Nowadays coffee represents an integral part of our lives. It is consumed daily by billions of people all around the world: every new day starts with that recognizable aromatic smell. That amazing number makes us wonder: what is the main reason for drinking coffee on a daily basis? We can definitely agree that reasons are both emotional and rational- that specific smell of coffee immediately makes us feel more relaxed, and as soon as you smell it you simply know it’s time to have a break and to let your thoughts drift away. On the other hand, your rational part of the brain is sending you a clear message: after this cup of coffee you won’t be so sleepy, on the contrary, you will be fully awake, you will be focused and concentrated, this is exactly what you need.
Taking these rational and emotional reasons into account we can conclude that coffee without any doubt has some effect on our mental health. However, the popularity of decaffeinated coffee makes us question these reasons, since in that case, we are not having a cup of coffee only in order to stay awake or become more active, but for social reasons too- having a cup of coffee represents a well-known and firmly established ritual that 80% percent of the population follows every day. In order to fully understand how and why coffee affects our mental health, we must go way back into time and learn the history of this incredible drink.
The Historical Aspect
Throughout history, coffee was omnipresent in our societies. It succeeded to adapt to new geographical, ecological and social circumstances and in that way, it played a huge role in the economy and social lives of many countries. The legend says that coffee was first discovered by goats, which ate red berries that provided them with energy and hyperactivity. Although the goats were the ones that have discovered the power of the coffee, it was the shepherds who recognized a change in those animals and tracked the reasons for that change. Since that time, coffee has started spreading form far Africa to the East and after that throughout entire Europe. It spread in a form of different social rituals which definitely affect one’s mental health. Coffee was present in religious rituals which helped people feel calmer, it was a huge part of bohemian poetry readings, it was drunk beside army campfire in order to keep the soldiers awake.
Coffee became especially popular amongst the working class since they were working on machines and had to be fully awake. Coffee is a stimulant which was then used to intensify their labor power, provide them with enough energy and willingness to continue with their hard work, and besides that, it was pretty useful in muting hunger. In addition, having a cup of coffee meant having some time for hanging out with your colleagues during the break. In that way, it had an enormous influence on socialization among people and it soon became a so-called social drug which has shaped the modern world that we live in. So, how does this legal, social drug really affect our mental health?
Effects on mental health
Coffee represents a complex chemical mixture which has many different compounds, but caffeine is the one that is believed to have the most effect on the human brain. Alkaloid caffeine was discovered in 1819 by Friedlieb Gerdinand Runge, and as an alkaloid, it had different effects on people, both curative and adverse. It is also present in other plants such as tea, cacao, and kola, but still, people consume it the most by drinking coffee.
Some authors call it the most popular and the most consumed legal drug in the world and as a drug, it is available at low cost and at any time, which makes it so well-liked among both elderly and young people. Many researchers have dealt with the question of caffeine and its effect on the human brain. Caffeine reacts with a chemical in the central nervous system, called adenosine, which regulates our cycles of sleeping and waking. In reaction with caffeine, the brain does not recognize adenosine, and because of that, you are able to stay awake, since caffeine increases your brain activity.
Through numerous studies, it has been researched how people with different disorders react to coffee intake, but also how caffeine affects cognition, mood, and behavior of different people. To start with, caffeine serves as a stimulant, which increases alertness and intellectual clarity in some individuals. That is why coffee is usually consumed in the morning when people need something to get them ready for the working day, or after a heavy meal, when you need something to make your body digest food easier and faster. So, in that way coffee is used to increase cognitive performance, such as reaction time. The consensus between scientists has been reached, and in their opinion, an amount of 32-300 mg of caffeine can enhance some aspects of cognitive performance, such as attention and vigilance. This also depends on the individual’s state of being, restfulness or tiredness.
The effect caffeine has on memory is not so noticeable, though long-term memory studies show that caffeine actually has a positive effect especially on verbal memory. This is due to the increase in attention while consuming caffeine in moderate doses. And as seen from previous data, what is quite important is the amount of the coffee intake. In some cases, a higher amount of coffee intake can induce so-called caffeinism, a state in which a person is feeling irritable, nervous and has some of the physical symptoms such as arrhythmias and gastrointestinal disturbances. But, one has to be very careful in order not to mistake caffeinism with anxiety, since if you list all the symptoms of anxiety and caffeinism, you can hardly notice any difference.
Also, it has been noticed that caffeine withdraw can induce strong headaches followed by anxiety. So, as we can conclude, caffeine can both induce mood changes when consumed in high doses and also reduce them and elevate mood, when taken in moderate doses. Many clinicians believe that it would be better for patients with anxiety to restrain themselves from caffeine intake at all since the cortisol level rises while drinking coffee, and because of that some persons can feel the same like during panic attacks. On the other hand, some clinicians, such as Norman B. Schmidt, Ph.D. have a different approach to this problem. He advised his patients who suffer from anxiety disorder to consume more coffee, in order to experience the stronger unpleasant effect. In that way, they would recognize that their symptoms are similar to those induced by caffeine intake. When we talk about OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), first of all, we must take into account that we are talking about a disorder that is more connected to the control of behavior and thoughts, then to worry and fear. It is believed that caffeine can help patients with OCD, since it makes them feel more concentrated and focused, more in control of their own actions and thoughts. Still, many researchers say that caffeine intake must be moderate and that its effects depend even on the genetics of consumers.
One of the disorders that can be also affected by coffee intake is so-called ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). This disorder is characterized by an inability to control impulses, motivational deficit and being easily distracted. This disorder affects mostly children, but still, it can continue into adulthood. Caffeine intake, in this case, can be presumed as therapeutical, since one of the main uses of caffeine is increasing the level of attention, especially in states of fatigue or low. Studies have shown that caffeine intake has resulted in increased performance in attention and self-alertness. Also, it showed an increase in the speed of processing new stimuli.
Another problem that has been studied is the connection between depression and caffeine, but it could not be decided whether coffee consumption affects depression or it’s the other way around. Results of some studies have shown that the risk of depression can be reduced by consuming a moderate amount of coffee or tea during a lifetime. Even though the depression is believed to be caused by the low dopamine level in the system, there is a theory that it is actually caused by an inflammatory process in the brain. Therefore, one of the reasons why caffeine’s effect on patients with depression is high is the acid that it consists of. Coffee contains chlorogenic acid, ferulic acid, and caffeic acid, which can help to reduce the inflammation of nerve cells, common in people with depression. Other than that, being a strong stimulant, as mentioned before, caffeine is believed to be strong enough to keep people with depression motivated and wakeful. Some of the researchers believe that coffee intake can really decrease the risk of suicide. Still, it is not recommended for patients with, for example, bipolar disorder to consume it since it was suggested that it can cause mania in patients with this disorder.
Other than anxiety and depression, the effects of coffee consumption on dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease have been researched. This topic is of high interest, since the number of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease is increasing, and there is not a proper treatment for those conditions. Most studies support coffee’s favorable effect against this cognitive decline, but still, they showed inconsistent results. In the aforementioned part, an effect that caffeine has on memory has been discussed, but still, it is still quite an unclear area of study. Still, results from CAIDE study indicated that the risk of dementia can be decreased by 65% by drinking three to five cups of coffee per day, and the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease by 64%. That way coffee drinking in mid-life and later could be effective in lowering the risk of these conditions.
These results are definitely encouraging since they are sending us a message that something as available and low cost as coffee can be good for our mental health. However, when we talk about for example schizophrenia, coffee has a different effect. Some early studies were suggesting that increased coffee intake can often be connected to schizophrenia. There were cases when patients in institutions were caught eating coffee or having an episode after a dose of a coffee. Of course, we cannot take that data as proof of a connection between coffee intake and schizophrenia. But, a recent study has proved that caffeine intake by patients with schizophrenia is most likely to be connected to their smoking habits since they have a tendency of drinking more coffee while smoking. Also, there was no evidence that consumption of coffee was connected to the symptomology of schizophrenia. What we can claim for sure is that we need more researches referring to the influence of caffeine on one’s mental health. Even though many studies have been conducted, the results are in most cases unclear and often uncertain.
In the end, we can conclude that the effect coffee intake has on individuals who are not dealing with any kind of disorder can be considered as a positive one. It has been scientifically proven that coffee does not affect our general health in a bad way, but the things that we add to our coffee, such as sugar, cream, milk actually do. What is really important is to be careful with the dosage we allow ourselves to have. We must be aware of the fact that by having a few cups of coffee every day, we voluntarily manipulate our minds with the help of caffeine. In the end, we cannot say for sure whether caffeine is definitely bad or good for one. All we can say is that reaction to coffee is strictly individual and it depends on our own body systems and mental health. Still, we have to bear in our minds that coffee is an integral part of our social rituals, and not only that it keeps us alerted, energized and awake, but a cup of coffee often makes us feel like we are at home.