The impact caffeine has on Canadians and how it became a cultural dependence
It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and the first thing you do after getting out of bed is probably make coffee. Whether you are having a shot of espresso, an Americano or a latte, there is nothing like that coffee aroma filling up your kitchen. As you pour it into your mug, add a splash of milk or teaspoon of sugar, you can already feel the warmth rising from the cup. Finals are right around the corner and, for many students, coffee is the go-to beverage for all-nighters and staying alert.
This is no surprise given that caffeine, the stimulant in the coffee, is a psychoactive substance that has physiological and psychological effects. Coffee is also ingrained in our society. According to the Coffee Association of Canada, Canadians drink an average of 3.2 cups of coffee per day. Here is a deeper look at how caffeine actually affects your body and how it has become a vital part of our daily lives.
What does coffee do to your brain and body?
According to Uri Shalev, a Concordia psychology professor whose research focuses on drug abuse and behavioural neurobiology, caffeine typically doesn’t have many negative effects when consumed in reasonable quantities. However, when a person drinks coffee, Shalev explained, the caffeine interferes with signals in the brain being sent from neurotransmitters to their receptors. Caffeine acts as an antagonist, essentially blocking the adenosine receptors, which are inhibitory sensors in the brain that calm the body and mind.
Since caffeine interferes with this calming effect, the body becomes more alert and awake, Shalev explained. That is why drinking coffee increases heart rate and blood pressure, and keeps you awake longer. The physiological effects caused by this over-stimulation can negatively affect a person’s mental state. Sylvia Kairouz, a Concordia sociology professor and the chair of research on gambling addiction, emphasized the risks of sleep deprivation caused by excessive coffee consumption. Since coffee keeps you alert, it also risks disrupting your sleep cycle, which isn’t something you want to happen during a stressful period like finals, Kairouz said.
According to Shalev, the physical reaction coffee causes can result in increased anxiety among people who are already prone to anxiety. This happens when the body interprets a faster heart rate and increased alertness as a sign of danger and raises stress levels. “I become stressed when I have more coffee than I’m used to,” said Sara Betinjaneh, a second-year political science student at Concordia.
Yet many students, including first-year sociology major Yasmin Mehri, rely on coffee to stay awake to study or finish assignments. Drinking coffee to stay up late can work to a certain extent, but too much can cause an imbalance in sleeping patterns, Kairouz explained. “It’s a loss more than a gain when you are not adopting a healthy lifestyle during finals,” she said. “Students should focus on an equilibrium.” Shalev reiterated that, as long as coffee consumption is moderate, it is not considered an addiction—not until it negatively affects the functioning of your daily life.
Why is coffee part of your day?
“My day is organized around my coffee,” said student Betinjaneh. “That’s when I take breaks.” According to Kairouz, “the ritual, the habit and the routine of having coffee daily limits the capacity to remove coffee from our daily life.” This dependence on the drink is also sociological because there is a whole experience that comes with drinking coffee, she explained. Drinking coffee has become a very popular social activity—when people meet up, it often happens over a cup of coffee.
“There is a connection that exists in people’s lives between working or studying and drinking coffee,” Kairouz said. The accessibility of coffee also plays a huge role in society’s growing dependence on coffee. Kairouz offered the example of Montreal’s Mackay Street, where there are at least six coffee shops. “I love the idea and the feeling of sitting in a coffee shop and having my coffee,” Betinjaneh said. The stimulation from an environment filled with coffee shops has impacted our caffeine consumption, Kairouz said.
Easy access to caffeine has impacted the amount we consume since a single press of a button can make our coffee right at home. According to the Coffee Association of Canada, coffee makers are increasingly popular in Canadian homes with 47 per cent of households owning a drip coffee makers and 38 per cent using single-cup machines. Kairouz added that the consumerist environment we live in plays a role in people’s coffee dependence as well. Since coffee has become ingrained in our culture, this leaves a looming question: are we having coffee because we need it or because we just walked by a cute coffee shop that serves the best latte art?
Photo by Kirubel Mehari.