You’ve probably heard a coworker tell you “I’m useless until I get my first cup of coffee” before. Well it turns out there’s a lot of truth to that, and seeing as National Coffee Day is on September 29, it’s as good a time as any to talk about it. The U.S. consumes more coffee than any other country in the world, with almost 83 percent of adults averaging three cups a day per person, or 587 million cups per day. Caffeine, the psychoactive ingredient in coffee that gives us that energy boost when we’re struggling, is the most widely used and arguably most versatile drug in the world, but researchers still can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
The benefits of regular caffeine use translate well to the workplace: increased memory and longer stamina, as well as improved reaction times and logical reasoning. So it’s no wonder we rely on it to fuel our work, in the form of coffee. Coffee, rich in restorative anti-oxidants, is full of goodness: in addition to improved mental alacrity, regular consumption of caffeinated coffee has been shown to reduce the risk of several types of cancer, reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 22 percent, as well as lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of type-2 diabetes.
However, caffeine has a dark side that many are all too familiar with – overdosing on it can lead to “caffeine intoxication”, which includes symptoms of anxiety, nervousness, irregular heartbeat, and insomnia – things that most companies would probably not want hanging around the office. It also disrupts our natural circadian rhythms, degrading our quality of sleep, which can lead to a whole host of other health problems.
But since we don’t yet require coffee manufacturers to disclose how much caffeine is actually in a serving on nutrition labels, it can be difficult to know how much is too much. Scientists have even identified a condition called “Caffeine Use Disorder” to characterize people who find it difficult to quit the drug to the point where it would interfere with their daily routine. The use of caffeine is so socially acceptable, Samantha Olson from Medical Daily points out, that people’s unreasonable dependencies often slide under the radar.
Caffeine mimics the shape of a compound our brains produce called adenosine, which governs our fatigue by locking into our neuro-receptors and delivering commands to slow things down for rest. It also helps govern stress, relaxing our brain occasionally like a blow-off valve to ensure we are not exhausting our mental resources. When caffeine is around however, the brain can’t tell the difference and uses it instead, inhibiting the adenosine so it has nowhere to go and piles up. When you ingest caffeine, you are basically blocking your natural fatigue alarm, which is why we experience a huge “crash” at the end of a caffeine bender – the built-up adenosine overwhelms our brain once the caffeine wears off.
So how much is too much on National Coffee Day? How can you enjoy the benefits of caffeine without succumbing to its negative side effects? Like anything else, moderation is the key. According to the Mayo Clinic, a rule of thumb is to not exceed 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. For comparison, 400 milligrams is about the same as two to four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of soda, or two energy shot-type drinks. However, experts advise it’s a good idea to keep it down to around 100 milligrams per day to be safe.
Caffeinated coffee, it seems, can be a very cruel mistress at times, and happens to be the fuel of choice that keeps most of America running. But if we understand the risks involved with caffeine, wield it with responsibility, and arm ourselves with a “coffeewise” attitude, it can be a powerful ally in many arenas of life – whatever you do, just don’t talk to me until I’ve had my first cup in the morning.
Need a pick-me-up? Check out all of the companies with deals on free coffee for National Coffee Day.
This post was originally published in 2015 and has been updated for 2021.