How Caffeine Addiction Changed History

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

There is a stunning correlation between caffeine arrival and the progress many civilisations had. The moment caffeine starts trending in a region, it transforms that society into a thriving superpower.

After ninth-century traders imported coffee plants from Ethiopia to the middle east, the region saw a stunning transformation. People made advances in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, and more — a period known as the Islamic golden age.

For a thousand years, drinking tea was limited to monks in their monasteries. This beverage facilitated the concentration and attention to the present moment meditation required. But the moment the Tang dynasty (seventh century) popularised tea as a people’s beverage, China experienced its most revered golden age.

While Europeans were latecomers to tea and coffee, Europe experienced its greatest transformations after these plants landed on its shores (in the 16th century through trades with Turkey, China and India).

Coffee and tea cleared minds that had been clouded by alcohol in 17 and 18 century Europe. In fact, stale water was so deadly, children and adults alike flock to beer and cider instead — fermentation made alcohol a much safer option. By drinking hot tea and coffee instead of stale water, caffeine decreased microbial infections in unprecedented ways. And since constipation was a serious matter in that period, the laxative effect of caffeine catalysed its popularity even more.

In 18-century England and France, coffee shops were the only spaces where men of different classes could mix. This egalitarian atmosphere promoted democratic and liberal ideals.

Coffee shops were so ripe with information that British people started calling them “penny universities”. You paid a penny for a cup of coffee, then indulged in all manners of free media consumption: newspapers, books, magazines, all topped with stimulating conversations. Frustrated with a male monopoly of coffee shops, English women started their own caffeine revolution: the afternoon tea.

Coffee shops and tea salons were like high school clubs. Each hosted a particular group of people sharing the same interests: literature, poetry, science, politics, arts, and even stock trading — no wonder two of the most prominent landmarks of capitalism, the London Stock and the New York Stock Exchanges, spawned from coffee shops.

Long before the coffee break, physical workers had beer breaks. But for labourers working with machines, bookkeeping, and numbers, a mind dulled by alcohol was a hazard to both safety and productivity. Thus, caffeine became the ideal drug for those seeking alertness, energy, focus, and attention to detail.

Before coffee, tea, and energy drinks, people simply worked from sunrise to sunset. The whole idea of a late shift, let alone a night shift, was inconceivable — the human body would simply not allow it. Caffeine liberated bodies from their dependence on daylight, unlocking new levels of productivity never seen before.

In the 1950s, US textile companies noticed that, after offering their female workers short breaks with tea and coffee, these women became much more productive, endured longer working hours, and produced higher quality work. Thus, the coffee break was born, and with it, an unprecedented US economic growth.

Caffeine helped win wars. During the American Civil War, each Union soldier was issued 16 kg of coffee a year. And because of the economic blockade the south experienced, confederate soldiers were deprived of it. This caffeine imbalance gave a clear edge to one army over the other.

The spread of caffeine is arguably one of the most defining events in human history. It’s hard to imagine the political, cultural, and intellectual upheaval that coffee shops fostered happening in taverns. It’s not that crazy to infer that tea and coffee ushered the Renaissance, caused the Enlightenment, and propelled the industrial revolution, capitalism, and democracy.

According to journalist and bestselling author Micheal Pollan, you won’t comprehend the role caffeine plays in your life until you completely stop consuming it — let’s say, for a few weeks — then come back to it all of a sudden. In fact, the author did just that and had one of the most spectacular highs. He recounts the experience in his latest book: This Is Your Mind On Plants.

Today, caffeine is the world’s most consumed psychoactive drug (with roughly 90% active users on the planet). Whether it’s coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, energy drinks, tablets, chewing gum, caffeine is hooking children and adults alike.

Long ago, the plants that contain caffeine were limited to a few corners of East Africa (coffee plants) and a small region in south China (tea plants). But once humans discovered their energising effects, these plants colonised areas that stretched from Africa to Asia to America. Today, 27 million acres of land and 25 million workers are dedicated to providing you with your favourite coffee cup.

After decades of research and countless studies, it’s becoming clear that caffeine improves both mental and physical performance. Caffeine boosts memory, focus, alertness, attention to detail, psychomotor skills, and learning ability.

Suppose you’re a caffeine regular and would suddenly stop getting your fix. In that case, the lack of caffeine in your system will make you tired, irritable, lethargic, demotivated, headachy, and unable to focus. In a worst-case scenario, you’ll suffer intense distress and a complete loss of confidence.

Not to mention that tea and coffee are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In fact, regular and moderate caffeine consumption is linked to lower risks of cancer of the breast, prostate, colorectal, and womb, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and depression. Is caffeine making us live longer? Most probably yes.

While caffeine abuse may disrupt the quality of your sleep, research suggests that moderate caffeine intake (400 millilitres or four cups a day) contribute more to your health than it takes away.

Wherever they landed, tea and coffee transformed the society that consumed them for the better. They fostered a rational, more linear way of thinking that promoted technological and industrial progress. No wonder historians called coffee the “civil drink.” As such, caffeine deserves a rank alongside other history-changing tools such as fire, agriculture, and the domestication of animals.

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Physicist • Soft Dev • ☕ Junkie • I bring you the latest in science, tech, health, economics & personal growth. To read all: https://youneshenni.substack.com/

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Younes Henni, PhD

Younes Henni, PhD

Physicist • Soft Dev • ☕ Junkie • I bring you the latest in science, tech, health, economics & personal growth. To read all: https://youneshenni.substack.com/

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