Archives December 2021

A Tale of Two Plants: The Human History of Caffeine


According to Chinese legend: the Chinese emperor Shennong, thought to have reigned around 3000 BC, noticed some nearby leaves had inadvertently fallen into his boiling water. Drawn in by the fragrant smell, he did not toss out the water. The result was a soothing, stimulating, tasty, refreshing beverage: Tea.

At an unknown time, in Ethiopia: legend has it that a goat herder named Kaldi first discovered the energizing properties of Coffee after noticing his goats became hyperactive from eating berries growing on a nearby tree. The abbot at a nearby Sufi monastery caught wind, and was so impressed by this discovery that he shared it with the other monks, who began cultivating the plant as a way to stay alert through the long hours of evening prayer. A few years later, Coffee spread beyond Ethiopia and slowly grew in popularity as more people began to enjoy this energizing drink.

While the accuracy of these foundational myths is undoubtedly subject to question – they remain among our oldest, most enduring accounts of the discovery and use of caffeine.

However, the earliest written evidence of caffeine use and coffee drinking and knowledge of the coffee plant appears in the mid-fifteenth century, in the records of those Sufi monasteries of Yemen in southern Arabia. From there, Coffee spread to Egypt and North Africa, and by the 16th century, it was common throughout the Middle East – which possessed an ideal climate for cultivating the plant. While Arabians enjoyed Coffee in the home, they consumed it far more frequently in their many public coffee houses — called qahveh khaneh — which proliferated across the region. The popularity of these first coffee houses was unprecedented in human history, and Arabians frequented them for all kinds of social, intellectual, and other activities.

Here, patrons didn’t just drink Coffee and engage in conversation. They listened to music, watched performers, played chess kept current on the news, and most importantly: theorized the elementary mathematics of algebra – all in a state of heightened focus and stimulation. Coffee houses quickly became critical centers for exchanging information and were often referred to as “Schools of the Wise.”

Meanwhile, in the latter half of the 16th century, tea began to make its way over from China to Europe via Portuguese traders living in the East who spoke of strange, leafy invigorating beverages. However, it was the Dutch, with their massive shipping capabilities, who commandeered Portuguese trade routes to bring tea to mainland Europe. There, it exploded in popularity – especially in the British Isles, who traded most frequently with the Dutch and admired their fashionable new beverage.

Around this same time, coffee drinking spread from the Middle East to the lower half of Europe: Italy, the Swiss Alps, and Vienna. Thousands of pilgrims spoke of the “wine of Araby.” Again, the Dutch masters of trade stepped in to supply Southern Europe with their Coffee, just as they had supplied Northern Europe with their tea.

It was here, in this confluence of beverages, that caffeine culture began to take recognizable shape. With contrivances like the Viennese coffee house: a cosmopolitan institution of a special kind. A democratic club, open to all, for the cheap price of a cup. The European analog of the Arabic qahveh khaneh, where patrons enjoyed Coffee, tea, pastries, newspapers, music, writing – the gamut of human intellectual activity and gastronomy – in fashionable digs with marble tabletops, No 14. Thonet chairs, and ornately historical interior designs. This cafe setting became the default format across all of Europe (a design upon which little improvement was possible, as many modern cafes still have Viennese trappings and traditions!)

In any case, the Eastern “Schools of the Wise” became Western “Penny Universities,” which quickly spread to every corner of Europe, and subsequently, the New World of America.

In those heady mid-1600s, the British began shipping Coffee and tea to a new colony called New Amsterdam, which was soon afterward renamed “New York City.” And while cafe establishments proliferated there, tea continued to be the preferred beverage served in New World coffee houses. That is, until 1773… Many of us remember what comes next. Colonists revolted against the heavy taxes imposed by King George III on their favorite beverage. The Boston Tea Party – a symbolic mass destruction of imported, taxed tea – would forever cement the American preference for Coffee.

But really – that’s just where the story begins. Humanity was, at the same time, discovering new sources of energy. New ways of thinking. New mathematics, new sciences, new inventions. Looking down the barrel of not just the American revolution, but the industrial revolution. And it’s hardly a coincidence that these stimulating substances began to spread at the same rate as factories.

Next time, we’ll explore how these rudimentary caffeine cultures came together to form the behemoth we know it as today. How caffeination, and the dependence we developed, slowly crept across the world – becoming our default state of existence – and the potential implications of a sleep-deprived, always-on humanity.

Inside Job: The Human Body and Caffeine

coffee caffeine

If you’re reading this in the morning (I’m writing it in the morning, at least) then you’re probably already craving a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage. But have you ever thought about exactly how that Caffeine works? How it functions inside your body? How it makes it to your brain?

We all have some idea of what Caffeine is. A drug. A chemical. The single most popular, widely-consumed psychotropic substance on the planet. Found naturally in the seeds, or leaves, of over sixty plants, notably coffee beans, tea leaves, and cocoa beans. It’s also an additive to many everyday products, including analgesics, cold medications, mouthwashes, and lotions. In the proper dosage, it drastically improves endurance, concentration, and reaction time. In improper dosage, provoking panic, anxiety, tremors, and dehydration.

But first, let me explain what Caffeine is, chemically: a Central Nervous Stimulant, of the Methylxanthine family of drugs, with a chemical formula of C8H10N4O2. It’s a psychoactive substance in the same way as THC, LSD, and all those other naughty three-letter words. But far less dramatic in its effects on perception and consciousness. Nevertheless: a drug which acts on both body and mind.

Like many psychotropics, it’s an alkaloid — one of many nitrogenous organic compounds, often of plant origin, which have pronounced physiological actions in the brains and bodies of humans. And while Caffeine, in particular, is usually consumed in beverage form – entering the bloodstream through the stomach lining, and crossing the blood-brain barrier to work on our receptors – pure Caffeine (in powder or pill form) can also be taken as a more powerful means of staying alert and focused – frequently as a way to legally improve athletic performance.

The physical effects come on quickly, and disappear with a similar rapidity. The palpable stimulation – its most noticeable psychoactive characteristic – comes from its ability to block the actions of adenosine in the brain. Adenosine, a chemical that transmits a “slow down” message from receptors to the central nervous system, is a compound that acts as a neuromodulator in the brain. It regulates the excitability of neurons controlling vital body functions and affects sleep, memory, learning, and mood. And by slowing down the nervous system, adenosine produces physical and mental lethargy, thus making it difficult for the body and brain to perform under normal conditions.

Caffeine removes this effect and results in the “lift” that users feel. In other words, caffeine blocks (or “antagonizes”) the receptors that recognize adenosine, preventing them from activating. This prevents or relieves the drowsiness and other symptoms of withdrawal from starting, effectively canceling them out. If a person is currently experiencing the effects of withdrawal (e.g., feelings of drowsiness), then only consumption of more Caffeine will relieve or prevent those symptoms from occurring.

And, if adenosine receptors are blocked, scientists have observed that the functions of other neurotransmitters also change. Glutamate and dopamine functioning, in particular, are enhanced as a result. Many pharmacologists believe that the adenosine modulation described above, along with the tertiary effects on dopamine and glutamate, combine to create the whole picture: the unmistakable excitement, increased energy, and focus promised by a cup of coffee.

Now that you know how it works – time for another cup?

Next time, I’ll discuss the long, varied, fascinating, and ultimately deeply-human story of how we co-evolved with this chemical, and the unexpected ways it’s changed the world we live in.

Walk on the Wired Side: A Closer Look at Caffeine


It’s 7 AM, on a Saturday, and I’m back at La Guardia International.

I don’t like crowds, I don’t like mornings, and I hate flying. But I always, without much exception, try to book the early flight. Nobody’s around. It’s relatively quiet. The TSA agents are too sleepy to harass you (or your bags.) And for the most part, I avoid my least favorite aspect of any airport: waiting in line.

I see one line, in particular, and a chill runs down my spine. It’s long – snaking up, up, and away, around the corner. You can’t see where it ends… but I know. I know those gaunt faces. The hunched backs. Dead eyes – not a single one looking up. I’ve seen better-looking lines at the methadone clinic down the street than the one outside an airport Starbucks.

No judgment implied, of course. I’m a junkie, too. I’d already had a cup at home, and the Yeti mug in my hand was the only thing keeping me tied to the mast. But at home, when I wake up: there’s no line – nothing standing between the edge of my bed and my 12-cup Cuisinart. I hit my alarm clock, hobble to the counter, and grind the beans. And until that sweet, black gold is in my cup – it’s the only thing on my mind.

Caffeine is, undoubtedly, a drug. From year to year, some 90% of the human species regularly ingest it – making it the most widespread, frequently-used psychoactive substance in the world. It’s the only one corporations provide to their employees at no cost. It’s the only one that we give to children. Caffeine culture is so pervasive: we turn blind eyes to the fact that caffeination – an altered state – has mostly replaced baseline, sober consciousness in humans since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. It just happens to be an altered state that most of us share, rendering its effects invisible.

A significant consequence of its ubiquity it that we nearly never talk about caffeine. We rarely question its cultural status – the dogma of perpetual stimulation – and blithely ignore the cycle of dependence in which we’re caught. But then again, if you’re addicted to something relatively cheap, ubiquitously available, and scientifically proven to have net health benefits… is it really an issue?

That’s the question I plan to explore in this short series on caffeine, the human body, and culture. I love coffee. I’m ambivalent about tea. And I’d rather eat batteries than suffer through the taste of a 5-Hour Energy… But I need caffeine, regardless of the vehicle. After all: I’m a writer – a creative with a job to do. Naturally prone to distraction and disinclined towards the sort of focused, linear, efficient cognitive processing demanded by the working world at large. Demanded by my former occupation as an accountant for four exhausting years.

Look at me, already rambling—time for another cup.

I’m in a new line of work now, which has me re-thinking my relationship with the chemical that I need in order to get things done. In the next few posts of my series on caffeine; I’ll explain how the molecule actually functions inside the body, expose how it helped Capitalism conquer the night, explore the unique phenomenon of being addicted to a good and plentiful thing, and share my thoughts on the potential consequences of an always-on humanity.

Drink up, folks.

Gimme A Boost? | Thinking Differently About Immune Health.

immune health

The idea that we can somehow boost our immune system’s natural response is, to say the least: enticing. Especially now, in winter, with the impending dual-threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and seasonal influenza. “What if I improve my diet?” people say. “What if I take special vitamins?” “What if I exercise more?” Countless bloggers, tabloids, pills, herbalists, armchair researchers, and beverage conglomerates seem so confident in their promised methods of improving immune functioning. But the ability to actually, factually do so?

It’s eluded scientists for years.

There are several reasons why: For one, the immune system is just that: a system, not a single entity. It’s incredibly complex – emerging from interactions between specialized immune cells and the rest of the “normal” cells in our body. And for it to function well, all parts must be in balance. Second, it’s challenging to detangle the exact effects of disturbances to those systems, as a change in the functioning of one tends to cause cascading changes in the others. For now, there are no scientifically-proven direct links between lifestyle and increased immune function.

However, that’s not to say this still isn’t a fascinating line of inquiry. Diet, exercise, age, drug consumption, psychological stress, and other factors do have measurable effects on the immune responses of humans and non-human animals. It’s just that, for the most part, changes in these factors tend to affect immune functioning negatively.

That’s a bit confusing, huh? The immune system – a network designed to fight infection and preserve our health – is itself unimprovable?

It seems so counterintuitive. After all, we see our bodies growing new muscles and healing old wounds every day. We intuitively expect all bodily systems to have this capacity, and behave this way. But we’re so accustomed to using simple “growth” as a measure for improvement in functioning that we fail to appreciate the sheer complexity of our immune system, and the many reasons why “growth” is an inappropriate measure of immune health.

In reality: the concept of boosting immunity makes little sense. In fact, growing the number of cells in your body – immune cells, or otherwise – is not necessarily a good thing. Muscle cell growth? Brain cell growth? Good things, to be sure. But on the other hand, all cancers result from out-of-control cell growth. And athletes who engage in “blood doping” – that is, pumping fresh blood into their systems to boost performance – frequently suffer strokes as a result.

Furthermore, so many different cells participate in the immune system: we wouldn’t even know where to begin. Which cell counts would we target and increase? And by how much? Unsuccessful tampering with comparatively simple bodily systems often results in injury or death – it’s hard to imagine anything but worse outcomes from messing around with our immune cell counts.

So, what can I do to boost my immune system above base levels? Nothing. And anyone claiming it’s possible is a quack. Instead, ask yourself this: what am I currently doing that’s making my immune system so much worse?

There are plenty of answers to that question. But three behaviors, in particular, have an outsized negative effect on immune system functioning: smoking, drinking to excess, and sleep deprivation. And there’s so much research on this; it’s not even funny.

Of course, this should come as no surprise. After all: smoking and sleep deprivation are two of the most damaging we can do to our bodies overall. And while 1-2 glasses of wine or beer every day have proven anti-inflammatory health benefits – hard liquor and the accompanying dependence and addiction – has been proven to suppress a wide range of immune responses and is associated with an increased incidence of several infectious diseases.

It’s understandable that the immune system – which itself relies on the proper functioning of several other major body systems – would suffer when one or more systems fail. In this case, it comes down to bodily maintenance at the cellular level. Simply put: sleep has the most significant restorative impact on our bodies’ cells, while drinking and smoking tend to kill more cells than just about anything else we do. So naturally, it follows that immune system functioning decreases most when cells are dying more rapidly than the body can repair or replace them.

And that’s it. No shortcuts. No superfoods. No special vitamins. There is simply nothing additional you can do – neither in advance nor response – to improve your immune response. It’s only as healthy and robust as the rest of your body at large. So if you are feeling under the weather? A good night’s sleep remains your very best bet for beating the sniffles.

New to The Gym? | Consider Stronglifts


It’s December 14th. In about two weeks, a predictable cadre of novice lifters – new year resolvers – will inundate gyms worldwide. Maybe you’re one of them.

If that’s the case: let’s talk about something you may overhear while you’re there: “Stronglifts.”

Developed as a blog by a man simply named “Mehdi” in the late 2000s, Stronglifts made fast and loyal fans of internet-savvy fitness professionals, quickly becoming one of the more popular and prescribed lifting plans of the last decade. It’s an aggressively-simplified, full-body strength training program centered around fundamentals. You’ll do full-body exercises with more sets of fewer repetitions to develop the correct form and strengthen the essential muscle groups. In this case, that looks like:

Workout A: Squat, Bench, and Barbell Row

Workout B: Squat, Overhead Press, Deadlift

Both workouts follow an exclusively 5×5 scheme: meaning five sets of five repetitions for each exercise. The basic rules are:

  • Three workouts a week.
  • Alternate Workout A and Workout B each time you train.
  • Never two days in a row, or twice in one day.
  • You must keep written track of progress.

Its simplicity and ease make it ideal for those with decent baseline athletic ability who lack discipline and experience with pure weightlifting. Maybe you were naturally talented at sports and only sort of fooled around in the weight room. Perhaps you’re military or law enforcement, looking to build upon the calisthenics and conditioning you got in training. Maybe you’re a less-traditional athlete, like a dancer or golfer, looking for a way to build size and strength.

In any case – it’s not hard to see how and why the program became so popular. It follows that there’s no shortage of resources for the program online. From Medhi’s own site to an entire subreddit dedicated to the topic, you don’t need to hear it from me: Stronglifts works.

…But only for a little while.

Stronglifts’ main selling point is also, unfortunately, its downfall: that it’s a workout for the true novice. Like training wheels on a bike, it can be extremely helpful – even necessary – at first, but inhibiting and restrictive once the behaviors begin to “click.” Because, after 12-24 consistent weeks in the gym – you’re just not a novice anymore. Your body certainly isn’t. By then, it will have adjusted to the rigors of training and require different kinds of stimulation, in different quantities, to continue to grow. Unfortunately, those who manage to stick with Stronglifts often stick with it for too long. Consequently, they develop unhealthy mental habits. Adherents of Stronglifts who continue longer than a year often assume – incorrectly – that their progress will remain linear. That amount of effort will continue to yield y+1 gains in weight indefinitely. What actually happens, though? One of two things:

In the first case: the trainee was too novice to exercise in general. Many total beginners will Google: “easiest lifting program,” come up with Stronglifts, and spend a few weeks floundering, before quitting in disgrace, blaming genetics, blaming themselves. After all, progress will never come if you’re having difficulty dialing in passable technique with even the lightest weights. You still need baseline athleticism to succeed at thisIt’s a fact frequently taken for granted by fitness writers: you should be able to run a mile, touch your toes, pull yourself up – even badly – before starting a weightlifting program. Unfortunately, many novices – a fairly-large portion of the Stronglifts target audience – cannot do these things.

Or, in the second case: the trainee gets too comfortable with Stronglifts. It’s enthralling at first, seeing and tracking real progress. But after a year of grinding out set, after set, after set of five; the concept of “training” becomes… pretty myopic. You began the program focusing solely on form and the weight on the bar. But six months in, and… that’s still the focus.

Stronglifts is fantastic for building a base and getting you in the habit of going to the gym – but my main complaint with the program is that there’s just nothing to look forward to. And look: if I could give Stronglifts another name? It’d be, like, the Anti-Vanity Workout. It has so little effect on body aesthetics that it doesn’t make sense for virtually anyone’s long-term fitness goals.

So this New Year, when you’re in the gym, and someone inevitably pitches you this program: remember it for what it is. You can’t build a house without a strong foundation, and this is the strongest one. But nobody really wants their entire house to look and feel like a basement.

Gut Health and Mental Health

gut health mental health

What does your gut have to do with mental health? It turns out: there’s a factual, physical basis for the colloquial “gut feeling” phenomenon.


In the last few years, a tremendous amount of literature has come out of top research institutes supporting the notion that the gut – our intestines, stomach, and the microorganisms that live there – has measurable, direct effects on brain chemistry. There is now abundant research suggesting an ancient relationship between the brain and gut, which communicate via the nervous system, hormones, and our immune system.


In order to have a full appreciation of the scope of this discovery, you’d need degrees in endocrinology, immunology, pathology, and neurology… far beyond the purview of a blog post. But you can trust reliable measurements from thousands of brilliant doctors, all agreeing on one central fact: that there is a direct relationship between one’s overall gut health and their overall mental health.


One of many recent discoveries, in particular, underscores the importance of this phenomenon: Serotonin, or 5-hydroxytryptamine, a neuromodulator that occurs endogenously in the bodies and brains of most animal species, is used for regulating emotional state, sleep, and digestion. Among the more essential aspects of life, it is one of the animal kingdom’s most basic and often-replicated chemical messaging systems. And ninety-five percent of the serotonin that humans need is produced by microbes that naturally occur in the gastrointestinal tract.


Here’s another potentially disturbing fact: every gut is sterile at birth. But after a few years in the world, the single-cell organisms that live in your body will outnumber your own cells 10 to one.


Most of them are helpful bacteria. And while they live nearly everywhere in the body, 100 trillion of them like it best in our gut. Which has, in turn, evolved a fantastically-complex, living, autonomous neural network based on the chemicals these bacteria secrete. That’s right: the gut is the only organ in our body with an independent nervous system. An intricate network of 100 million neurons lines the interior of the gut wall. Even when the Vagus nerve – the main nerve connecting the gut to the brain – is severed, a person can survive, and the gut continues to function. However, when that nerve is severed, the effects of gut bacteria on brain chemistry quickly disappear.


But it’s not just the presence of helpful bacteria that change behavior. In one of the earliest studies on the gut-brain relationship: laboratory mice exposed to Campylobacter jejuni, a single strain of pathogenic bacteria, became more anxious after just two days – refusing to enter exposed areas of their habitats. But in a follow-up study, mice fed lactobacillus rhamnosus, a helpful probiotic, were more willing to enter exposed areas and even swam better. A probiotic diet seemed to protect the mice from the effects of stress – showing a significant reduction in the hormone corticosterone and an increase in gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA – a neurotransmitter that moderates our flight-or-fight response. It seemed that


So how is it, exactly, that gut bacteria influence the brain and behavior so profoundly? We know that the Vagus nerve plays a vital role in absorbing neurotransmitters produced by the gut and passing those messages along to the brain. But other studies suggest that the immune system plays a role – with chemical communication occurring directly between bacterial cells and immune cells, propagating throughout the body. In any case, it’s incredible – and no coincidence – that the bacteria which live in our gut both produce and respond to the exact same set of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate mood, cognition, sleep, and stress.


We’re probably a long way out from being able to analyze, directly, the contents of an individual’s gut. Experts estimate roughly 10-15 years before targeted, proven, and effective probiotic treatments are commercially available to the public. Even further out are gut-based treatments for depression and anxiety. Still, the scientists pursuing this line of research are becoming increasingly confident that, to understand our emotions and behaviors fully, we need to understand how our gut “thinks.” 


It’s an exciting, entirely new frontier in medicine.