So, I’m working hard to heal myself from all the damage of swallowing the Standard Narrative whole with a side of Standard American Diet to go. My latest assigment from Mary is to take coffee out of my diet. She promised me it won’t be forever, but I need to go for a month without coffee. I’ve been drinking coffee since I was in high school. I never drank it because of the energy boost it claims to give people (I’ve never needed the extra boost), but more because it was a social thing and a hot beverage that had more substance to it than tea, which I’ve always registered as hot colored water. Taking coffee out of my life is going to be difficult.
Mary suspects me of having adrenal fatigue and I think she’s pretty on point with that. She also thinks that coffee is messing with my digestion. On top of that I have struggled with anxiety and ADHD for as long as I can remember, possibly from as young as 8 years old. What she told me is that coffee can actually sap your overall energy and ability to focus, exacerbating both the anxiety and the fatigue. That is the opposite of why most people drink it, so it got me to thinking.
Physicists are well aware of the law of conservation of energy. You can change energy from one form to another, you can hit a baseball with a bat and it’s forward energy becomes backward energy as it’s launched out into the field, but you can’t make that ball go faster, or even change direction, without inputting some energy of your own. Food contains energy in it and when we eat it, our digestive system turns the stored energy in the food (a chemical energy) into fat, which is stored energy in our bodies. We then burn the fat to produce body heat and to move our muscles, perhaps to swing a bat, for example. Calories are a measure of how much energy is stored in food. Many people have a weird relationship with food and they think of calories as a measure of how fat they will get, or how bad the food is for their diet goals, or how many stairs they have to climb at the gym later, but all of that is perspective. Calories are an energy measurement.
Coffee doesn’t have many calories, especially if you don’t sweeten or cream it. A cup of black coffee has something on the order of 2 kilocalories (which we just call “calories” cuz it’s shorter). For the average American, that’s barely .1% of their daily energy requirements. That means that to get all of your energy needs for a day from coffee, you’d have to drink 1000 cups of coffee per day. That’s a lot of coffee, or a little energy if you think about it. And yet, for many of us, when we drink coffee we feel energized. Where we were dragging before, we suddenly feel like we have more strength to accomplish whatever task is before us. Some of us will also feel more clear headed and awake. Without a significant caloric value, where does that energy come from?
The answer, as we all know, is caffeine, but how exactly is caffeine working to give us energy if it doesn’t contain energy itself? Here is where the law of conservation of energy can give us insight. We know the total amount of energy we have to go through our day doesn’t change by drinking a cup of coffee, but we feel more energetic and are able to accomplish more when we do. The caffeine in coffee, or any other caffeinated beverage, is just making more of our stored energy available to us in the 45 minute to 6 hour window after we consume it. That’s why we crash when we use caffeine as an energy boost, because when the caffeine leaves our system we’re left with less energy than we would have had without it. Add to that the fact that many people drink the coffee because they felt they were low on energy to begin with, and you can see why chronic coffee use can lead to chronic fatigue.
For people like me who are trying to heal from adrenal fatigue, it’s not just about getting enough sleep and nutrition, it’s also about smoothing out our energy levels so that we are not overstimulating the adrenal glands by constantly demanding them to regulate our system. Avoiding coffee and other caffeinated beverages reduces the swings we feel in our energy throughout the day, possibly leading to a general malaise, but in my case also helping me to avoid the debilitating 7:30pm crash that has been leaving me quite literally motionless in a bean bag chair until 9pm when I finally clock out.
All of this dawned on me as a result of seeing another plug for bulletproof coffee. The guy who invented the recipe claims that he has “biohacked” his way to higher mental and physical performance in part through the use of “clean” coffee blended with “clean” grassfed butter and a processed coconut oil derivative. I don’t believe in biohacking. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, it means making your mind or your body perform better than it was designed to in nature by cleverly coordinating your activities, environment and diet. Asprey claims that his coffee blend can give you improved mental performance, clean burning energy with no crash, and help you lose weight, but it all sounded too good to be true, so I asked my nutritionist what she thought of it.
To my relief, Mary is at least as suspicious of the miracle drink as I am, but she has the added benefit of actual training and years of experience in nutrition and health whereas all I have is my energy conservation theory and too much time getting paid to think about stuff*. It turns out that her take on the bulletproof magic bullet (heheh, sorry) is that it can indeed be helpful in the short run as a crutch to get over a plateau, but in the long term it cannot continue to provide the benefits being claimed. Makes sense to me. Our bodies were designed to burn energy at a certain rate. This design has been perfected over billions of years (millions of years?º). We discover a beverage that can take us above that limit for a time, but that extra performance has to come from somewhere. Whether we pay for it in the damage to our bodies from the astronomically high saturated fat levels, or in a crash that we don’t perceive because it is too far divorced from the actual drinking of the coffee that we can’t associate the two, we must certainly settle our accounts somewhere. That’s what the law of conservation of energy tells us. Nothing in life is free, and if you try to diverge from the environment that we were built to operate in, you will pay a cost in your health somewhere.
So as a final note, I would like to add some policy implications. Policy implications are the way economists try and make their research sound important after they have bored you to sleep with their formulas and statistics. For me, I can’t use coffee right now because my body is damaged, but knowing what we know about energy, how can we use coffee in a way that doesn’t damage our bodies? Certainly there are times when the extra energy boost is welcome. My recommendation is that you drink coffee only for the purpose of attaining that energy boost, and that you do it with the awareness that you’re really borrowing against your future energy and that you will have to pay that loan back with interest. Just like with credit card debt, you don’t want to let that interest accrue or it will hurt badly when the bill comes due. Make sure you pay it back immediately — that means in the same day wherever possible. So, if you have a deadline to meet and really need that coffee to finish your work on time, go ahead and drink it. But when that deadline is passed and the work is done, don’t just go back to life as it was, give yourself a break. Recognized that you are now depleted in your energy and focus on recovery. Don’t take on another project where you’re going to be doing late hours or rushed jobs until you’re back to your healthy, pre-coffee, pre-deadline self or else you risk running up an energy debt that you may not be able to pay back.
*You can read her review of bulletproof coffee here: “Should you ditch your bulletproof coffee?”
ºI actually don’t believe in evolution, so I don’t really know how many years I need to write to make the argument sound convincing. But if you do believe in evolution, just read this as “we were evolved this way” and move on, please.