributed to caffeine and confirmed by the science. Taken in moderation, coffee and tea can decrease the risk of several cancers, as well cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.
He also suggests that the consumption of caffeinated drinks even might have helped societies that embraced them to thrive. According to Pollan, caffeine drove a kind of “Enlightenment thinking.” The coffee houses that stretched first across the Arab world and eventually Europe became not only the internet of their day, spreading gossip and news, but also centers of discussion that fostered important cultural, political, and scientific exchanges and helped usher in a “new spirit of rationalism.”
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