Day 6

Michael Pollan's deep dive into caffeine reveals a world hooked on a substance that helped shape our world

In his new audiobook, Michael Pollan says caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug on earth and that it has played an outsized role in shaping the modern world, for better and worse.

About 80 per cent of the world is addicted, he says in his new audiobook

According to journalist and author Michael Pollan, the rise of coffee came during the age of enlightenment. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Can't start the morning without the jolt from a freshly brewed cup of coffee? Don't worry, you're not alone.

Upward of 80 per cent of the world's population thrives on the buzz from caffeine, according to author and journalist Michael Pollan.

It's the most widely-used psychoactive drug in the world — and yes, its users are addicted.

"The first cup of coffee, the pleasure we feel in that, is not so much the euphoria of the drug but the fact that we are suppressing these withdrawal symptoms and we're back to baseline," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"We're all existing in a slightly altered consciousness."

In his new audiobook Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World, Pollan unravels the history of coffee, and its caffeine sibling tea, and documents his own experience quitting the drug cold turkey.

Michael Pollan is the author and narrator of Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World, an original audiobook. (Jeannette Montgomery Barron)

Although he only "nursed" a single half-caf coffee each morning, with green tea sprinkled throughout the afternoon, he says giving up caffeine was an unpleasant challenge.

"It took about a week before I could write an email with any kind of coherence," he explained.

"My kind of baseline consciousness was a caffeinated consciousness. That was what had become normal."

Coffee over alcohol

In his book, Pollan links the rise of caffeine-based drinks to the Enlightenment, a period of intellectual and philosophical thinking spanning Europe from the 17th to early 19th centuries.

At the time, alcohol was the beverage of choice as the fermentation process disinfected water. That meant many people were frequently tipsy.

While some jobs like digging trenches or farming, he says, could be done while a bit boozy, it made anything involving numbers, language and operating machinery tricky or ill-advised.

Coffee and tea, disinfected once boiled and without the side effects of alcohol, proved a suitable alternative.

"It also contributed to a culture, especially in England and France, this coffee house culture that takes off in the 1650s and, for a century, you have this wonderful flourishing of this institution," Pollan said.

As meeting places for face-to-face commerce, coffee houses gave rise to businesses and institutions including the London Stock Exchange and fuelled, Pollan argues, an even bigger movement.

"It's hard to imagine an industrial revolution without caffeine," he said.

Helpful, to a point

Despite its addictive nature, there are tangible benefits to using caffeine, Pollan says. 

"People learn better; they remember better. They perform on various tests of physical and mental skill better," he explained. "It does make our minds work better."

When it comes to work, employees may find themselves better focused and more productive while caffeinated. It's no accident, Pollan says, that companies began offering workers "coffee breaks."

While caffeine does have benefits, it also disrupts sleep. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

But with those benefits come some drawbacks. While caffeine use doesn't necessarily result in less sleep, it does reduce quality of sleep.

"There's one very important kind of sleep called deep or slow wave sleep ... when your brain does a lot of kind of taking out the garbage. [It's] figuring out what memories to consolidate and which ones to let go from the day," Pollan explained.

For coffee and tea drinkers, the amount of slow wave sleep people get each night diminishes.

While writing the audiobook, Pollan stayed away from caffeine for three months — but by the end, it was time for a cup of joe.

His first cup was well-planned and "felt fantastic," he said.

"I was incredibly industrious. I happily cleaned my closet that day. I unsubscribed from like 100 listservs that were bugging me on my email."

Though he says he performed better on only one coffee a week — usually on a Saturday — he quickly slipped back into old habits.

"I found myself in Scandinavia in December, and, you know, when it gets dark at 2:45 in the afternoon, and everyone around you is drinking caffeine, I succumbed."

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview produced by Annie Bender.

To hear the full interview with Michael Pollan, download our podcast or click Listen above.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.