Coffee and Other Caffeine Containing Plants

Caffeine, the most popular natural stimulant, is found in a number of plants throughout the world. The drug was first isolated from coffee in 1821 and was named for that plant, but the effects of coffee and caffeine differ. In many ways coffee seems to be more powerful than refined caffeine or other caffeine-containing plants.

A shrubby tree native to Ethiopia, coffee is now cultivated in many tropical countries throughout the world. Its bright red fruits, called cherries, each contain two seeds, or beans. The raw beans are gray-green and odorless, but when roasted they turn dark brown and develop their characteristic aroma and flavor. Legend has it that coffee was first discovered long ago by Ethio-

In the morning I drink two cups of coffee. If I don't, I feel irritable. If I drink three cups, I get a little speedy, but with two I feel just about right.

— thirty-nine-year-old man, college administrator

Far beyond all other pleasures, rarer than jewels or treasures, sweeter than grape from the vine.

Yes! Yes! Greatest of pleasures!

Coffee, coffee, how I love its flavor, and if you would win my favor, yes! Yes! let me have coffee, let me have my coffee strong.

— from the Coffee Cantata, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

pian nomads who noticed that their domestic animals became frisky after eating the fruits of the trees. When people tried eating the seeds, they got frisky too, and eventually they learned to make a flavorful drink from the roasted seeds.

More than a thousand years ago, groups of Muslims in the Middle East began using coffee in religious rituals and ceremonies. Croups of men would meet one night a week, drink large amounts of coffee, and stay up all night praying and chanting. These mystics confined their use of coffee to occasional ceremonies, but as coffee became more widely known, other people began to use it, not for religious reasons but just because they liked its stimulant effect. When people started to drink coffee every day in large amounts, many of them found they couldn't stop.

When it first came to Europe in the seventeenth century, coffee stirred up great opposition as a new and unapproved drug. Authorities tried to prohibit its use, but of course their efforts were to no avail; coffee soon established itself there and all over the world. Coffee houses sprang up in all European cities, and whole populations became dependent on the drug almost overnight, johann Sebastian Bach is rumored to have been a coffee addict. He ex-

Lloyd's Coffee House, London, about 1698. Lloyd's of London was born here and with it the modern insurance industry. (The Bettman Archive, Inc.)

Lloyd's Coffee House, London, about 1698. Lloyd's of London was born here and with it the modern insurance industry. (The Bettman Archive, Inc.)

tolled the virtues of the new drink in his famous Coffee Cantata. The French writer Balzac could not work without coffee. He drank larger and larger amounts of brews so strong they looked like thick soup, then complained of the stomach cramps they gave him.

Today coffee is a thoroughly approved drug — so approved, in fact, that many people who drink it regularly are surprised to learn it is a drug at all, let alone a powerful drug that can cause dependence and illness.

The truth is that coffee is a strong stimulant, one that is hard on certain parts of the body. It is irritating to the stomach, for example, and many people who drink a lot of it have indigestion most of the time. (In the United States, where coffee is regularly consumed in large quantities, there are nearly as many brands of antacids as there are brands of coffee.) It is irritating to the bladder, too, especially in women, and is a frequent cause of urinary complaints. Coffee also makes many people shaky by upsetting the delicate balance between nerves and muscles. It is a common cause of headaches, heart palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia.

Today dependence on coffee is very common in Western society. Many regular users cannot think clearly in the morning until they have had their first cup. Without it they can't concentrate, move their bowels, or do their work. Also, they suffer real withdrawal symptoms if they stop using coffee suddenly. The withdrawal reaction begins 24 to 36 hours after the last dose. Symptoms are lethargy, irritability, and a distinctive throbbing (vascular) headache that is often severe. Nausea and vomiting may occur. These symptoms will last from 36 to 72 hours. They disappear rapidly if the user takes caffeine in any form. Such problems all come from using coffee too frequently so that the body never gets a chance to replenish its stores of chemical energy and comes to rely more and more on the external drug.

Coffee and caffeine have been accused of causing birth defects. There is no agreement on this possibility among scientists, but pregnant women should remember that coffee and caffeine are drugs and should not consume them in large amounts. Coffee and caffeine may also raise serum cholesterol, increasing risk of heart attacks. The evidence for this effect remains contradictory.

Note that decaffeinated coffee is not inert. In addition to small amounts of caffeine (enough to stimulate sensitive individuals), it contains other active substances from the coffee bean that can be irritating to the nervous, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and urinary systems. This is true of water-processed decaf, as well as the less safe solvent-extracted brands, which may contain residues of toxic chemicals.

Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), the great French writer, was also a great coffee addict. (Paul Thompson, Photo World/Free Lance Photographers Guild)

We had a kettle; we let it leak. Our not repairing it made it worse. We haven't had any tea for a week... The bottom is out of the Universe.

— "Natural Theology," by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)


An extract of cola nut in alcohol formerly was used in medicine. The label of this old bottle reads, "Thera peutically, kola resembles guaraná and coca." (Michael R. Aldrich)

Other caffeine beverages don't seem to be as powerful or as toxic as coffee — even though they may contain as much caffeine or equivalent drugs. Tea is not nearly so irritating to the body as coffee, and cases of dependence on tea are less common in our society. Of course, tea is a stimulant, and if you drink it in large amounts or make it strong enough, you can get powerful effects, including jitteriness and insomnia. In England, tea drinking has been a national pastime and habit ever since the early seventeenth century, when it was introduced from the Orient. Tea addiction is not uncommon in England, Ireland, and Asia. Japanese people drink green tea throughout the day. In addition, they conduct tea ceremonies, elaborate rituals built around the consumption of matcha, a special, powdered green tea that is whipped with water into a bitter, frothy beverage. This strong form of tea was developed in Zen Buddhist monasteries to help monks stay awake during long hours of meditation. Recent medical research suggests health benefits of green tea, which may lower cholesterol and help prevent cancer.

Cola is a caffeine-containing seed, or nut, from a tropical tree, the cola tree. In some African countries cola nuts are so valuable they are used as money. The nuts have a bitter, aromatic taste, and people chew them for their stimulating effect. Bottled cola drinks have very little cola nut in them and do not taste like cola nuts at all. Though they do contain caffcine, it is usually synthetic caffeine or caffeine extracted from coffee or tea. These soft drinks are also drugs, and people can become dependent on them, as with coffce. Also, they contain a lot of sugar.

The combination of sugar and caffeine seems to be especially habit-forming. Many people drink enormous amounts of cola, and though they may think they are merely quenching their thirst, they are also consuming calories, enough sugar to damage their teeth (and possibly upset their metabolism), not to mention large doses of caffeine. Like other stimulants, cola drinks are not unhealthy if used in moderation; people who like them should just be aware of their nature and their potential for abuse. Parents especially should remember that so-called "soft drinks" are actually drugs that can affect the health and moods of their children.*

In other parts of the world, people use a number of less well known caffeine plants. The national drink of Brazil is guarana

'The popularity of stimulating cola drinks has led manufacturers to add caffeine to some other flavors of carbonated beverages. Drinks so fortified must list caffeine as an ingredient. If you do not want to take drugs with your soda, you should make a habit of reading the information on bottles and cans.

(pronounced gwah-rah-NAH), made from the seeds of a jungle shrub. It contains more caffeine than coffee and is often made into sweet, carbonated drinks. Recently, tablets of guaraná powder have appeared in health food stores in the United States under such brand names as ZOOM and ZING. These are being marketed as new organic stimulants from the Amazon jungle.

In Argentina the most popular caffeine drink is maté (pronounced mah-TAY), which is made from the leaves of a holly plant. Some kinds of maté taste like smoky tea. Maté leaves can be bought in most health food stores and are ingredients in some herbal tea mixtures, such as Celestial Seasonings' Morning Thunder. Packages of maté sometimes misrepresent the product as a caffeine-free herbal tea.

One of the most famous sources of caffeine is chocolate, also made from the seeds of a tropical tree.* Chocolate, which contains a lot of fat and is very bitter, must be mixed with sugar to make it palatable. It, too, contains a stimulating drug, and cases of chocolate dependence are easy to find. You probably know a few "chocoholics." People who regularly consume chocolate or go on chocolate-eating binges may not realize they are involved with a drug, but their consumption usually follows the same sort of pattern as with coffee, tea, and cola drinks.

Chocolate contains only a small amount of caffeine, but has a lot of theobromine, a close relative with similar effects. By itself, theobromine cannot account for all aspects of chocolate addiction, because chocolate addiction looks different from other forms of stimulant dependence. Most chocoholics are women and many of them crave chocolate most intensely just before their menstrual periods. Women who develop an addictive relationship with chocolate usually eat it in cyclic binges rather than continually and often say it acts on them like an instant antidepressant. As there is no reason to think that theobromine affects men and women differently, other components of chocolate must be involved. Very little research has been done on chocolate, so no one knows for sure.

Cacao was known to the ancient Aztecs, who considered it a sacred plant and used it in religious rituals. In moderation chocolate is a pleasant and interesting addition to the diet, but overuse may not be wise, especially since the combination of sugar, fat,

A cacao tree, source of chocolate and cocoa. The pods grow directly from the trunk and branches. (Harvard Botanical Museum)

*The tree is called cacao (pronounced cah-COW), and its seeds are cacao beans, or cocoa beans. The fat in them is cocoa butter. White chocolatc is just cocoa butter mixed with sugar. The roasted, ground-up beans, with most of the fat removed, are cocoa. Regular chocolate is made by adding extra fat to roasted, ground-up beans.

Five years ago, hoping to kick a chocolate habit that was significantly affecting my life, I enrolled in a program at the Shick Center for the Control of Smoking, Alcoholism, and Overeating, in Los Angeles. I was then thirty-three. I could not remember the last time I had managed to get through a whole day without eating chocolate in one form or another, usually in quantities most people would regard as excessive, if not appalling ... Frankly, I am mystified by what happened and to this day cannot explain it. Being addicted to chocolate was so much a part of my definition of myself that it constantly amazes me to think that I am now free of it.

— thirty-eight-year-old woman, social worker and drugs can be so habit-forming. People who tend to gain weight easily should be especially careful about their intake of chocolate.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment