If you were to paint a few stereotypes surrounding our community, where would you start? Maybe in apparel habits: the t-shirt from a tech conference, or the ubiquitous hoodie. Or how about leisure pursuits: gaming, or even D&D? There’s one thing I can think of that unites most of us, we have a curious affinity for caffeine. Is it a propensity for working into the dark of the night that’s responsible, or perhaps those of us with ADHD find the alertness helpful, but whatever it is we like our coffee and energy drinks. Rare is the hackerspace without a coffee machine and a fridge full of energy drinks, and I have lost count of the times I have been derided by the coffee cognoscenti among my peers for my being satisfied with a mug of mere instant. Deprived of my usual socialisation over the festive period by the pandemic, and contemplating my last bottle of Club-Mate as I drank it, I took a while to ponder on our relationship with this chemical.
Caffeine can be found as a constituent of a variety of plants native to tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, in which it evolved as a chemical defence against pests. We were evidently not considered through their evolution to be pests as some insects or other plants are, because for us it’s a psychoactive stimulant in anything but extreme doses. Thus our ancestors who were first to chew a coffee bean, a kola nut, or a yerba maté leaf set our species off on a love affair with it that will probably last for millennia.
What Does Caffeine Do To Us?
In chemistry terms it’s a methylated xanthine, at its centre a figure-of-eight composed of both a six membered and a five membered ring joined together, each with two nitrogen atoms in their structure.. The exposed carbon atoms on the six membered ring each form a ketone group with an oxygen atom, and two of the nitrogen atoms on the six membered ring and one on the five membered ring each have a methyl group attached.
Caffiene’s similarity to the structure of adensosine — a substance that relaxes blood vessels — makes it bind to the adensosine receptors in our brains. Where adenosine is involved in inhibiting the brain’s activity as part of tiredness, the caffeine has the effect of causing alertness. Reading research papers on its effect on the brain (Paywalled paper) makes it appear as though this is just one of a scatter-gun of chemical effects, boosting dopamine production and also increasing electrical activity in the brain. We feel up to anything on caffeine not only because we are more alert, but also because our brains have become more capable while under its influence.
In my case I’m aware that my affinity for caffeine has in part the function of self-medicating ADHD. I have the characteristic extreme difficulty in concentration that can play havoc with my ability to get my work done, and having a significant quantity of caffeine in the morning transforms my productivity. It’s likely more than a few readers will share this, it seems the condition gives us a naturally low dopamine level to which the caffeine provides a boost. Were I to ask my doctor I could access a range of stronger medications including members of the amphetamine family of compounds, but for now a few cups of coffee or a Club-Mate when I can get it does the trick.
A Cup A Day, Or Is That Too Much?
As someone who in effect medicates using caffeine I thus have an acute sense of the relative strengths of different concoctions containing it. I know that a cup of instant coffee is less potent than one of brewed coffee, and which energy drinks do more than others. But how much caffeine do they really contain, and how much caffeine is too much caffeine? The last question is easy enough to answer, though it varies from person to person. Over a gram of the stuff is likely to make you feel pretty sick, and ten times that figure is likely to kill you. But few of us will carefully weigh out pure caffeine powder, so it’s better to start at the other end of the scale.
There is no standard cup of coffee, but my cup of instant is likely to give me around 50 mg of caffeine and I can expect about twice that from an equivalent cup of a typical brewed coffee. Meanwhile a can of Coca-cola has 34 mg, while its caffeine-enhanced cousins have about 80mg per can, as does the slightly smaller can size of the UK version of Red Bull. Our favourite Club-Mate isn’t quite as strongly caffeinated as other energy drinks at 20mg per 100ml, but its larger 500ml bottle contains 100mg of caffeine.
So to do myself harm I would have to drink ten Club-Mates or drink ten cups of strong brewed coffee, but the reality is that even at the most laser-tinged evening at a hacker camp or the trendiest coffee bar I’m not going to manage that. It’s a surprise that a cup of a strong blend of brewed coffee will contain more caffeine than the energy drinks, but evidently it was a triumph of marketing that I believed otherwise. My three, maybe four instant coffees a day barely tip the scales at under 200mg, making me a relative lightweight in the caffeine stakes rather than the serial abuser I worried I might have become.
In my investigation of my culture’s most socially acceptable psychoactive addictive chemical I’ve discovered a few things I didn’t know about it, and taken a critical look at how I use it. That I’m addicted to it and that ADHD means I probably couldn’t do my job without it is beyond doubt, but like many in our community I think the benefits outweigh any other concerns. Now my biggest annoyance is that I can no longer stock up on imported energy drinks at my hackerspace due to the pandemic.
Coffee bean header image: MarkSweep, Public domain.