One of my roommates from graduate school always asked me if I have had my cup of coffee yet before initiating a conversation with me in the mornings. Oh jeez, how did we (I mean I?) get here? Everything I learned in biology and in life points to my genes and peer group. But before we start the blame-game, I want to take some time to explore the reasons for my coffee dependency, map out how we got here, and how it’s affected my life (for the good, and for the bad). The first step is acknowledging the dependency: so hear me say “I love me some brain juice”.
I am a Tamilian who grew up with the strong (pun intended) presence of great coffee. My hometown – Chennai/Madras – is famous for its filter coffee. Even with my global childhood, my mom always made sure she and my dad had some home-like coffee in the mornings. Up until the 8th grade, I was denied coffee — as a good parent should do. But I always had an affinity towards things that were bad for me — hence the brain juice addiction — definitely a conversation for my therapist (haha). Between grades 8 – 10, I lived in India and, I still remember, my mom, let me have coffee once a week on Saturday mornings. But once grade 10 hit, coffee has been in my system pretty much every day.
When I moved to Wisconsin for undergrad, I was too used to filter coffee. I’ve spent countless dollars on dining hall Starbucks, coffee machines, cafes– you name it, I tried it. I spent way too much time trying to find the right roast/blend. All I wanted was a good cup of Joe! Freshman year went by. It pains me to report that it was unachievable. Nothing came even close. So when I went home for winter break, you best believe I brought back some of my favorite coffee powder (packed the carry-on as tight as possible). Then it was just a matter of perfecting the recipe and adjusting for the water and milk differences until I got it just right. Once sophomore year hit and I was more settled in my life, I ventured out off-campus to the Indian store to find that they had the exact brand I bought back home! I’ll never forget how I felt looking at that brand in this dude’s Desi store. Happy moments, haha! Since that day, I’ve had a steady supply of delicious coffee. When I moved to Pittsburgh and San Jose, I made sure to learn about the location and accessibility of the Indian Stores in the first week. Mainly for coffee but also other staples since I cook a lot (let me emphasize… A LOT) of Indian food.
Don’t get me wrong, I love exploring all types of coffee. Learning about the origin of the coffee, the flavor profile, how the blend is made — it’s all so interesting! Every once in a while, I do stop by Starbucks to grab their peppermint mocha as soon as it becomes Fall ( judge me, I skip the PSL phase altogether). The problem is, if I don’t have my one-morning filter coffee, I would be equated to a lump of flesh and bones. My early relationship with one of my best friends was based on our mutual love of coffee and chicken… What more do you really need in life?
Well, thinking back, I consumed so much caffeine in undergrad predominantly through my consumption of coffee – no pills, barely any soda, etc. Whether it was a good or bad day, whether I needed to study or relax, my drink of choice of coffee. I was young and barely had sleeping issues– so it was all good. I never exceeded 4 cups a day. But I knew I could scale back if needed.
Apart from the energy boost, coffee actually is proven to have many beneficial health effects on the human body. The right amount of coffee can help decrease your propensity to develop certain diseases. But the most beneficial to me and most others is probably the high level of antioxidants and nutrients in coffee. Some reports say coffee is the main way many people intake the majority of their daily antioxidant requirements. So when cutting back to lower than the right amount of coffee I needed to keep these in mind.
I know for me, a minimum of one cup in the morning to start my day was essential and still is today. I worked towards eliminating the other cups. My first year of graduate school was easy in terms of workload and I had a great social group of friends so a lot of my evening drinks converted into something else. (hey, at least I was off the coffee.) I had an evening coffee on heavy days that I needed to study for an exam or finish that one difficult problem set. When the pandemic hit during my last semester of graduate school, and all the stressors in my life magnified, I started having trouble falling asleep. Not wanting to resort to supplements such as melatonin, I tried all the at-home tricks such as separating my workspace and sleep space (all within my 140 sq ft bedroom), not looking at a device a few hours before sleeping, getting enough exercise, etc.
The most effective for me was giving up caffeine. I slowly eliminated any sort of caffeine in my life post noon. This was easy enough for me to do as my workloads were decreasing and I didn’t need to stay THAT focused in the evenings and let’s face it, I also love to sleep. So giving up one of my loves for the other… was easy enough to accomplish. I now drink a fruit smoothie or some chai in the evenings (even though chai has caffeine, it doesn’t keep me up enough for it to become a problem.). As someone who enjoys the taste of coffee, I miss having a great go-to drink in the evenings. But giving up that second cup is doing wonders for my sleep.
What did I learn? ~ I was pretty much expecting the results of this analysis. I knew that my initial habits of impulse and looking for an energy boost was not that healthy and that I needed to do something about it when my sleep started to get disturbed. Looking into the future, I would like to develop a consistent caffeine routine that works for me with or without a work-from-home lifestyle. I think it would also be worth it to start quantitatively estimating what the “right” amount of coffee looks like for me. Stay tuned for a part two follow up in a couple of months from now.
And there you have it… my journey with coffee. The moral of the story: no dependency is good and the first step is acknowledging it, seeing how it affects your life and how you can work with it to be the best version of yourself! One of the things I look forward to every time I visit home is just sharing that morning cup of coffee and conversation with my mom.