Wednesday December 2, 2009

Inhibiting Adenosine Receptors
by Courtland Shakespeare

The average morning anxiety is often precipitated by an habitual visit to the coffee shop where the lineup is anywhere from 10 to 12 deep unless you’re running late. Then the lineup is out to the door. If those conditions occur, you are forced to implement a formula for calculating the level of necessity divided by the validity of an alternative source multiplied by additional time.

FormulaThe result is invariably the same: N = L (late). If only each of those customers ahead of you was just procuring a plain old cup of joe, paying for it with some loose change and jumping back in the car to get to work by nine, but oh no. Instead, each one of those kind, generous and thoughtful people is doing friends and co-workers the huge favour of getting a box of custom-selected donuts, eight coffees with cream, milk, sugar or sweetener in varying combinations and degrees and checking it twice, plus a steeped tea and an ice cap for the new kid in the mail room. Payment is made with some kind of plastic requiring a printed receipt or transatlantic wire to an anonymous, numbered Swiss bank account.

The alternative is to join the office coffee club, which means you get to sleep in for an extra hour every day. The disadvantage of the club is its tendency to run out of supplies. The coffee shop, however, never runs out and no one ever leaves the empty pot on the heating element all night. They also have an unlimited supply of clean cups.

So why do we drink it? Coffee contains caffeine, which is a legal psychoactive stimulant affecting the central nervous system. Other psychoactive substances include cocaine, mescaline, psilocybin, meth, cannabis, hash and LSD. These are usually not available at your local coffee shop. They are “regulated” and considered illegal here in North America.

Caffeine is a xanthine alkaloid and is an inhibitor of adenosine receptors in the brain which suppress neural activity and blood flow. In other words, without coffee your brain slows down. Not only that, once your central nervous system gets used to the presence of this psychoactive stimulant, your system increases the number of adenosine receptors to counteract the drug. This reduces the effect of caffeine so you become more tolerant, but also, if you don’t get coffee, you will experience withdrawal symptoms including irritability and headaches. So you can see why many off-the-shelf pain relievers incorporate caffeine.

There are lots of stories about how the habit of drinking coffee got going, but one of the most revealing is when Pope Clement VIII’s advisers wanted coffee banned in the early 1600s and declared it to be “Satan’s drink.” This may have been due to its extraordinary popularity among Muslims in the middle east, but the Pope refused to make a decision without tasting the beverage himself. His reaction, according to the story was, “We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.”

Coincidentally, all coffee is grown within 1,000 miles of the equator, but the biggest consumers live in northern countries such as Finland, Denmark and The Netherlands who consume almost three times the amount of Canada and the USA (per capita). Latest market statistics indicate a healthy business worldwide, notwithstanding individual companies with billions of dollars in sales annually.

If you don’t want to interrupt your drive to work and you don’t want to join the office coffee club, but you still must have your java, you could always do what past generations have done in the past...get a thermos.