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The Brew Of Burnout: Coffee Goes To College

by Mark Cammack    August 27, 2019

Parody advert image titled Campus Coffee Company. Its slogan is

Campus Coffee Company is a parody advert. The effects and story that follows are real.

Have you ever been consuming a caffeinated drink daily and then suddenly stopped? What happened? It may depend upon the amount of caffeine you were using and your biochemical individuality (how unique each person is in regards to chemical reactions and physiology). Often there is lethargy, headache, and unpleasantness. Some refer to the situation as caffeine dependency or even addiction.

Have you ever abruptly halted your daily zippy drink and nothing happened? There were either no noticeable negative effects or even a feeling of relaxation. What goes on here?

Perhaps we can consider neural affectors to find the answer. Our brain and nervous system is constantly detecting what is in our environments. The ratio of activation of our sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous systems is key. We can abbreviate these as SNS and PNS. By taking a look at caffeine and how our brains and bodies work, we may find an answer.

If the SNS is running most of the time, we can feel energized in the short-term and stressed or burnt-out in the long run. Because we are not healing properly, we may be prone to injury. With overuse of this system, it is possible to have many preventable illnesses and injuries occurring as a result.

When the PNS is in charge, we tend to be rested and in a healthy state. The parasympathetic nervous system is the healer. By intentional relaxation, meditation, listening to calming music, adequate sleep, and quality nutrition with B and C vitamins, we support the PNS which in turn supports us.

If coffee with caffeine is used to invoke the SNS, we can be stress dominant. While the person who initially takes in a stimulant beverage may feel or perform somewhat better, they can actually be weakening their system. During university studies, we were told that if someone was experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, to consider their caffeine level. The information we were presented with suggested that exceeding 4 cups of coffee a day can induce anxiety or full-blown panic attacks.

Oh my, there were a lot of people coming into the psychology and business departments who were consuming in quantity, including a few instructors. Coffee was even provided on a table in the hall. It was not so prevalent in the biology or chemistry departments.

On one occasion a professor made a mistake in scheduling assignments near the end of the term. We did not have a week or even a few days to compose a major paper. It had to be submitted the next day. Most of the class stayed up late or some such as myself all night. A small tin of Austrian coffee was used to stay awake. The paper was turned in amongst an exhausted sleep deprived class and an unfazed educator.

I tried coffee initially as instructors often had a cup. It was social modeling, where we tend to do what others about us do. I was not thinking about the chemistry so much then and had not been yet informed of any concerns. Coffee was something energizing and flavorful to drink while on lower calories with higher academic loads. We were told it was fine as long as it was not overdone. It became evident that this may not be true.

What is not apparent at first with coffee consumption is the tolerance to it. It sneaks up on you. One or two days may not reveal a dramatic change. The weeks to months with it are what get you. During a challenging time in college, food was sometimes low and not the best nutritionally. This was the opposite of what was needed for health and brain functioning under high academic loads. It was survival, and we had to make substitutions to have tuition. I obtained what I could with what I had and prepared my own meals. A lot of funds went to the school and paid for courses, books, well-fed and well-dressed administrators, and the new swimming pool the administrators wanted. We were charged athletic and other fees to support programs many of us did not use. In the words of geology professor Dr. Weiland,"The students here get milked." Several instructors tried to get us cheaper textbooks from off campus sources. When the administrators found out, they declared all books had to be purchased through the campus bookstore at high prices. "It's not right. It's your money and you should be able to purchase them where you want to," was announced in class.

One tool some of us turned to that was inexpensive was coffee. It seemingly kept us academically active but at a cost. We needed nutritious food, healthy safe housing, and normal sleep. A caring administration would have also helped.

What began as a daily cup turned into four to six cups by the end of a year. I was not doing so well and it was difficult to wake up without it. It is a good thing alcoholic beverages were never consumed. Interestingly, one of our assignments was to visit Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to understand what the culture was. Upon arrival, a fellow greeted me as various students trickled in. I told him I did not have an alcohol issue but was there only as a class visitor. He had a short reception speech prepared that included something like,"We all had to admit our problem at some point." The poor man never seemed to understand that students were simply visiting.

We were told beforehand that sometimes one chemical is swapped for another. The room was filled with cigarette smoke and coffee fumes. There were doughnuts on a table along with the coffee machine. The caffeine, nicotine, and sugar had replaced the alcohol. This may be in part to exchanging habits and substances while trying to balance neurotransmitters in the brain. I could not help but wonder about a complete health program being needed. While some people were not drinking, how could they have wellness without healthy foods and environments? I could not stay the entire time. As a nonsmoker, the thick gray tobacco fog was overwhelming.

Research on caffeine shows that it is dangerous in acute toxicity situations that can very with the individual. This is less likely to occur at or less than 400 mg per day, which is about four cups of coffee. The concentration of caffeine can vary depending upon type, source, and preparation or brewing of coffee. Two cups of strong or six cups of weak coffee can have the same 400 mg caffeine level.

At 500 mg to multi-gram doses caffeine becomes increasingly toxic. Studies state it is possible that as little as 3 grams can be lethal, which is roughly 30 cups of coffee. The difficulty is that the amount many people consume daily can lead to chronic symptoms. The short list includes elevated blood pressure, heart palpitations and arrhythmias, tachycardia, anxiety, sleeplessness, and general sympathetic nervous system over-activation. Even one cup can disrupt the bodies natural sleep cycle as caffeine stimulates for hours.

Some athletes and bodybuilders have endorsed coffee. Caffeine does not enhance athletic performance in habitual users according to research. It is also only a short-term academic enhancer if useful at all. There is a difference between being awake and being at your rested best. One paper stated that coffee is taken by some to relieve stress. That may be the intent, however, it is fairly easy to show that it is actually a stressor. It is the brew of burnout.

What are the alternatives that may work while in college or elsewhere? Quality nutrition, safe affordable housing, and sleep are needed. I do not know of any way around those things. They are needs. Instead of caffeine, a cup of chamomile and focusing on deep breathing instead of thinking may help. These can help refresh us both mentally and physically.

The great herbalist Andrew Bentley told me the story of a person whose job required responding to stressful situations. They were burning out and just trying to keep going. Their health was in trouble. A few months of chamomile tea was restorative.

Listening to calming music for even a short while has positive effects for many. A relaxing bath with magnesium salts works for others. The key is to stop stressing and start soothing. We have to be kind to ourselves, even if others or life situations are not. Perhaps even being kind to someone else may lower your stress.

My final result with coffee was that it required about a year of rebalancing without it. Energy and mental focus were off. While it had partially worked for months to achieve an end, it is not something to recommend. A limited to no caffeine approach with healthy foods and environments is far better. To this day, I still stay away from java. My heart goes out to struggling students who are in the colleges and universities that should care more. Caffeine is not the solution. Caring is the answer.

Works Consulted

Aslam, Hafiz Muhammad, et al. “Assessment of pattern for consumption and awareness regarding energy drinks among medical students.” Archives of Public Health = Archives belges de sante publique. Vol. 71,1. Dec. 2013. 31.

Ferré, Sergi. “Mechanisms of the psychostimulant effects of caffeine: implications for substance use disorders.” Psychopharmacology. Vol. 233, 10. 2016. 1963-79.

Juliano, Laura M, et al. “Characterization of individuals seeking treatment for caffeine dependence.” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors : Journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors. Vol. 26,4. 2012. 948-54.

Persad, Leeana Aarthi Bagwath. “Energy drinks and the neurophysiological impact of caffeine.” Frontiers in Neuroscience. Vol. 5. 21 Oct. 2011. 116.

Viana, Carine, et al. “Detection and determination of undeclared synthetic caffeine in weight loss formulations using HPLC-DAD and UHPLC-MS/MS.” Journal of Pharmaceutical Analysis. Vol. 8,6. 2018. 366-372.

Wilk, Michal, et al. “The Acute Effect of Various Doses of Caffeine on Power Output and Velocity during the Bench Press Exercise among Athletes Habitually Using Caffeine.” Nutrients. Vol. 11,7. 27 Jun. 2019. 1465.

Wilk, Michal, et al. “The acute effects of caffeine intake on time under tension and power generated during the bench press movement.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Vol. 16,1. Feb. 2019. 8.

Willson, Cyril. “The clinical toxicology of caffeine: A review and case study.” Toxicology Reports. Vol. 5. Nov. 2018. 1140-1152.


Campus Coffee Company image is a work © Copyright 2019 Mark Cammack. All rights reserved.

The following public domain work was used:

cup of coffee image by wpclipart

© Copyright 2019 Mark Cammack. All rights reserved.