What Your Pandemic Coffee Habit Is Doing to Your Body

We're relying on caffeine to get through the day, and for some coffee drinkers it's a destructive cycle.
February 11, 2021, 2:54pm
Illustration of hands reaching out from inside a coffee cup
Illustration: @lenny_maya

This article originally appeared on VICE en Español.

The year 2020 changed us in all sorts of ways. As COVID-19 spread across the world, we had to adapt our routines to lockdowns and restrictive measures, developing some much-needed coping mechanisms along the way. For many of us, one of those was coffee.

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During Colombia’s first lockdown, which lasted from March to September of 2020, coffee consumption rose sharply. The National Federation of Coffee Growers reported that, in March, April and May of 2020, Colombians drank 30 percent, 24 percent and 26 percent more coffee respectively, compared to the same period in 2019.

According to Échele Cabeza, an organisation raising awareness about psychoactive substances, caffeine was the third most-used psychoactive substance during lockdown, with many people who didn’t drink coffee before deciding to get on board. The consultancy company COFFEEBI reported that the European market has also seen an increase in at-home coffee consumption, mirrored by an uptick in sales of coffee and coffee machines for domestic use.

Diana Agudelo, psychologist and associate professor at Universidad de los Andes, said the monotony of lockdown has forced us to use more brainpower just to cope with daily life. Many of her patients reported feeling tired and overwhelmed by having to work, clean the house, cook and look after their families all at the same time, resulting in a huge cognitive effort as tiring as physical exercise. Parents have had a particularly hard time improvising as teachers while fulfilling work duties. As a result, many have relied on a few extra cups of coffee to provide that boost.

For journalist María Fernanda Fitzgerald, 27, from Bogotá, the blurred line between work and home life meant she went from five to ten cups a day. “It happened totally subconsciously,” she said. “When I was tired, I’d grab a coffee. It made me very anxious, but at first I thought I was just feeling the effects of the lockdown.” 

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Besides staving off the home-office-induced brain fog, we’ve also been turning to caffeine more often because we’ve been sleeping worse. Multiple scientific studies have shown our quality of sleep has decreased during the pandemic, causing daily dysfunction. Agudelo said three factors are contributing to our sleeping troubles. First of all, lack of stimulation, like social contact or activities outside the home; secondly, the change in our sleep patterns due to remote work, with people sleeping in or taking naps throughout the day; and lastly, increased anxiety levels.

In fact, the pandemic has also triggered a global mental health crisis, with more people than ever experiencing anxiety, stress and depression. These feelings can affect our sleep and drive us to lean on caffeine during the day. It’s a vicious cycle, with caffeine in turn affecting our sleep for the worse. “Having coffee raises your tolerance, so you have to keep upping the dose to feel the effects,” Agudelo said. No one will judge you for drinking a few more coffees a day, but Agudelo warns that the combination of anxiety, caffeine consumption and sleep deprivation can lead to mental health issues.

For Laura Morales, 24, lockdown began while she was in the middle of an intense journalism internship at a news station in Medellín. Her workdays were only made longer and more intense by remote work. To get everything done, Morales would work from 10AM to 3AM the following day, drinking more and more coffee to compensate for her lack of sleep. Then, she had a breakdown

“I was under a lot of pressure. I started to shake uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop crying, I felt suffocated,” she said. “It took me a while to calm down.” Morales realised that coupled with the incredible stress, coffee hadn’t helped her state of mind – before the breakdown, she’d already noticed her legs would start shaking after her third daily cup. She gave up caffeine, started drinking decaf and eventually quit her job. Now that she’s at her new position, she’s given coffee another go, but says the drink still makes her feel sick. 

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Valeria Querubín, who works in communications in Medellín, also had to cut back on her coffee intake after a nervous breakdown. She said coffee helped to pick her up when her mood crashed, but in the long run it also took a toll on her nerves. “I started having trouble sleeping,” she said. “I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work stuff, and I chewed my fingernails until I bled.”

Agudelo explained that when you’re anxious, your sympathetic nervous system gets fired up. This is the part of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for localised adjustments – such as sweating as a response to higher temperatures – and reflex adjustments of the cardiovascular system. It’s also responsible for our fight-or-flight response, which is how your body reacts to stress on a physiological level. 

“It’s the same autonomic response activated by caffeine,” Agudelo said. In other words, consuming coffee activates the same reaction centres in our bodies as those triggered by stress. To be able to fall asleep, your body needs to deactivate your sympathetic nervous system and switch on your parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates resting functions. But that’s much harder when you have caffeine in your system.

Medellín native Andrea Yepes, 26, said she now only drinks coffee when she takes a break from work, instead of mindlessly sipping it at her desk. She goes out on the balcony of her Bogotá apartment and leaves her computer behind, a step that helps her associate the drink with rest rather than productivity. Santiago Hernández, 27, began experimenting with different brewing techniques, taking his time during the coffee-making process to reflect on the rhythm of his day.

Another strategy to drink less coffee is maintaining an active routine while working from home, as recommended by Agudelo. This includes waking up at a certain time and getting dressed, even if you’re not going anywhere. 

Coffee can be an ally if you’re struggling to find the energy to get through your daily chores, but if you feel like you’re reaching for caffeine too often, you might want to take a step back and think before you pour.