June 4, 2010

Wake up to fact that coffee does not make us more alert

DICK AHLSTROM , Science Editor

COFFEE IS prized around the world as a helpful pick-me-up in the morning, but the notion it makes you more alert may be no more than an illusion according to new research.

The study showed that non-users or occasional coffee drinkers got no boost in alertness after having the caffeine from a cup-and-a-half of coffee.

And moderate to heavy users did no more after caffeine than reach their normal levels of alertness, the coffee only reversing their overnight caffeine deprivation.

This will come as a huge disappointment to those of us who just cannot function in the morning without the helpful effects of a cup of java.

Clearly the Irish have a grĂ¡ for the beverage. We knock back 3.5kg of beans per capita each year according to 2008 statistics from the World Resource Institute. This puts us at 37th in a list of 181 countries, behind the US in 26th place with a per capita consumption of 4.2kg but ahead of the British who are 47th with a 2.8kg consumption.

Mind you, if we did not have tea available our coffee consumption would probably be in the top 10. This is dominated by the Scandinavian countries with Finland leading the way with 12kg per capita per year.
A decade ago Ireland had the highest per capita consumption of tea in the world, at 3.2kg per person per year.

We were knocking back the equivalent of an average of four cups of cha each every day.
As tea consumption slowed, the coffee began to flow.

But if you believe it gives you a genuine lift you could be mistaken, according to the researchers in Britain and Germany who published their findings yesterday in the academic journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
They were trying to separate the two effects of coffee which varies from person to person, depending on genetic make-up.

Some consumers feel a stimulating effect while others experience a state of mild anxiety.
The researchers gave either a placebo or caffeine to 379 subjects divided into two groups: those who avoided or seldom drank coffee and moderate-to-heavy users. They found that low-level users did not see any boost in alertness.

The moderate to heavy users, if deprived of caffeine as a result of receiving a placebo, reported headaches and a decrease in alertness. But those who got their caffeine hit returned to a normal level of alertness, the researchers said.

They put this down to caffeine “tolerance” due to frequent consumption.
The subjects may have felt better able to face the world, “but no net benefit for alertness is gained, as caffeine abstinence reduces alertness and consumption merely returns it to baseline”, they concluded.