Develop a Sensible Caffeine Habit

David Agus may be best known these days as the man that helped Steve Jobs outlive his cancer prognosis, not just by months but by years. The University of Southern California researcher has a resume that extends far beyond Steve Jobs, though. Others who credit Agus with saving and/or extending their lives include singers Neil Young and will.i.am, CBS chairman Summer Redstone, Salesforce SEO Marc Benioff and former U.S. vice president Al Gore.

Why You Should Be Drinking Black Coffee

Since the publication of his 2012 book, “The End of Illness,” Agus has become a celebrity in his own right, appearing on CBS This Morning a couple of times a week, contributing op-eds to the New York Times and regularly presenting at high-profile events around the world. But, I can hear you thinking, what does all this have to do with coffee? Hold tight, we’re getting there.

At the end of 2013, Agus published another health book, “A Short Guide to a Long Life,” that immediately shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Unlike his previous book, “A Short Guide” is a simple and straightforward list of 65 rules that will help you prolong your life. They range from “Avoid stilletoes” — the torturous high heels contribute to hidden inflammation — to “Pick up a pooch” — they help keep you on a regular schedule, which is important for regulating your health. The rule we like best, though, is Rule 18: Start a Sensible Caffeine Habit.

The Benefits of Coffee

According to Agus, “Consuming caffeine in moderation from natural sources such as the coffee bean and the tea leaf has long been shown to confer positive benefits on our health.” Reams of recent research appear to bear out the positive effects of caffeine on health, despite a dedicated subculture in the health/wellness world who are opposed to using caffeine in any form. According to recent research, much of which focuses specifically on coffee rather than on caffeine, coffee may:

    – Reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, especially for women

– Reduce the long-term risk for high blood pressure, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it raises blood pressure immediately after consumption

– Reduce the risk of many kinds of cancer, particularly those of the gastrointestinal tract

– Limit the growth of cancerous tumors, particularly in the GI system

– Reduce the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease

– Boost long-term memory retention

– Reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease

– Reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 70%

– Reduce the risk of stroke for older women

– Reduce suicide risk by as much as 45%

– Reduce the risk of deaths from heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, injuries, accidents, diabetes and infections

The Down Side of Coffee Consumption

That’s a powerful list of healthy incentives to drink up and enjoy your coffee — but there are down sides to consider as well. Specifically, there are studies that suggest that over-indulging in coffee can make you nervous, irritable and distracted. Too much caffeine can cause headaches, sleeplessness and temporary high blood pressure. If you drink too much coffee, you may also find that your hands shake, your heartbeat is rapid and you get headaches. In addition, we know that caffeine is an addictive substance, and your body builds a tolerance to it. That means that you may have to drink more coffee to get the same relative positive benefits as time goes on. It also means that if you get into the habit of drinking coffee daily and suddenly stop, you’re likely to suffer from headaches, irritability and other physical symptoms. And, as a matter of record, if you’re a regular coffee drinker and you wake up in the morning feeling draggy, cranky and out-of-sorts — you know, the feeling that’s inspired tons of “Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my coffee” mugs — what you’re feeling is actually caffeine withdrawal. Switch to decaf or stop drinking coffee, and you just may find you’re a morning person after all.

What’s a Sensible Caffeine Habit?

The key, of course, is moderation. Too much of a good thing is still too much, and caffeine is no different. Figuring out how much is too much is a lot more complicated than figuring out how many aspirin to take, however. There are two reasons for this. First, people metabolize coffee and caffeine differently. Some are highly sensitive to caffeine while others seem to barely feel its effects. Even a small cup of coffee may cause problems for someone who is sensitive to caffeine, while a person who isn’t affected much by it may be able to drink several cups a day without feeling any ill effects at all.

More importantly, though, it’s nearly impossible to say exactly — or even roughly — how much caffeine is in “a cup of coffee.” It’s not just that cup sizes range widely. It’s that there are so many variables at play in making a cup of coffee, and each of them affects the amount of caffeine in the finished product. Just at a glance, the variable factors include:

– The original caffeine content of the coffee
Robusta generally has more caffeine than arabica, but there’s a lot more to it than that. There are dozens of arabica varieties, each with differing levels of caffeine and other nutrients. The growing conditions — which vary by geographical area, climate and specific weather conditions — all affect how much caffeine and other chemicals develop in the bean. In addition, different processing methods may preserve more caffeine in the bean than others.

– the roast level of the coffee

Contrary to what most people believe, darker roasts of coffee have less caffeine than lighter roasts. That’s because caffeine burns off as the beans roast.

– the preparation method
Some coffee methods produce coffee with more caffeine than others. That’s because coffee is a suluble chemical — that is, it is extracted by water and dissolves in water. The water temperature and amount of contact time between the coffee and water affect how much caffeine is extracted when you brew coffee.

– the amount of ground coffee used
Obviously, the more ground coffee you use to make a cup of coffee, the more caffeine will be in the cup. That’s why all the best “how much caffeine is in my …?” charts are, at best, guessing at the amount of caffeine you’re consuming when you drink a Starbucks Venti or a generic 8-oz generic cup of coffee.

So, if you can’t depend on the charts or the “typical” amounts of caffeine in various coffee products, how do you decide on a “sensible caffeine habit”?

The answer to that question is found in Agus’ Rule 1 for living a long, healthy life: Know yourself. In other words, pay attention to your body and its reactions to caffeine and use those reactions to judge how much is too much. If a particular brand of coffee leaves you jittery, don’t drink that brand. If drinking coffee after 2 p.m. guarantees that you’ll be awake until 2 a.m., don’t drink coffee after 2 p.m. Just pay attention to what your body is telling you and enjoy coffee as much as it allows.