The debatable drug

The neighboring houses are still dark when Harold Dennison rises each morning.

His 5:30 a.m. ritual includes a few cups of coffee, which he refers to as “the fog lifter” because it’s a little stronger than the several million cups Americans reach for each day. Dennison, a process engineer, proudly boasts that he drinks 10 to 12 cups a day and admits he’s addicted to caffeine.

At any given company, on any given morning, it’s standing-room-only by the coffeepot. And as the java brews, people slowly come to life. A whopping 110 million Americans reach for the legal, addictive stimulant — more than three times the number that drink soft drinks and more than four times the number that quaff beer.

But like anything that seems too good to be true, the pick-me-up carries a price. Physicians argue over whether consumption leads to addiction and, as alcohol does, carries health risks.

The drug in coffee is caffeine, a crystalline alkaloid that affects the brain and artificially lessens fatigue. For the average drinker (two to four cups a day), the drink is relatively harmless. However, overconsumption causes insomnia and jitters, injection into human muscles causes paralysis, and a sudden accumulation in your body, say 10 grams or more, results in death. (The average cup of coffee contains between 66 and 280 milligrams of caffeine.)

According to Kurt Donsbach, Ph.D., an expert in holistic health care and author of more than 50 books and booklets, one or more cups of coffee causes your stomach temperature to rise 10 to 15 degrees. Your heart beats faster as blood vessels around the heart widen and those around the brain narrow. Your metabolic rate increases as your kidneys manufacture and discharge up to 100 percent more urine.

Many people write off coffee drinking as a harmless habit. But coffee meets two criteria for addiction — it is tolerated by the body in increasingly higher doses and its absence creates withdrawal symptoms. That second characteristic, accompanied by a loss of control, can be judged by your temperament before that first morning cup.

Simply ask yourself one question: Are you edgy before you get your java?

Kurt Donsbach, Ph.D., Web site