Some of us feel like we can’t function without it, and it’s a vital component in workplaces throughout the world. There are even a few of us who consume it without even knowing it, and many more plan their days around its consumption. We’re talking about caffeine, and whether you take it through coffee, tea, energy drinks, soda, chocolate or other foods and drinks, it’s impossible to avoid its impact on our workdays.
Caffeine is an inescapable part of office culture, even for the small minority that avoids it altogether. Considering that it plays such a pivotal part in our lives, it’s natural to ask ourselves: “Is coffee a miraculous productivity tool, or is it a crutch that ultimately hampers our performance?”
Let’s take a look at some interesting stats that help us pull apart the true impact of caffeine on our lives.
Caffeine Habits at a Glance
It isn’t an overstatement to say that caffeine’s everywhere. In fact, according to a report by HomeownersInsurance.org, an estimated 90% of Americans consume some form of caffeine every day. While this number may seem inflated, it makes better sense when we realize the amount of caffeine hidden in some of our favorite foods and beverages.
Take “decaf” coffee, for example. It turns out that decaf doesn’t mean “without caffeine”; it simply means it contains less than 2.5% caffeine. Chocolate also contains small amounts of caffeine, which rises as the chocolate gets darker; for example, a Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate Bar has about as much caffeine as a can of Coke. Many pain relievers and weight-loss pills also contain caffeine, some as much as half a cup of Starbucks coffee. There are even companies that produce specialized oatmeal, jerky, breath mints and sunflower seeds all packed with caffeine.
In total, the majority of us (54%) take our caffeine in coffee, with a close second (43%) going to tea. On average, we consume 300 mg of caffeine per day, which is slightly above the amount found in a tall Starbucks coffee or a Jolt energy drink; it’s enough to get the “jitters,” a symptom of caffeine intoxication. All in all, an estimated 12,000 tons of caffeine are consumed each year, and over 450 million cups of coffee are downed each day in the United States alone.
How It Works
Inside our brain, neurons are constantly firing and transferring information through electrical and chemical signals. As they fire, they produce a chemical called adenosine, and receptors in your brain monitor its adenosine levels. When the amount of adenosine reaches a certain level, the receptors become exhausted (so to speak), and this is what makes us tired.
Caffeine, however, acts as an adenosine imposter, and your receptors can’t tell the difference between the two substances. But instead of passing through the receptors like adenosine, caffeine attaches to them, blocking other molecules from going through. Meanwhile, other parts of your brain are blocked from adenosine’s hindrance, and your dopamine and glutamate levels are able to swell up, triggering sensations of wellbeing and energy as well as cognitive benefits like memory improvement.
But caffeine’s effects don’t stop there. As it’s being blocked, your adenosine is allowed to build up, and when the caffeine wears off, the receptors open up, and a flood of tire-inducing adenosine rushes through. The result? The dreaded caffeine crash.
The Benefits of Caffeine
We all have different reactions to stimulants, and while there are no universal effects of caffeine, there are many that can apply to the majority of us. According to a Dunkin’ Donuts study, 46% of all U.S. workers feel less productive without coffee, but does this mean it actually makes us more productive? Not necessarily.
A recent Lifehacker article reports that the benefits of caffeine on your work depend on your career. It boosts productivity and performance of straightforward jobs that require little abstract thinking, like data entry, and it also helps improve memory, comprehension, reflexes and clarity. The biggest benefit, the report found, was a measurable boost in what they call “impulsive” work, or work in which accuracy is sacrificed for speed.
Another study by the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that drinking coffee before sitting down to work relieved more shoulder, neck and arm pain than not having coffee. And a study by the Social Science Research Center found that caffeine increased the effectiveness of social interactions at work, which boosted the productivity of call-center workers. When these findings are applied to other similar professions that take a beating on your upper body or those that require a lot of social interactions (e.g. account managers, salespeople, customer service reps, etc.), one could assume the boosts in productivity would apply there as well.
But the benefits of caffeine and coffee go beyond productivity. Coffee has also been found to improve the health of its drinkers. OnlineMBAPrograms.org compiled research from around the web and found that coffee reduces the risk of a number of health issues. It lowers the chances of cirrhosis by 80%, type II diabetes by 60%, heart disease by 25%, stroke by 20% and depression by 20%. And with the most surprising stat of the day, TopCounselingSchools.org reports that men who drink 2 to 3 cups of coffee per day have a 10% chance of outliving non-coffee drinkers, while women who did the same are 13% more likely to outlive their counterparts. And while it may be a bit morbid to think this way, this improved health is bound to boost revenue by reducing healthcare costs.
The Pitfalls of Caffeine
Like nearly everything else, excess caffeine indulgence brings with it negative effects. Coffee is a mild diuretic, which can lead to the loss of vitamins B and C as well as calcium, iron and zinc. It also leads to increased trips to the bathroom and dehydration, which means more time spent at the water cooler and the toilet instead of work production. It has also been shown to increase stress levels among everyday coffee drinkers, which is rarely a good thing.
It’s also important to remember that caffeine is a psychoactive substance, one classified by the American Psychological Association in the same category as alcohol, nicotine, heroin and cannabis. And while it’s hard to achieve, it is possible to overdose on caffeine.
Caffeine Informer reports a dose between 250 and 500 mg of caffeine can produce mild to moderate overdose symptoms in those with no tolerance. Symptoms, in order from mild to the most severe, include:
- Jitters, restlessness and nervousness
- Increased heartbeat
- Heart palpitations
- Cardiac arrest
For those excess drinkers looking to wean themselves off the habit, expect some symptoms of withdrawal, which include:
- Lack of focus
- Muscle pain
There’s most likely nothing that will change the caffeine-drinking habits of the workplace (at least until something stronger comes along). And while we all probably feel like we should cut down on consumption, very few of us actually will. But hopefully, after learning all the facts about caffeine, we can all work to collectively decrease our dependence on the jitter-inducing substance.