I had a weird summer with caffeine. When I first got back home, I started getting headaches every morning, not realizing until a few days later it was because of the change in caffeine intake. Toward the end of last semester, I was going to Oren's three times a day to stay awake during finals—which didn't seem bad, until I realized three medium coffees is 48 ounces, or six cups.
I didn't even realize I'd become addicted to coffee until I got home and went back to my normal dosage of two cups. The effects were physical; I felt cranky, tired, and not fully "there." Everyone jokes about the person who hasn't had their morning cup of coffee, but my change in mood and inability to function were signs of a mild—but real—drug addiction.
At Columbia we have a range of caffeine-consumers. Some people have yet to be corrupted, others have a cup a day, and then there are extremes (one person I know has about sixteen cups of coffee a day). Most people have some form of caffeine daily, whether in the form of coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, caffeine pills, or even those "Awake" caffeinated chocolate bars sold at Butler.
Caffeine is a socially acceptable, if not venerated, drug, so rarely do we think about its consequences. But there is evidence that caffeine alters your brain chemistry, meaning the change in mood I experienced was actually a legitimate, drug-induced side effect. I never even realized why I had trouble falling asleep, since I consumed coffee only in the morning. But my roommate pointed out that caffeine can stay in your system for twelve to fourteen hours—so even a little bit of coffee was still keeping me up at night.
By the end of the summer, my doctor told me I had to quit caffeine cold turkey for unrelated health reasons. The first day, I couldn't even stand up while shopping for dorm supplies because I was so tired. In one day, I had to quit all the coffee, green tea, and dark chocolate that I loved so much, and for the first time I realized how ingrained caffeine really was in my life. Catching up over coffee, grabbing coffee and a bagel—there are so many little routines and rituals involving caffeine that I miss out on by not being able to order anything (FYI: Decaf coffee is not caffeine-free, only reduced caffeine, so I still can't go to Starbucks). Especially in New York, with so many houses of coffee worship that taunt me every time I walk by, it's not easy to realize I can't order anything.
I quit involuntarily, so maybe I'm not the best advocate for the caffeine-free life. But I have noticed a few good changes. First, I'm more mindful about what I consume. Before, I chugged coffee like water, not really caring much about what I put in, because I figured it wasn't that harmful. Now, I'm a lot more aware of what I put in my body. Since I can't rely on caffeine anymore to stay awake, I've also made more time for sleep, an immeasurably good thing. There really is no substitute for caffeine, though. I'm still coming around to herbal teas —my mom jokes they all have the same bland, peppermint taste.
My case is very particular in not being able to have any caffeine. Usually, it's fine, and possibly beneficial, to have it in moderation. People have been taking caffeine for centuries to stay awake (fun fact: the practice of drinking green tea was introduced to Japan for Buddhist monks to stay awake during long periods of meditation). And Buddhist philosophy, as we know, encourages us to be mindful and aware of our actions. So in the spirit of these Japanese monks, you can drink caffeine, but be aware when you do it.
Anna Raskind is a junior studying English in Columbia College.