Caffeine, Health, Literature, and a Longing for the Sacred
The Great Connection Between Literature and Caffeine
So, we all remember the great German novelist, poet, playwright and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, right? Well, believe or not, he had a hand in the discovery of caffeine. In The 100 Most Important Chemical Compounds (p. 56), Myers discusses this discovery.
On one fateful day, Goethe visited a lab where Runge (a German chemist and physician) was working. After witnessing Runge dilate the eye of a cat with a substance he removed from a nightshade plant, “Goethe awarded Runge with a sample of rare coffee beans and challenged him to determine the compound that gave coffee its stimulating effects. After several months, Runge isolated caffeine from coffee in 1819.”
Caffeine has Quite the Family
Caffeine is an alkaloid. Alkaloids occur in nature in both plants and animals. Cocaine, morphine, and caffeine are all examples of alkaloids. The color, of most alkaloids, is white and the taste is bitter, as is with the alkaloid caffeine. As stated in The World of Caffeine (p. xx), “Many alkaloids present a double face, exhibiting both poisonous and curative properties.” It then comes as no surprise that coffee, in the early days, was used as a medicine.
What Caffeine Really Does
In An Orchard Invisible (p. 161), Silvertown tells us what caffeine really does. In our body, there is a natural substance that builds up in us throughout the day causing us to relax. This natural substance is called adenosine and it eventually puts us to bed. I sum up the process like this: caffeine is like a bouncer who won’t let adenosine in the club. Inside the club is the central nervous system, and caffeine isn’t going to let adenosine in to ruin the party. Caffeine keeps the club (nervous system) nice and hype. Well, for while anyway. Caffeine does not stay in the body for long.
Caffeine and Your Heart: Literally & Figuratively
As stated above, caffeine does stimulate the nervous system but it does not stay in the body for long. It does raise blood pressure, but as stated in an article entitled “The Caffeine Advantage” in Men’s Health, those who drink coffee on a regular basis have half the chance of dying from heart failure as non-coffee drinkers. The article also says, according to Harvard researchers, there are some advantages to drinking caffeinated coffee in regards to preventing Parkinson’s disease as well as diabetes. Just lay off the sugar and take care if you are someone who is sensitive to caffeine or has high blood pressure
I have to admit that my favorite discussion on the benefits of caffeine came to me from Stairways to Heaven (p. 136) which states that “coffee has a ritual element” and finishes that thought with these wonderful words:
This ritual element helps lift persons out of their workaday mind-sets and prepares them to embrace the “finer” things in life. The physiological effects of caffeine consumption, no less than the set or setting, also help produce a Zen-like “fresh way of seeing things.” Enhanced mental alertness and increased sensory alertness combine to help us appreciate new dimensions or an added richness to what are otherwise ordinary experiences. Few Americans consume coffee in social or ritual contexts that might transform their experiences into one of quite the same spiritual magnitude as Zen Buddhism’s satori. Yet by the hundreds of thousands they have found coffee drinking to be crucial to such spiritual activities as flowing conversation, intimate readings, and intellectual discovery. And in this sense these Americans have found that coffee, in a matter at least approximating Zen satori, is capable of awakening them to the fact that the sacred (i.e., what is precious, truly important, intrinsically worthwhile) is in the here and now of everyday life if we can but learn to see it.
And I think that sums up an article about caffeine in a way I could never even attempt.
So, go forth and enjoy your coffee.
Bealer, B & Weinberg, B 2001, The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug, Routledge, NY, p. xx.
Myers, R 2007, One Hundred Most Important Chemical Compounds, Greenwood Press, CT, p. 56.
Fuller, R 2000, Stairways to Heaven: Drugs in American Religious History, Westview Press, Colorado, p 136.
Griffin, L March 2008, ‘The Caffeine Advantage,’ Men’s Health, pp. 102-104.
Silvertown, J 2009, An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 161.