April 05, 2004

Caffeine and Neurotransmitters Revisited

How much of an altered neurotransmitter state do you need to function as an academic? The Chronicle of Higher Education presents some evidence:

The Chronicle: 4/9/2004: The Buzz in Higher Education: By DAVID GLENN: Caffeine is America's drug of choice, and nowhere is that more evident than in academe. All those meetings to attend, journal articles to write, classes to teach -- the energy has to come from somewhere. But just how deep is the addiction? Borrowing an idea from the Volokh Conspiracy (http://volokh.com), a blog, we asked three scholars and a university president to chart their consumption in a typical day....

Let me just say that the amount of caffeine needed to function effectively as a university president is terrifying.

Brad DeLong, professor of economics, University of California at Berkeley:

March 17

8:10-8:25 a.m. Three small cups of coffee in rapid succession. Joe Stiglitz's Wildavsky seminar starts at 8:30, and Joe is so smart and so quick that I need my neurotransmitter levels heavily altered if I am going to have even a chance of keeping up with him. 191.25 mg

10:30 a.m. Small iced decaf latte at Nefeli's, where I go to get some work done to hide from my telephone, which is making a loud, annoying, disruptive sound every time I begin a fruitful train of thought. 7 mg

Noon. Noneating working economic-growth luncheon seminar on European unemployment. 12-ounce decaf Diet Coke. 0 mg

2:10 p.m. End of real lunch. Lazing in the high-70s sunshine. Go inside to look for cup of low-quality Faculty Club coffee. Crisis! They took away all the coffee at 2 p.m.! Make it back to office before falling asleep in sun. 0 mg

2:30 p.m. Doing e-mail. Realize am thirsty. Go get a 12-ounce Diet Coke. Wonder if would have gotten Coke if not keeping caffeine diary and thinking about same. Drink half of it. 22.5 mg

2:50 p.m. Go to economics-department tea, which formally starts at 3. By 3 all the cookies are gone. Clearly graduate-student stipends are insufficient. Get a small cup of Irish breakfast tea. (It is St. Patrick's Day, after all.) 45 mg

3:30 p.m. Waiting for office hours to begin. Drink other half of 12-ounce Diet Coke. 22.5 mg

7:30 p.m. After-dinner cup of coffee. 85 mg

TOTAL: 373.25 mg


Philippe Bourgois, professor of medical anthropology, University of California at San Francisco (on leave this year at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J.):

March 19

8:55 a.m. Wake-up cup of Lapsang souchong tea. 60 mg

9:20 a.m. Follow-up mug of fair-trade Guatemalan coffee. 85 mg

1:30 p.m. Delicious after-lunch double-shot latte from institute's cafeteria machine. 80 mg

3:50 p.m. Cup of coffee with four macaroons at tail end of institute's "afternoon tea and cookies." Watched two mathematicians gesticulate furiously and talk (in gibberish) about their latest "proofs." Nauseated from the overdose of macaroons. 85 mg

TOTAL: 310 mg


Daniel A. Mendelsohn, writer, critic, and frequent lecturer in classics at Princeton University:

March 15

5:50 a.m. Up early as deadline for Horace-translation review article looms; can't help noticing that today is the Ides of March. Cupboard bare, so I call the corner deli and order two lattes with extra espresso. Pull my laptop onto the bed and start writing. Caffeine on brain makes me wonder what kind of man Caesar was; a double-espresso-in-the-morning guy, I suspect. Marc Antony was undoubtedly one of those effete flavored-mochaccino people. Thank God for Actium.

6:10 a.m. Lattes arrive. Could be recent enthusiasm for hand-delivered latte is due more to the Tadzio-esque delivery lad, who has recently replaced the hunchbacked Incan, than to any real passion for great quantities of milk in the morning. Note to self: Determine whether veering into decadent, Antony-ish waters. Consume one double-shot latte. 80 mg

8:05 a.m. Second latte cold and unappetizing. Good progress on the Horace, though -- who, judging from his superb reasonableness, was a late-night-espresso devotee, for all his talk of the great Falernian vintages. 80 mg

9:20 a.m. Will go broke if Tadzio is only caffeine source today. Go to corner deli and buy that fierce Cafe Picon stuff in the vacuum-packed bags that explode slightly, no matter how carefully I open. Brew and drink four cups. 340 mg

11:40 a.m. Second smallish pot of inky Picon almost done. 320 mg

12:50 p.m. At lunch with travel-magazine editor: sweet Manhattan straight up AND a double espresso. Horatian balance, non? 80 mg

3:30 p.m. Flagging and foggy: The sweet Manhattan a terrible idea. Halfway through two-liter bottle of Diet Coke, which perks me up. Long swig, shake head in doglike fashion to clear out soft, unmanly, Antony-like lapse into indulgence, and open eyes wide at laptop screen. Why is Horace great? Why? 254 mg

5:45 p.m. Second two-liter bottle of Diet Coke now open. Drink one tall glass. 45 mg

8:15 p.m. Dinner break. Another French press of Picon: the Latin and Gallic -- eminently Horatian compromise? Drink two cups, feel energized, get in bed, open laptop. 170 mg

11:50 p.m. Meandering toward finish line but am completely exhausted. Console self with spoons of Starbucks Espresso ice cream. Surely the rigor of the espresso and the sinful luxe of the cream is a very Horatian balance between extremes. Occurs to me that I am losing my mind, so I put first the laptop, then myself, to sleep. 50 mg

TOTAL: 1,419 mg


John E. Sexton, president of New York University:

March 8

5:45-8:15 a.m. Eight cups regular coffee reading the morning papers and daily briefings. 680 mg

9-10 a.m. Two cups regular coffee (meeting). 170 mg

10:30-11:30 a.m. Two cups decaf (meeting). 6 mg

11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Two cups decaf (meeting). 6 mg

12:15-1:30 p.m. Two cups decaf (meeting with faculty). 6 mg

1:30-2:30 p.m. Two cups decaf (phone calls). 6 mg

2:30-3:15 p.m. Two cups decaf (meeting). 6 mg

3:15-5 p.m. Three cups decaf (meeting). 9 mg

5:30-6:15 p.m. Two cups decaf (meeting). 6 mg

6:30-6:45 p.m. One cup decaf (meeting with guest lecturer about his class). 3 mg

6:45-8:45 p.m. Three cups decaf (during class). 9 mg

9-10:30 p.m. Four cups decaf (meeting with a dean and provost). 12 mg

TOTAL: 919 mg

Posted by DeLong at April 5, 2004 02:47 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

Do you have a monetary estimate of your personal consumption in coffee? Or % of your budget?

Posted by: Andres on April 5, 2004 03:10 PM


It's not just academics. I work in an office, and I don't know where I would be without four or five cups a day. I've often wondered. In fact, when the office has run out, I usually find myself falling asleep at about 11, and again at 2:30 and again around 4:30. And if there's a particularly boring meeting, I can be out like a light. Face it, most office work is so boring, particularly if you just spend the day staring into space, that caffeine is essential to keep awake. Also, getting up to make a hot drink is a nice break if you don't smoke.

Posted by: PJ on April 5, 2004 03:15 PM


A coffee shop I visited yesterday had posted a newspaper clipping saying that athletes experience 29% less muscle pain after working out if they had ingested caffeine before working out.

Perhaps the real story here is that it reduces existential pain as well!

Posted by: The Bellman on April 5, 2004 03:31 PM


Addicts- shocking addicts!! Of course I have had to cut back to only 2 to 3 diet cokes a day and only one cup of coffe in the morning. Of course that is after they wouldn't let me donate blood because my blood pressure was too high. I used to fuel up on 4 to 5 dc's plus two cups of french press mud. That would yield about 750-800 mg of caffiene. Now I try to live under 300. Sigh, western civilization shall perish. A glass of Falnerian should take that edge off...nah- mas mas y mas!

Posted by: AllenM on April 5, 2004 03:59 PM


I wonder how much it takes to function as a journalistic/political hack. Mickey? Andrew?

Posted by: MKUltrahack on April 5, 2004 04:05 PM


My late wife was a CPA and for business traveled about central Calfornia visiting clients and was very surprised at the consuption of cigarettes in accounting offices. She questioned the accountants and bookkeepers and they said they smoked to sharpen their minds and stay focused on a lot of boring numbers. A lot of caffeen was consumed also. Maybe some great synergistic effects? Maybe with a nicoten patch and a lot of coffee and you could double your production of papers?

Posted by: dilbert dogbert on April 5, 2004 05:01 PM


These levels of caffeine consumption are truly frightening. I can't believe that John Sexton and Daniel Mendelsohn aren't already clinically dead.

Personally, I can't stand more than a half-teaspoon of Nescafé instant; anything stronger than that and I start to get palpitations.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on April 5, 2004 05:09 PM


I can't resist some snark here. I live in the Pacific NW, the most caffeine-addicted place on the planet, yet I drink decaf (Cokes too) almost exclusively. I noted some years ago that caffeine made me nervous and upset my stomach, so I cut it out. I almost never drink alcohol either, for similar sorts of reasons (makes me sleepy, among others). Neener neener neener...

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD on April 5, 2004 05:32 PM


Also a caffine junkie and as my following comments show, wrestling with all the usual complications of addictions.

Trying to switch from coffee to Green tea which is supposed to be a more healthy source of caffine with moderate success. Still can't beat coffee sometimes though. Tried Yerba Mate, ick.

Torn between the belief caffine is a wonderful thing, and wondering if I'm not just frying my dendrites as some research suggests.

Too much caffine definitly does by all accounts fry the brain over long periods. OTOH, some amount of stimulat appears to stimulate the kind of focused activity that leads to strengthened cognitive pathways. Amphetamines are now being used for stroke therapy for example.

But, who knows?

Posted by: neo on April 5, 2004 05:50 PM


Everyone has their own formula. Mine is two shots of espresso in the morning and nothing after. Water and fresh fruit seem to help maintain energy and concentration at various times during the day. It's better than my grad school days when I was consuming 15 to 20 cups and getting heartburn. Exercising helps too (Brad, this is for you).

Posted by: Knut Wicksell on April 5, 2004 06:05 PM


Once upon a time I did a neuropsych class taught by Rob Hughes at the Uni of Canterbury in New Zealand, who is an expert on caffeine.

He'd done interesting stuff looking at caffiene's effects on stress. If you are not stressed, it will not make you so. But if you are stressed, it will multiply the level of stress you are feeling.

A good thing if you're working hard and happy: *not* a good thing if things are going badly and the deadline is looming.

*Very* high level of caffeine are also very bad for recall of things from long-term memory. And you can even get to the caffeine psychosis levels (at around 20 cups/day or more, and if you turn out susceptible to it), especially if you're sitting around with nothing to do all day and an infinite supply of coffee on tap - like some patients in mental hospitals.


Posted by: meno on April 5, 2004 06:07 PM


Caffeine and Ibuprofen, the drugs of choice in the new and improved century.

Posted by: masaccio on April 5, 2004 07:14 PM


Although the amount of caffeine consumption is impressive, I’m more impressed by the amount of calories. That’s ok if you burn them off with exercise, but I suspect most people don’t. You start to think about such things when you get old enough to see your friends die from an obvious lack of attention to matters of health. I keep my consumption of caffeine (and calories) down by making them a little hard to get. So when I want that afternoon latte, I have to drive about two miles to get it from the Starbucks down the road. If I get too juiced in the evening so I have trouble sleeping, I have a sure fire remedy: turn on C-Span. It always works.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on April 5, 2004 07:29 PM


Similar to Abiola's comment, I recently had a physician tell me I was consuming palpitation-inducing levels of caffeine. And I was limiting myself to a double cappuchino in the morning and another at night (at Strata, for the Berkeley crowd). I took the Dr's word for it, and cut in the daily intake in half, with no noticeable letdown in "stimulation"...It seems the tolerance one builds is powerful, and easily reversed.

But it's mouth-wateringly addictive, to me least.

Posted by: andrew on April 5, 2004 07:36 PM


On the topic of Starbucks marketing:

http://www.illwillpress.com/vault.html -- requires Flash and pick the cartoon "SMALL, MEDIUM, LARGE"

Posted by: Alan on April 5, 2004 08:13 PM


Luckily Peet's has opened a store down here on Main St. in Santa Monica! One regular cup at dawn and you're jazzy 'til dusk.

Posted by: Lee A. on April 5, 2004 08:35 PM


The Navy (years ago) ran on coffee. Every mess (Officer's; Chief's & Enlisted) had coffee urns that ran 24 hours a day while virtually every workshop that had an electrical outlet (except for the nuclear areas) had their own coffee supply. One of the running jokes was that in order to become a Chief (CPO) one had to delop the 2-finger grip to hold the coffee mug with your rating (ex: bos'ns mate)embellished on the mug

Posted by: daveb on April 5, 2004 09:25 PM


"It's not just academics. I work in an office, and I don't know where I would be without four or five cups a day."

You would be tired and groggy for a couple of weeks, and then you'd probably be pretty much be where you are now. I went cold turkey from 300mg/day and noticed my overall mental acuity was better and I slept rather better. Not quite as much "focus" but more creativity.

I am continually amazed how many coffee addicts seem oblivious to the fact that it's a drug that your body adapts to, and the only reason you need 4-5 cups a day to stay awake is because you've bludgeoned your system into being super-tolerant of caffeine.

I avoid caffeine (anything more than, say, a diet coke at lunch and I'll have some trouble sleeping that night), but I make sure to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night. End result is I am just as alert as caffeine drinkers. Actually, I have more energy than most caffeine drinkers because I do a short but intense workout every morning, which revs up my metabolism for the rest of the day.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on April 5, 2004 11:10 PM


Well, yeah, but then you have to develop some mental discipline to be able to deal with tasks without having tidal waves of excess nervous energy to throw at them.

I figure, why start now?

Posted by: julia on April 6, 2004 12:16 AM


OK, OK, good professors, you indeed seem to deserve your postions considering the hard work you perform. Here's a story from the industrialization of a small country on the western outskirts of the Taiga; Sweden:

Like all other nations and people on the Taiga, Swedes had a culture of drinking, heavy drinking, everyday drinking. Somehow, Sweden managed to, albeit late, industrialize rapidly, not like Japan, but faster than most other developed countries had at the time. Democracy was built with the temperance movement as an important ingredient. Even today there is a huge overrepresentaion of absolutist non-drinkers in the parliament.

What about coffee then? Well, at the time just before early industrialization really got hold of the development, *coffee replaced vodka* as the drink to serve in everyday social events.

Coffee as an industrializer - a democracy builder!

Posted by: Mats on April 6, 2004 12:44 AM


How the heck did the Romans manage to build an empire without coffee or some equivalent? It is one of the great mysteries of history . . .

Posted by: rea on April 6, 2004 06:27 AM


Reading Arab spokesmen and politicians always leaves me with the impression that I'm hearing too much caffein speaking. I think the solution to the Middle East might be a pint a day all around.

Pari passu for the White House: we are in the hand of a white-knuckled dry alcoholic.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones on April 6, 2004 07:33 AM


“The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee” by Honore de Balzac (an awe-inspiring caffeine fiend).

Posted by: Merkin on April 6, 2004 07:38 AM



Posted by: Merkin on April 6, 2004 07:38 AM


I quit coffee (and Coke, etc.) cold turkey for 8 weeks during grad school. Brutal. I thought things would improve after a week or 3, but they did not. Horrible.I simply could not get moving in the mornings, even after 8 weeks. The first cup was like waking up for the first time in 2 months. Now I drink 2-4 cups a day. Works fine. More and it's a problem. But I apparently am a maintenance-coffee-addict.

What's most interesting to me is the fact that so many benefits of moderate coffee consumption have been documented in clinical studies, and so few problems. This might be especially surprising considering that coffee contains high levels of many compounds characterized as rodent carcinogens. Of the 28 chemicals in coffee tested as of the mid-90s, 19 were found to be carcinogenic:
...and yet, there are no good studies showing that moderate coffee consumption predisposes to cancer. This negative result, apparently, is not for lack of looking for such effects. In contrast, coffee drinking is associated with lowered susceptibility to various neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson's, and with other beneficial effects including reduced risk of non-insulin-dependent diabetes:

So, a toast to health (with espresso)!

Posted by: Alex Merz on April 6, 2004 07:56 AM


I am continually amazed how many coffee addicts seem oblivious to the fact that it's a drug that your body adapts to, and the only reason you need 4-5 cups a day to stay awake is because you've bludgeoned your system into being super-tolerant of caffeine.

No obliviousness here. I embrace my addiction, revel in the tolerance-- and drink up to my tolerance rather than over it so that I can still sleep 8 hours per night, which I do almost without fail even after 1000+ mg of caffeine during the day.

Are any serious coffee drinkers really unaware of the tolerance-addiction issue? We just decide that it's worth it.

Posted by: Jacob T. Levy on April 6, 2004 09:24 AM


(On the comment immediately above, the first sentence is a quotation from an earlier comment. For some reason the italics tag didn't work.)

Posted by: Jacob T. Levy on April 6, 2004 09:25 AM


Why are you not taking amphetamines instead of caffeine? Paul Erdös did this, the Air Force does it, truck drivers do it, the beat poets did it, why
is this not more wide spread amongst people who obviously require stimulants to perform their jobs effectively(i.e. academics)?

Or, maybe it is? Maybe this is a dirty little secret in academic circles. Maybe we should start drug testing university professors for illegal performance enhancing drugs, just as we do with athletes.

Posted by: torsor12 on April 6, 2004 11:23 AM


See, this is what distinguishes a professor from a university president. A professor envelops addiction with self-reflection and flowery prose, where a president goes into head-down, all-business, no-nonsense, pure pot-after-pot consumption.

Erdos: "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." (Or something like that.)

Posted by: ploeg on April 6, 2004 01:21 PM


PJ and others: If you get tired during mid-day (not only after having lunch, that's a natural and known phenomenon), you should seriously examine your sleeping pattern. It is quite likely that you are not getting enough sleep or sleep of enough quality. (Also don't confuse boredom and the resulting "habitual" drinking with being tired; I mean this seriously. There may also be the effect that a drinking habit causes an "urge" to drink at the proper time. Think of Pavlovian conditioning. Again, seriously.)

Drinking coffee in the afternoon may possibly interfere with your sleep in the sense that you don't feel tired and ready to sleep at the time that you should, let's say 8 hours before you have to get up; especially if you have coffee in the later afternoon or evening. When you drink coffee at those times, this effect is typically desired; however make yourself aware that you are bullshitting your body, and will ultimately pay for it with too little sleep. This will lead to a vicious circle: too little sleep begets more coffee drinking as a "cure". Also many people think (and may even pride themselves for it) that they can get by with less than 8 hours sleep - just to say some number, the point being that it's kind of a social stigma to require much sleep; many may be bullshitting themselves, short-changing their health and quality of life.

I'm not sure whether coffee drinking (for staying awake, not necessarily for enjoying the taste and distraction) is more prevalent in the US than in Europe, but given that aggregate studies show 1900 annual work hours in the US vs. 1400-1500 in Europe, it's quite likely. Also in Europe I think you don't quite have the same penetration of (corporate) coffee machines in offices. In Germany there is the "ritual" afternoon coffee around 15:00, but typically not this round-the-clock "getting a fix".

The coffee will not really wake you up; it will just remove the feeling of tiredness, but it will not improve your effective performance, unless applied rarely, when it still can give you a boost. (Also don't fool yourself that you enjoy the taste of the coffee if you rather drink it to stay awake.)

If you are still reading, consider getting enough sleep (which is admittedly difficult in today's world). Going cold turkey on coffee is not advisable -- many people report morning headaches, and if you have morning headaches and discomfort before having your first coffee it may be a withdrawal symptom. Having _just one_ cup of espresso or whatever strength you prefer in the morning (a good brand at home, not the crap you may have at work), and occasionally one in the afternoon (again at home or a good coffee shop!) has worked well for me. I used to drink habitually at the office, but finally decided I don't like the taste of it, and got nauseated from drinking too much, and drinking significantly less has not led me to be more tired.

Finally, I would not speak of an addiction but of a habit. Addiction is a strong word, and although the biochemical evidence seems to be in place, it is not like people get obsessed with having their coffee fix to the point where they cannot think of anything else, and cannot perform any task without getting the fix. Or is it?

Posted by: cm on April 6, 2004 11:09 PM


After having taken the ephedrine in diet pills, my BP was way too high. So I tried cutting back on caffeine, but then our office brought in Peet's home brew and I knew I was a goner.

I know it may sound silly, but I truly love the scent of fresh brewed coffee and our new office stuff does it for me.

Read the Wall Street Journal today and look at the article on caffiene levels...what a range.

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Abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit - He has left, absconded, escaped and disappeared

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Do whatever you want. At the end, just you face the consequences. Feeling like we "need" anything besides what is necessary is a temporary problem. To quit coffee, ciggarets, drugs, etc...you will have to suffer. No pain no gain. Feel tired for a month or year, feel depressed for a while or a long time, feel angry and pissed off at the world or yourself for a while...You may have to feel all these things before you can claim your life again and live freely. Hopefully after the pain you live through while quitting what ever you think you need you will be more cautious as to what you do, say, consume, see ,etc. Life is no joke. Created your heaven or create your own hell. It's up to you,


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Exceptio probat regulam de rebus non exceptis - An exception establishes the rule as to things not excepted

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Nil agit exemplum, litem quod lite resolvit - Not much worth is an example that solves one quarrel with another. (Horace)

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Tu, rattus turpis! - You dirty rat!

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