UNPOPULAR OPINION: Coffee isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


Coffee – is it all that great? Image Credit: Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash 

Now, I understand from the headline alone that I’ve already got most of you offside. Recent studies show 33% of young Australians need a coffee to survive the day, and 84% buy at least one coffee a week.

But the truth? I just can’t stand the stuff. No amount of sugar, milk or weird-hipster-influenced flavour combinations will make me like these cups of scalding, bitter liquid.

People look at me like I’m crazy when I say this. Who knows, maybe I am. But I’ve got science on my side – caffeine (and, by extension, coffee) isn’t all its cracked up to be.

The science:

Throughout the day, our most basic body functions are fuelled by a molecule called ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate, for those playing along at home). I like to think of this little guy as the petrol of the body, providing the energy for pretty much everything we do – from large scale movement down to chemical reactions that even the most powerful microscopes can’t see.

After we use ATP it gets broken down, and one of the things we get left with is a chemical called adenosine. By binding to specialised sensors in the brain, adenosine gradually increases our level of tiredness as the day goes on, until eventually, we fall asleep. The process is beautiful in its simplicity: the more energy you use throughout the day, the more tired you get.

That is, until caffeine comes along. 

You see, caffeine’s a bit of a sneaky operator. It binds to the same sensors in the brain as adenosine, but has the complete opposite effect. It keeps you awake – wide awake – for the 8 hours until it gets broken down.

But sleep isn’t that important, right?


Look, I’m not going to pretend that because I don’t drink coffee I have a functional sleep pattern. I too am a perpetrator of the “just one more episode/video/anything-except-sleep” culture that’s rendered many of us uni students more nocturnal than diurnal.

But the fact of the matter is, as humans, we need 7-9 hours of sleep to function at our peak. Whether or not we get that by choice is one thing, but for those who drink coffee in the afternoon or evening, that amount of sleep is often a physiological impossibility.

Plus, there’s that whole coffee-hangover thing.

Don’t get me wrong: I get why people drink coffee (at least, I think I do). Sometimes you just need something to make you feel awake. The trade-off, however, is the ‘hangover’ you get when it wears off.

You see, the whole time caffeine is bound to the sensors in your brain, adenosine sits there waiting for it to leave. And when it does, all the adenosine you’ve accumulated throughout the day floods the receptors in the brain. The result? A tsunami of fatigue that hits you right when you need it least.

So, you’ve made it to the end of my manifesto against coffee.

To those like me who can’t stand the stuff: congratulations! We’ve had our voices heard.

To the coffee-drinkers: I don’t expect you to stop drinking it on the basis of anything I’ve had to say (really, I don’t). Spend your $5 on a broccoli latte if you want. Just know that my $5 is going towards some smashed-avo instead.

6 Responses to “UNPOPULAR OPINION: Coffee isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

  1. Natasha Anderson says:

    Thank you so much for the feedback @Aisyah, @Yvette, @Fleur and @Ashley! I hadn’t read that about the additional receptors, I’ll have to look into it. I’m thinking the difference in responses to drinking coffee later in the day could be due to different levels of tolerance in different people, and that some might be more sensitised to having caffeine at that time of the day. It’d make interesting reading!

  2. Aisyah says:

    Ahhhhhh that makes more sense intuitively; thanks Ash! I have no idea if you’ll see this comment but I’m, uh, sending you Good Vibes of Gratitude for your explanation.

  3. Ashley Densham says:

    Great article, laughed aloud in the library after that broccoli latte comment. @Aisyah @Fleur I recall reading some time ago that one physiological response to regular caffeine consumption is an increase in adenosine receptors in the brain. So even though the original receptors are blocked by caffeine, the new ones receive the adenosine and make you feel tired again, regardless of your daily coffee. After a few days of abstaining from lattes these receptors are no longer needed and disappear, so your next coffee after a sober week has a real kick again. @Natasha, did you read anything about this?

  4. Fleur says:

    Some interesting reading while I was drinking my morning coffee! My body works exactly as your article says, hence I can’t drink coffee after 4pm or I can’t get to sleep at night. What I want to know is why some people can drink an espresso after dinner or just before going to bed and be fine?

  5. Yvette H. says:

    Coffee-despisers unite! The science behind caffeine’s effect on the receptors in the brain, and the cause of the coffee-hangover, is very interesting. I also loved how you wrote this, great use of sub-headings!

  6. Aisyah says:

    $5 avocado toast? What a bargain. I’ve been told they cost a whole house.

    In all seriousness, I never really thought about the fact that adenosine would build up in the brain! I’ve yet to experience the ‘hangover’; but I do often find that if I drink coffee for days on end, I get desensitized to its effects and have to hold off for a few days.

    I think this article was a pretty good length, and the conversational tone made it digestible and memorable. Awesome job!