Caffeine: The world’s most popular psychoactive drug

The I’m sure not coffee-fueled bloggers/writers over at Smithsonian magazine have answered a question that we’re too tired and sleepy to ask: Why we get addicted to caffeine.

And just so no one thinks we don’t realize there’s a teeny, tiny, itsy-bitsy downside to drinking coffee, we’re passing on how humans get too attached to what they claim is the “world’s most popular psychoactive drug”:

Soon after you drink (or eat) something containing caffeine, it’s absorbed through the small intestine and dissolved into the bloodstream. Because the chemical is both water- and fat-soluble (meaning that it can dissolve in water-based solutions—think blood—as well as fat-based substances, such as our cell membranes), it’s able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain.

Structurally, caffeine closely resembles a molecule that’s naturally present in our brain, called adenosine (which is a byproduct of many cellular processes, including cellular respiration)—so much so, in fact, that caffeine can fit neatly into our brain cells’ receptors for adenosine, effectively blocking them off. Normally, the adenosine produced over time locks into these receptors and produces a feeling of tiredness.

When caffeine molecules are blocking those receptors, they prevent this from occurring, thereby generating a sense of alertness and energy for a few hours. Additionally, some of the brain’s own natural stimulants (such as dopamine) work more effectively when the adenosine receptors are blocked, and all the surplus adenosine floating around in the brain cues the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline, another stimulant.

Then it goes into an even more fascinating aspect: why we need more and more:

In people who take advantage of this process on a daily basis (i.e. coffee/tea, soda or energy drink addicts), the brain’s chemistry and physical characteristics actually change over time as a result. The most notable change is that brain cells grow more adenosine receptors, which is the brain’s attempt to maintain equilibrium in the face of a constant onslaught of caffeine, with its adenosine receptors so regularly plugged (studies indicate that the brain also responds by decreasing the number of receptors for norepinephrine, a stimulant). This explains why regular coffee drinkers build up a tolerance over time—because you have more adenosine receptors, it takes more caffeine to block a significant proportion of them and achieve the desired effect.

And the piece ends, as it of course should, on a high note: “The good news is that, compared to many drug addictions, the effects are relatively short-term.” After a week or two, you can break the addiction as you get all those receptors back to their “baseline levels.”

But why would we want to do that?

Posted by Steve


No coffee, no … hangover?

Although some may argue that alcohol doesn’t fit the yogi lifestyle all that well, the Ashtangis we know (and particularly love) don’t mind uncorking a bottle of wine, popping the top off a bottle of beer or (our favorites) pouring some brown stuff into a wide-bottomed glass.

Anyway, given our unofficial motto, you just had to figure we’d have to pass this news on: Researchers have turned coffee grounds into alcohol. The amazing news comes from the magazine Science:

Used coffee grounds produced a new alcoholic beverage with 40% ethanol, comparable to other hard liquor such as vodka and tequila, researchers will report in the September issue of LWT – Food Science and Technology. To evaluate the product, eight trained taste testers were brought in and rated the intensity of different smells and flavors in the alcohol. The judges described the drink as smelling like coffee and tasting bitter and pungent. Researchers noted that the taste could be improved with age and concluded that the quality was good enough for consumption. Don’t count on the caffeine to keep you awake, however; most of it disappears in the brewing process.

Why isn’t the description: “smelling like coffee and tasting like coffee?” Oh, right, we’ve got to get a little snobby in our description. Which reminds me: My asana practice on Wednesday was sweat-forward, with a hint of agony, and a strong finish of relief.

Posted by Steve

Yogi diet: At last, we know what ‘gluten-free’ means

The title, before anyone writes anything, is a joke. Of course we know what “gluten-free” means. It’s just that the U.S. government didn’t, before now:

People with celiac disease can now have confidence in the meaning of a “gluten-free” label on foods.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a final rule that defines what characteristics a food has to have to bear a label that proclaims it “gluten- free.” The rule also holds foods labeled “without gluten,” “free of gluten,” and “no gluten” to the same standard.

This rule has been eagerly awaited by advocates for people with celiac disease, who face potentially life-threatening illnesses if they eat the gluten found in breads, cakes, cereals, pastas and many other foods.

As one of the criteria for using the claim “gluten-free,” FDA is setting a gluten limit of less than 20 ppm (parts per million) in foods that carry this label. This is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific analytical tools. Also, most people with celiac disease can tolerate foods with very small amounts of gluten. This level is consistent with those set by other countries and international bodies that set food safety standards.

The FDA released that last Friday. So now you know.

If you look over to the side of this blog, you’ll see our “Yogi diet” includes no wheat. It isn’t because either of us has celiac disease; it’s just that we’ve found we feel better, keep a more regulated weight (no wheat belly) and don’t get various sugar highs and lows when we aren’t eating wheat. All of that is caused by a change in modern wheat’s amino acids.

I haven’t seen anything that tried to link that change to the rise in celiac disease. In a lot of ways, the no-wheat thing when not attached to gluten-free is still sort of “out there.” (And it’s a bummer when you think about dosas or naan.) It’s our greatest nod to that vast changes that a yoga routine can cause (or the havoc it can wreck). But it is one we can’t but embrace.

And, to be clear: This FDA pronouncement doesn’t change things at all for us. We avoid gluten-free products like the plague because they are processed.

Posted by Steve

Yogi Diet: The Smoothie Gap

In one of those TV show motifs that I often wish I could more efficiently do as a writer, I’ll begin by saying, “Previously on the Confluence Countdown…”

About six years ago, after suffering from mounting health problems I won’t go into because it’s tedious even for me to talk about, I tried (at the semi-desperate recommendation of my doctor) a raw diet. My sister recently visited from Texas, and I described it to her as “the craziest of crazy California diets.” I try not to eat anything cooked, or even heated over 118 degrees. She looked at me as if I said I was a cannibal.

It was a gradual process. I’ve stuck with it because the results were immediate, tangible, and in my blood work and bone density tests.

Because it’s a health and not a religious thing, it wasn’t one hundred percent and it wasn’t immediate. I still ate (and still eat) cooked foods on occasion, but I had a very hard time giving up wheat. Eventually, everything went except coffee (which I will not give up because I’m not that crazy). And the results were so undeniable, so visible, that Steve switched over to a mostly raw, wheat-free diet (yes, you have to say that: we don’t eat even sprouted wheat, for even more complicated reasons).

Although I still eat cooked food out with friends and with family, everybody knows about my diet, so it always threatens to take over the conversation. It’s an issue at times at work: Once at a long lunch meeting I took out a container of raw jalapeno, cherry tomatoes, basil, mint, and green beans and started eating along with everyone else. The meeting carried on, but all eyes were on my container. A colleague sitting next to me couldn’t take it anymore, put down his tuna sandwich, and said, “That looks so healthy it’s making me feel sick.” Similar things happen with students: In office hours once, gazing over my lunch, I was asked if my diet meant I was a “hippie.”

I’ve even had to offer defense for it to Tim Miller and Nancy Gilgoff. Tim thinks it’s too extreme and Nancy thinks it’s too vata.

So every once in a while I have these kinds of Waterloo moments where I realize just how far down the rabbit hole I’ve gone. (How’s that for mixing metaphors?) It’s a moment when I realize how interconnected my life, my practice, and my diet have become. I’ve just had one of those moments in a series of Facebook messages on, of all things, smoothies. In particular, the use of fruit and protein powder.

When a friend I haven’t seen in a very long time posted a simple, “Anyone know any healthy smoothie recipes?” in her status, like an idiot, I chimed in. Amidst the suggestions of bananas and berries, I was talking hot peppers and ginger. As the conversation got more detailed, I began to see what I was suggesting might seem a little…crazy.

I am implying something.
I am implying something.

The smoothies Steve and I eat are more like liquified salads. Heck, they’re not even really salads, since there’s no lettuce. If it’s green, purple, or leafy we put it in. Here’s a list: all kale varieties, spinach, mint, parsley, cilantro, dill, cabbage, celery (with top), whole carrots (with tops), tomatoes, cucumber, broccoli, water cress, bok choi, oregano, and in a pinch, brussels sprouts. For extra flavor we’ve used ginger, whole lemons or limes (with peels). The liquid is filtered water. I’m not saying all this goes in at the same time, but any given smoothie could have five or six of these things. I ask you, is that not crazy? Still say no? What if I told you we have a couple 24-ouncers every day? My friend described this as “wretched.” Ah. You’re probably right, I thought.

So immune has this made us to sugar craving that we hardly eat any fruit. Fruit in a smoothie? Why? That’s when I knew I’d gone over the edge: Bananas seem like high sugar fruit to me. Eat a red banana or a plantain and you’ll see just how hyper-engineered a seedless, yellow banana is. And that we don’t consume any of that other smoothie staple, protein powder.

The mere suggestion that protein powder might not be all that good for you can garner you a great deal of disdain in some circles. But one of the earliest and simplest lessons I learned on a raw food diet came from Michael Pollan, who pointed out that if it needs a package—no matter what kind—it’s processed somehow. Protein powders are simply processed whole foods, and many of them are mostly wheat. Even raw protein powders are mostly processed peas. We just eat the peas. Sometimes, they go in a smoothie.

But this brings me to the less tangible repercussions of the way we eat. While it has made enormous differences in our health and well-being—really, beyond price—and while it’s clarified the practice of Ashtanga and eased that path to a great degree, made the impossible possible, it has also made it hard to connect with others over the dinner table, out in the world. I get concerned when I see a little girl munching on a bag of Goldfish. And I want to tell my friend on Facebook to leave the banana and the protein powder out.

So deep are the roots of this change, though, that I’ve come to realize it’s hard to change one thing without changing everything…eventually. For me, Ashtanga was the wedge that opened a crack in the shell of my old life, and as it widened, more changed, and more, and is still changing–an exciting and frightening thought, really.

Perhaps for my friend, the wedge is leaving out the banana.

Posted by Bobbie