Friday, March 14, 2008

Dr. Caffeine

Meet Dr. Caffeine. He's a fuzzy little bird who emits coarse, cackling chirps and lives with my younger son, the Tiger. When I asked the Tiger how Dr. Caffeine got his name, both my husband and the Bear broke into gales of laughter. My addiction is not a closely guarded secret.

But today, I'm not laughing. I've had to quit my vices, though only temporarily. A couple weeks ago I came down with a ferocious UTI. (I refrained from posting on this, though I was smitten with the title "TMI about a UTI." Count yourself lucky, dear reader.) Ten days of double-strength Bactrim killed the bacteria, but I still had enough pain that after a nearly sleepless night, I decided Wednesday morning that I'd better google "bladder diet" and do whatever it took to heal.

It turns out that the bladder diet involves siphoning most of the sensual pleasure out of your life. (Please bear in mind that the experts don't even mention sex, since you'd have to be both masochistic and foolish to try it under these circumstances.) It forbids, in roughly this order:
most fruit (including pretty much anything acidic)
Cigarettes are on the hit list too; lucky I don't smoke, or I'd really be pissed. (Pardon the really bad pun.) Otherwise, my vices are an almost-perfect match:
How am I doing? I gave up alcohol without a blink. It helps that the kids have been unnaturally easy the past few days, or I might be craving a nice glass of wine. Chocolate - well, maybe it should rank before alcohol on my vice list, because I did cheat last night, but only for fear that the dark chocolate Toblerone my husband brought back from Germany would disappear before I even tried it. I'm drinking lots of water and taking cranberry capsules and an acid neutralizer called Prelief.

But oh, the caffeine. I'd intended to go cold turkey, from two cups of coffee and a Diet Pepsi down to zero. I haven't quite managed. The first day, I ordered a crushed-ice drink at a coffee shop, virtuously going for the white chocolate since it's actually not chocolate, only to realize after the fact that I was feeling much better. Suspiciously better. Yesterday I had part of a Mountain Dew; today I finished it off (but only about 4 ounces - does that count)?

It's a blessing I never tried heroin.

I've never understood why doctors seem to feel it's no big deal to cut out caffeine. I was told to do this years ago when I was handed a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. But it's a major quality of life and performance issue for me. I'm sluggish and stupid without caffeine, I was then at the start of graduate school, and it was the one thing that seemed to give me any oomph while I was sick. So I reduced but didn't eliminate it. During pregnancy, I cut way back, partly because coffee repulsed me, but the only thing that seemed to help all-day morning sickness was saltines and a few slurps of regular Coke.

Contrary to public misperceptions, there's mounting evidence that caffeine is actually good for you. At Science Blogs, Chris Chatham of Developing Intelligence recently wrote that caffeine (in the form of coffee, which is also rich in antioxidants) may protect against Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and type 2 diabetes. Possible adverse cardiovascular effects can be balanced out, in his estimation, by a diet rich in flavonoids, which seem to be protective. In other words, since I eat my fruits, veggies, and soy, and I'm not at elevated risk for CVD, I see no reason to drink my coffee with a shot of guilt. I much prefer milk and sugar. (Flavonoids are also found in red wine, tea, and chocolate, which are momentarily verboten but otherwise count as health foods in my book.)

Of course, any addiction still comes with a price. I haven't had the typical caffeine-withdrawal headache. I haven't been more or less bitchy than usual. But I admit I'm feeling moronic. Cut out caffeine, and you chop about 10 points off my IQ. Maybe 30.

Chatham agrees that caffeine can enhance intelligence, but he might dispute my experience that it enhances higher-order reasoning:
Caffeine may increase the speed with which you work, may decrease attentional lapses, and may even benefit recall - but is less likely to benefit more complex cognitive functions, and may even hurt others. Plan accordingly (and preferably prior to consuming caffeine!)
In the rest of his post, which is pretty technical but worth the effort, Chatham lays out guidelines for getting the biggest cognitive buzz from your coffee buzz. The main trick is to consume it slowly but steadily. Sipping about 20 mg an hour is more effective than gulping down a large latte first thing in the morning. Adding a little sugar may further amplify caffeine's cognitive benefits.

(This has been a public service announcement dedicated to my students who are lurching into finals week.)

Apart from my stupidity, I'm grateful that this wretched diet seems to work. My pain is receding. I suppose I'll have to stick with this regimen for at least another week, cheating or not. But I just opened the coffee cabinet in the kitchen to get a cup for the Tiger, and out wafted the rich scent of seduction, awaiting that glorious day when Dr. Caffeine and I will resume our friendship as if we'd never had a falling out.

Disclaimer: This entire post was written in an undercaffeinated state. Be alert for errors, distortion, and muddled thinking. The author claims to be not fully accountable.

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