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Coffee vs. Energy Drinks: The Caffeine Wars

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Caffeine may be the perfect drug of the Internet Age -- cheap, legal and available absolutely everywhere. For a population complaining of fatigue, exhaustion, stress and insomnia, it appears a near perfect antidote. Yet how we deliver our drug of choice changes the results on our brain and body.

So here's a quick review of some of the cultural, social and biological differences between coffee and energy drinks:

Culture: Few drinks can claim a place in the creation of the English, American, French and Russian revolutions, but coffee can. Beyond activating the minds of revolutionaries, coffee drinking is highly social, and for centuries coffeehouse owners have tried to make their businesses centers of community life. You don't bring kids to a bar. Coffeehouses can be a place to meet business colleagues, future mates and listen to the lonely local poet as you surf the net. By comparison, you drink energy drinks alone, unless your sports team is imbibing them together at half time.

Food and food products: Few would dispute that coffee is a food. Though often adulterated with a bewildering list of ingredients that begin in an organic garden and end in a petrochemical can, coffee does come from trees. Many advertisers hope coffee drinkers believe those trees are tended by picturesque third world planters who love their mountain misted arbors as much as their barefoot children, if only to justify the exorbitant price they pay for each cup. Some researchers argue half the antioxidants obtained by Americans come from their coffee cups, which as Michael Pollan would point out, tells you a great deal about the average American diet.

Energy drinks are not attached to such sentimental images. They are at best food products, legal pharmaceuticals, delivering a certain dose of caffeine plus sugar (with its quick calories) and vitamins. In real ways their "energy" components may originate with energy companies like BP, extending from the PET bottles from which they are normally dispensed to the flavorings, stabilizers and preservatives within.

Age: Coffee drinking starts early but often extends through a lifetime. The ritual of awakening and brewing a fine cup to activate the still sleepy brain is common to teenagers and 80-somethings. Yet few of us would expect grandma to knock back one or two cans of Monster Energy Drink every night. Energy drinks are the perceived province of youth.

Dose: Coffee comes in many different caffeine doses, from the 4-12 mg of decaffeinated brews to the 40-80 mg of the average cup to the hundreds of milligrams of special Starbucks and cappuccino brews. Energy drinks can range upward from low numbers to 200-300 mg of caffeine. Used regularly all such drinks create caffeinism, the addiction to caffeine which can move from the buzzing speed of the addict to the withdrawal hell of headaches, nausea, vomiting and terrifying sleeplessness.

Why Are Energy Drinks So Popular?
If coffee and tea are such culturally accepted ways to obtain caffeine, why are energy drinks so increasingly popular? The usual suspects can be trotted out: they provide a quick hit; the high doses; you can guzzle energy drinks anywhere and nobody will ask you to sit down and talk with them. However, there's a bigger invisible elephant lurking around -- the abolition of rest, and its biggest time component, sleep.

Rest Deprivation and the Need for Energy
Americans have knocked off 90 minutes of sleep in the last 40 years, and we're working overtime to shave off more. Working women are madly multitasking, hoping for 6.5 hours of shut eye before the next fast-paced day. Rest, as a chance to think, consider and reflect, seems as quaint an idea as scheduling a coffee break in an auto plant.

The situation is worse for adolescents and young adults. Teenagers lose about a third of their brain's synaptic connections when they enter puberty. Building the growing brain requires time and energy, and adolescents need about 9.5 hours of sleep to function and do marginally well in school.

These days they're getting perhaps 6.5 to 7.5 sleep hours a night. There's no point in resting when you're text messaging two hours a day, netsurfing, doing homework and playing video games while taking cell phone calls from Mom and Dad. Not getting enough rest to grow and rebuild their brains, let alone stay awake through morning classes, kids turn to energy drinks. Suddenly they've got the power to keep going.

Until they can't. Caffeine's drug half life is perhaps 5-10 hours for many, though it can extend to 16 or more hours for some. That means, in the good case, half the caffeine dose is gone in 5 hours, three-quarters in 10 hours, seven-eighths in 15 hours. For many, sizable blood levels of caffeine never go away -- which means they never properly sleep.

Stealth Energy Drinks
Adults differ only in degree. The parents of caffeinated children drink coffee to get through working days and nights to meet deadlines, or resort to the energy drinks that dare not speak their name, century old brands like Coke and Pepsi. Colas are just stealth energy drinks.

Yet from a national health standpoint, we're getting close to a tipping point. When people sleep less than six hours a night, they:

1. Gain weight

2. Start to look prediabetic

3. Get more coronary artery disease

4. Get more infections, especially colds

5. Get more depressed

6. Feel perpetually cranky, irritable and uncivil

Since sleep and rest are required for learning and memory, many of us suffer from buzzing brains with incessantly broken attention, making creative and productive thinking increasingly difficult, as Nicholas Carr demonstrates in his book "The Shallows."

And what's the standard answer to all this fatigue and tense exhaustion? More caffeine.

What We Can Do To Fix the Caffeine Fix:

1. Recognize rest is like food -- necessary for function and survival. Sleep deprive any animal long enough and it gets sick and dies. People need to get rest.

2. Recognize that caffeine is a drug -- an enormously pleasant and useful drug, but a drug whose "normal use" can abuse our bodies.

3. Use caffeine the way it's meant to be used -- as a food we love. Energy drinks may have their use in sports, where even the slightest edge can mean everything to competitors, or for shift workers tending a nuclear reactor at 1 a.m. But foods are social glues, cultural treasures and forms of celebration. We want to dine, not feed. We want to talk to our fellow imbibers, appreciate the taste of whatever caffeinated brew we're ingesting. It's fun to sip a cup among peers, family and friends, giving us a better chance to enjoy the buzz and enliven our brains.

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