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February 24, 2009 5:47 PM

Legal Remedies: The Coffee Fix

Posted by Ed Shanahan

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By Jim Thornton

Q: My firm's drowning in twin tsunamis: the hit our business is taking--and a tidal wave of Starbucks we're guzzling to energize our relief efforts and keep those of us left here alert. Any tips for getting more out of a workaholic lawyer's favorite fix du jour?

A: What a long way we've come since Sufi priests first boiled coffee bean husks in Arabia, drank the resulting elixir, and got dubbed "whirling dervishes" by Europeans witnessing the all-night religious ceremonies the drink fueled. From such origins, caffeine has burgeoned into the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, with Americans alone consuming 350 million cups of coffee daily, not to mention black tea, Red Bull, Jolt gum, and countless other products--from cold remedies to weight loss pills--that contain caffeine.

Caffeine has reached this point for largely one reason: it works. To understand how to optimize your own fix, consider a brief primer. Inside your brain is a mix of complex chemicals that each plays a role in the sleep-wake cycle. Some of these chemicals jazz us up; some slow us down. You'd think caffeine might fall into the first category, but it's more complicated than that.

Caffeine is an alkaloid that occurs in at least 60 different plant species, which use it as chemical warfare against insect pests and other plants. The structure of caffeine, it turns out, is very close to an inhibitory brain chemical called adenosine, which occurs naturally in many animal brains, including ours.  Researchers now believe that adenosine slowly accumulates the longer we are awake, plugging specialized adenosine receptors sites like keys in a lock. In this case, the key opens up progressive waves of grogginess that intensify until we eventually fall asleep.  Sleep sweeps the brain free of adenosine, we awake, and the process of accumulation begins anew.

Caffeine also plugs the natural adenosine receptors in brain, but without opening the lock. It's akin to jamming a toothpick in so the real key can't work. Net effect: we don't get groggy as quickly.

The bottom line: caffeine, when used optimally, provides the stuporous brain with an edge.  Just don't expect miracles.

"There are all sorts of mental tasks you can measure, from simple reaction time to high-order logical reasoning," explains Tom McLellan, Ph.D., a scientist at Defence R&D Canada in Toronto who has studied caffeine extensively for the Canadian military. "What's been shown with caffeine, in both sleep-deprived and well-rested people, is that it does have a dramatic effect on alertness and vigilance. But as you move to higher-order cognitive functioning such as decision-making, it doesn't really impact that level of cognitive function."     

In other words, don't count on coffee to bolster your brilliance when arguing before the Supreme Court. On the other hand, caffeine may be just what you need when slogging through endless monotonous briefs in preparation for same.

Though most experts today concede caffeine is not the health bugaboo that clean-living activists have long argued, there are some individuals--from pregnant women to those prone to panic attacks or heart arrhythmias--who probably shouldn't use caffeine at all.  Moreover, caffeine affects people differently so it's best to experiment with what works best for you. With that in mind, here are a few ways to get the most bang from the cup:

Start over. Plenty of coffee drinkers gradually creep up in their daily usage to the point where their bodies have habituated to even ludicrous amounts.  Lawrence Armstrong, Ph.D., a caffeine researcher at the University of Connecticut Human Performance Lab, recommends a complete break from the bean "until you become caffeine naïve again, then come back to it for an optimal response." The half-life of caffeine in the body is about 5 hours, which means that 15 hours after your last drink, only 1/8th will remain in your system.  After a week, even hard-core caffeine dependents will be completely clean. At this point, you can try other strategies (see below) for using caffeine more strategically--or remain caffeine naïve till you really, really need the boost.

Less, later, and more often. Most of us consume the lion's share of our daily brew upon first awakening--i.e., the time when our adenosine levels are lowest and the receptors for these are least in need of jamming by caffeine. In a study published in the journal Sleep, researcher James Wyatt, Ph.D. dosed healthy but sleep-deprived volunteers every hour with small doses of either a placebo or caffeine--the same as found in 2 ounces of coffee.  The real stuff won hands down. "I hate to say it, but most of the population has been using caffeine the wrong way," says Wyatt. His advice: have your first cup at lunch instead, then keep going with a half cup every hour. Quit four hours before bedtime, and you most likely won't have trouble falling asleep.

One-two punch. A research team from the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University in England has shown that sleeping 90 minutes longer in the morning does significantly slash daytime somnolence. The same team wanted to find if other (read: more practical) techniques might help those of us who can't afford this luxury. Drinking two cups of coffee at 2:00 p.m. proved very effective--but a 20-minute power nap worked twice as well. Perhaps the best approach of all is a combination: down two quick cups at the start of a short nap.

Chew, don't slurp. As ritualized as coffee drinking has become for many of us, there may be a better--or at least faster--delivery system: gum. Two chiclets of Jolt Caffeine Energy Gum or similar products can leach through buccal membrane a whole venti's worth of caffeine into your system in 5 to 10 minutes. Compare this to the 30 to 45 minutes it takes for coffee to go through your digestive system and enter the blood stream. Researcher McLellan, who used caffeinated gum in his studies for the military, says he became a convert. "It's really quick. I can feel my pupils open up, I'm really focused, and I don't have any stomach symptoms."

Aspiring legal dervishes, might want to take note.

Jim Thornton is a National Magazine Award–winning writer whose work has been published in such magazines as Men's Health, National Geographic Adventure, AARP: The Magazine, GQ, Backpacker, and Glamour.

Photo: ALEAIMAGE/iStock

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This was a great article and very enlightening. I just wanted to recommend my new favorite coffee alternative- - Think Gum. It has natural caffeine and some other herbs that are supposed to help with concentration and memory, but more importantly to me, it actually tastes great and doesn't leave me feeling guilty about drinking multiple cups of coffee throughout the day!

Interesting, especially on the timing of the first "hit" at lunch. I still love my first sip in the morning though.

Who knew about the adenosine connection? And here I thought it was all about caffeine's well-known effect on the pipyl gland. Thanks, Jim, for clearing that up!

No hit until lunchtime? How do you deal with the initial sleepiness upon getting up then? No insomnia effect from late afternoon imbibing?

I do think Jolt Gum is nothing short of a miracle!

Great article! Jolt Gum is singularly responsible for me getting through first year! It was spearmint manna from heaven (with little green spots)!

Very interesting and enlightening. I may have to buy some gum today.

Great article Jim, but I just don't think I can wait until lunch before my fix!

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