A Former Java Junkie Ponders Coffee’s Upside

My commitment to being decaffeinated is wobbling, and it’s Emily’s fault. Let me explain.

I was once a java junkie, who swilled 5-7 cups of strong brewed coffee a day. But I began to suspect that caffeine’s ill effects—mainly anxiety and mood swings–were outweighing benefits. I quit coffee last July during a silent Buddhist retreat and haven’t had caffeine since—not counting minute amounts in chocolate, an occasional decaffeinated coffee or tea and one tiramisu. 

Caffeine is addictive. Quitting coffee was harder for me than quitting alcohol, because coffee was more integral to my work. I was a machine for turning coffee into words. Cutting back, I went through weeks of withdrawal, during which I felt depressed and lethargic. Writing was tough. Eventually I emerged into a new equilibrium. I felt less anxious and moody, and my writing, if anything, improved.

In a blog post last September, I was evangelical about kicking caffeine. I argued that caffeine transforms us into automatons, zombie drones, cogs in the capitalist machine. Now I’m wondering if giving up coffee might have been a mistake.

I quit coffee with the encouragement of my girlfriend, whom I call “Emily” to preserve her privacy. But last week Emily, who never ceases seeking ways for me to improve myself, told me to check out a New York Times article, “How Deepak Chopra, Wellness Expert, Spends His Sundays.”

On a typical Sunday Chopra, whom the Times calls “the alternative medicine and New Age megastar,” meditates, does yoga and takes long walks. Emily apparently considered Chopra’s regimen superior to mine, which involves lots of lolling on a couch. But Chopra’s daily routine also includes three cups of coffee. “I used to have only one,” Chopra tells the Times, “but my brother, who’s a doctor, convinced me to have more. He thinks everyone should have five cups, but that’s too much.” 

I met Chopra a few years ago at a conference he organized, “Sages and Scientists.” (I’m not a scientist, I told Emily, so that means I’m a sage. She smirked, assuming I was joking.) Although I criticized Chopra at his meeting, he didn’t hold that against me, and we recently had a pleasant chat online about my free new book Mind-Body Problems.

When I emailed Chopra to ask him about his pro-coffee stance, he put me in touch with his brother, Sanjiv, a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Sanjiv, it turns out, is writing a book on coffee, and he devoted a chapter to coffee in his 2016 book, The Big Five: Five Things You Can Do to Live a Longer, Healthier Life. Sanjiv also serves on the board of Purity Organic Coffee. [See Addendum for his statement on this relationship.]

Sanjiv forwarded me studies that linked coffee to lower risk of liver disease andAlzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, among other disorders. In a 2015 interview Sanjiv cited a study of nurses that found “significant inverse associations” between coffee consumption and “deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease, neurologic diseases, and suicide.”

Googling on my own I discovered that, like most nutritional topics, coffee’s effects are hotly contested. Older studies have suggested that coffee raises the risk of cancer. Last March a California court ruled that coffee outlets must post warnings that acrylamide, a byproduct of roasting coffee (and of producing potato chips and other popular foods), is a carcinogen. The coffee lobby protested that decision, and a state health agency later reversed it, pointing out that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found “inadequate evidence” that coffee causes cancer. If anything, coffee might reduce the risks of liver and uterine cancer, according to the IARC.

The most impressive evidence I found for coffee’s benefits is a 2017 meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal. It concludes that coffee reduces the risk of melanoma, leukemia and prostate, oral and lung cancers, among others. Coffee also decreases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and all-cause mortality. In other words, the average coffee drinker lives longer than the average non-drinker. The study found adverse effects only for pregnant women.

Coffee’s benefits are thought to stem not only from caffeine but also from other compounds, notably antioxidants. Hence decaffeinated coffee can be beneficial too. The BMJ authors raise an important caveat, however. They warn that many people might avoid coffee because they are in poor health. A comparison of this group to coffee-drinkers would make coffee appear more beneficial than it really is.

So where does that leave me? I’ve felt a little blah the last month or so, and I’ve been craving that old morning jolt. Last week I had a tiramisu, which contains a little espresso and gave me a nice buzz. But for now I’m staying off coffee. 

Maybe the Chopra brothers can remain mindful while caffeinated, but I can’t. I feel calmer and less impatient than I did in years past. Emily says I’ve backslid a little, but I’m still nicer than before kicking my habit. And I don’t need caffeine to write. So in 2019 I’m going to try staying caffeine-free. I’ll also meditate more, and take more walks, and not only on Sundays. If I succumb to temptation and start swilling that evil brew again, you know whom I’ll blame.

Addendum: When I asked if he had financial ties to coffee firms Sanjiv Chopra told me: “I am on the advisory board of Purity Coffeeto help with a medical perspective of coffee and health. I joined two years ago and I don’t promote any particular brand of coffee and have been talking about the health benefits of coffee in general for over 20 years. It features prominently in my book The Big Fivealongside exercise, nuts, meditation and vitamin D. My position on the health benefits of coffee were well developed before Purity and have not changed since.”

Further Reading:

Kicking My Caffeine Addiction

A Buddhism Critic Goes on a Silent Buddhist Retreat

Buddhism, the Good and the Bad

Dark Days

Mind-Body Problems (free online edition)

See also my chat with Deepak Chopra on Meaningoflife.tv.



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