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According to Professor Peter Rogers at Bristol University, most people who report a boost from coffee are simply alleviating the symptoms of mild caffeine withdrawal.
“The alertness you feel is you getting back to normal,” Rogers said.
The study was presented in March 2007 to the British Nutrition Foundation conference. The researchers say that the morning coffee buzz is no more than an easing of coffee withdrawal symptoms which build up overnight. It doesn’t make people more alert than usual. In fact, they said, only people who have avoided coffee for a while get a buzz from caffeine.
The British Coffee Association begged to differ, of course. Their own surveys show that regular coffee drinkers say that their morning caffeine fix wakes them up, and that if they don’t suck down that cup of coffee, they’ll feel sluggish and unable to get on with their day.
Well, duh, say the Bristol researchers. Not literally, no. That’s my rather liberal interpretation of an imagined conversation between the two camps. Keep in mind that my brain is rather liberally fueled by caffeine as I write. Essentially, the Bristol researchers say that regular coffee drinkers wake in the morning feeling sub-par because their body is in mild withdrawal from caffeine. That first cup of coffee doesn’t actually spark them to new heights of alertness – it just brings them back up to normal functioning. If you compare their caffeinated brains to the brains of those who never drink coffee, there’s no difference.
Rogers said, “We do feel a boost from caffeine in the morning, but that’s probably due to a reversal of the withdrawal symptoms. That alertness you feel is you getting back to normal, rather than to an above normal level.”
Rogers admits that caffeine does have some benefits, such as preventing “cognitive decline in the elderly”. In general though, he and his colleagues believe that it’s usually best to pick decaf for regular consumption.
Zoe Wheeldon of the British Coffee Association responded that “There are two sides to the debate and a wealth of scientific evidence suggests that moderate coffee consumption of four to five cups per day is perfectly safe for the general population and does have a beneficial effect on alertness and performance even in regular coffee drinkers.”