Be honest -- you probably have a mug of coffee in your hand, or near your desk as you're reading this.
Yes, we all love java. It gets us going in the morning. And the afternoon. And the evening. But is it really such a good idea?
According to a Gallup poll, about two-thirds of American adults have at least one cup of coffee every day, averaging 2.7 cups of coffee per day, and 25 percent of people claim they feel addicted to caffeine. Despite this, only 10 percent of people want to cut back on their coffee drinking.
These numbers haven't changed much, because our relationship with coffee hasn't changed much. We don't see coffee as a stimulant drug; we see it as a natural way to reduce fatigue, improve alertness, improve focus and ultimately boost productivity (plus, many of us find it to be delicious).
There's evidence that supports all of these effects. But are those proofs as powerful as we believe them to be? And, are there darker, less beneficial effects that are cancelling out the benefits, without our even knowing it?
Memory and cognition
The consumption of coffee is shown to improve memory and cognitive function. In fact, regular coffee drinking may even improve cognitive function overall as we age, rather than providing just a short-term boost. Researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychobiology at the University of Barcelona found that caffeinated beverages, when consumed with glucose, improve "cognitive performance in terms of sustained attention and working memory."
Effectively, then, coffee improves performance. Drink a cup of joe and you'll remember more things from meetings, solve problems faster and be able to focus on (and complete) tasks more productively throughout the day.
Tiredness, fatigue and mood
Subjectively, most people agree that coffee also helps them feel better -- especially when they wake up feeling particularly tired or fatigued. Ordinarily, feeling tired can leave you less alert and less focused, but coffee can help mitigate those effects -- and may also boost your physical performance (if your job requires anything physical).
Caffeine also serves to reduce inflammation in the body, which serves as a quick mode of pain relief, and may reduce headaches and other points of soreness that can interfere with work. In addition, coffee stimulates the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical in the brain, improving your mood and helping to stabilize your emotions so you feel better throughout the work day. Better emotional stability and less tiredness means you'll get more done.
Coffee may also has some health benefits, which can keep us from getting sick and keep us working healthier (and living longer). For example, drinking coffee every day in moderate quantities may reduce your risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, and serves as an antioxidant in the body, eliminating harmful free radicals that damage cells and otherwise leave the body vulnerable to a host of different conditions.
That means you may be taking fewer sick days, and you'll be in better physical condition to maximize your productivity.
Unfortunately, the anti-tiredness effects of caffeine also have a dangerous, and obvious, side effect. The effects of caffeine last for several hours, depending on the individual, so consuming coffee even within eight hours of bedtime can interfere with your ability to sleep that night.
This results in you getting fewer hours of sleep, leading you to drink more coffee to make up for your tiredness the next day, and creating a vicious cycle that can leave you more fatigued than ever. Eventually, you'll need to repay your sleep debt, and if you don't, the effects of sleep deprivation will start to accumulate -- regardless of how much coffee you drink. Eventually, that will take a toll on your productivity.
Anxiety and restlessness
Caffeine stimulates the production of adrenaline -- the fight-or-flight chemical in the brain that's usually produced as a result of stress. In small quantities, this can give us a boost of energy, but if you're prone to anxiety or have an anxiety or panic disorder, caffeine can exacerbate those problems.
Excessive coffee drinking can trigger panic attacks in vulnerable individuals, and lead to increased anxiety and restlessness in others. If you end up drinking more coffee than usual, this can leave you a fidgeting mess, with your mind racing. You'll also be unable to settle down enough to get your work done.
Don't forget that caffeine is still a drug and that your brain can become physically dependent on it. Realize, too, that you'll become more tolerant to caffeine over time, resulting in slightly decreased effects. Then, should you go a day or two without caffeine, you'll start to experience the physical effects of withdrawal.
Basically, coffee becomes less effective over time, and if you ever decide to stop drinking it, you'll temporarily face a significant drop in perceived wellness and productivity.
The bottom line
So, does caffeine help or hurt you? For the most part, it's clear that caffeine will improve your productivity. It's ideal for boosting cognitive function, lightening your mood and improving your health; and it can help you feel less tired on those long work days.