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Despite unhealthy buzz, coffee craze hits school

By Aaron Orbey

It’s simple: every morning, before making her way into school, Alicia Kaneb ’13 downs at least 16 ounces of coffee, without which, she added, her day just doesn’t go right.

“If I don’t have coffee, I feel tired, unmotivated, and unhappy,” she said. “If I have coffee, I feel energetic and happy. I’m in a much better mood.”

Even Alicia’s fix doesn’t quite do the trick for some students, though, a further reflection of a growing trend in coffee consumption—even addiction, some say—at BB&N. What’s the daily dose for Julia Taibl ’13?

“Two cups in the morning and then usually another cup in the afternoon is what I go with,” she said. “If it’s not coffee, then it’s diet coke, and otherwise, I can’t stay awake.”

Though the quantities vary, the motivation remains largely the same for many BB&N students who find themselves hooked to caffeine’s various forms: expanding time available to complete work. In a school environment where classes, sports, and extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a day, many students said using caffeine to stay awake, though not an absolute necessity, often proves the easiest solution to a stressful schedule.

“I usually drink coffee because I am getting tired and still have work to do or I need a little boost in the morning,” said Noah Bierbrier ’14, who added that he drinks three to five cups of coffee in a week. “I don’t think the BB&N environment forces someone to drink coffee, per se, but with the amount of work we may be given on a certain day, it can seem necessary.”

Sheer workload, though, isn’t the only reason some students consume so much caffeine.

“There’s a good social aspect to it,” Alicia said. “There’s definitely a pressure to drink coffee, more so than with alcohol, I’d say.”

Upper School Counselor Doug Neuman said this pressure is perhaps the most distinctive and worrisome aspect of the school’s coffee culture.

“It feeds in a little bit to this sense of the badge of honor to be the most stressed and most worked among students at the school,” he said. “And we as counselors would caution against that because it leads to high rates of burnout. I think there are lots of people in this community who can offer other ways to help kids be accomplished, get things done, but stay healthier and happier.”

The school’s policy, which prohibits serving coffee to students, aims, in part, to prevent students from becoming hooked to a substance affiliated with so many long-term health dangers. Head Chef Keith Jones also attributed the rule to “general health rules most dining services departments would follow at any school, public or private.”

“Our [school’s administrative] policy is that we are not allowed to provide students with regular coffee, cola, or caffeinated drinks,” Mr. Jones added. “The beverages offered in the morning are all low or no caffeine drinks like hot chocolate or decaf coffee.”

Upper School Nurse Julie Lindstrom added, “There are so many health risks associated with overuse. I can’t think of any secondary school that serves coffee.”

And this policy, in many senses, is a good thing. For all the benefits that some students link to their coffee consumption, equal drawbacks linger. Caffeine intoxication is recognized as a clinical syndrome in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as well as in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases. Its symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, gastrointestinal upset, rapid heartbeat, and, in some rare cases, even death.

“It’s difficult to totally monitor the effects of caffeine in the body because that chemical is going to affect, of course, the stress hormones, and it’s going to magnify the effects of any stressors,”
Director of Health and Fitness Henri Andre said. For that reason, he added, chugging coffee late at night will actually tend to hurt the quality of a student’s work and concentration.

“With too much coffee, you won’t be able to concentrate. You become jittery. You become anxious to the point where your performance is going to be detrimentally affected,” he said.

According to Upper School Counselor Doug Neuman, this habit of late-night coffee consumption reflects a larger tendency common to many students faced with rigorous academic demands: the unhealthy sacrifice of sleep to succeed in school. Take a student who realizes, a few hours before midnight, that he or she hasn’t studied much for a test the next day and would do well to fit in a few hours of work but can feel his or her eyes closing steadily.

“I think there’s the misperception that if you stay up and keep burning hard and sacrifice sleep, you’ll get more done,” Mr. Neuman said. “But anything happening after about 11:00 PM is working at significantly decreased efficiency. You’re so tired that your mind can’t think.”

Nurse Julie added, “If you’re using caffeine late at night, you’re going to sleep, but not the same quality. The next morning, you’re not fully awake, and you’re not really learning, so my advice is, go to bed earlier. You’re better off coming to school when you’re wide awake, able to focus, and able to learn.”

Especially at stressful points in the year, though, this advice can feel deceptive. Alicia, Julia, and Noah, who all participate in Varsity Crew after a day of classes, said BB&N’s workload often reaches a point where forgoing an assignment or a late night of studying feels impossible—a prospect toward which, Noah and Alicia added, most teachers wouldn’t be lenient at all. This fear leads to unhealthy and unpleasant trends.

“My lack of sleep really is in direct correlation to the BB&N workload,” Alicia added.

Upper School Counselor Sarah Vollmann said although going to bed rather than staying up late can seem misleading advice from teachers, she believes that faculty response to specific student concerns would ultimately be positive.

“I think students are frustrated because they’re being told to get all this work done and get sleep, so it becomes a real dilemma,” she said. “There’s only so many hours in a day. But I think most teachers would be very receptive [to such problems], and I think it’s a balancing act.”

Mr. Neuman and Mr. Andre emphasized that avoiding caffeine remains the better long term option, too. For a student who feels addicted to coffee, the risks extend beyond his or her four years at BB&N.

“Then, the worry is that the same student is going to have the same approach going into college,” Mr. Neuman said. “There’s a much higher risk for that student doing a complete crash and burn later, and they need to ask themselves, ‘Is it really worth it?’”

Mr. Andre added, “It has always been a topic of dilemma. Scientifically speaking, you cannot say that coffee is a drug in the sense that it doesn’t have the same addictive power as nicotine or cocaine. Yet physically, you create a dependence to it, a tolerance, a habit, and these effects are noticed obviously later when you quit using caffeine.”

Drinking coffee in moderation, though—and not to stay up excessively late—is no problem, according to Mr. Andre.

“The best would be to drink it furthest from the time when you go to sleep,” he said, adding that the body takes roughly 7 to 10 hours to rid of 75% of the caffeine in a cup of coffee.

Nurse Julie also said if a student avoids dependence, coffee is not an exclusively harmful indulgence.

“It’s got to do more with what role the caffeine plays in your life,” she said.

Education about caffeine and its effects could aid students’ relationships with coffee, Mr. Andre added. Although he tries to include such discussion with his Health and Fitness classes and within the Athletic Department, Mr. Andre said such efforts have limited effects and would require more universal support.

“A lot of students are not athletes. We would need to have eventually a class not just for coffee, but for health,” he said.

Such an initiative—a comprehensive B-12 Health Education Program spearheaded by Mr. Andre—had actually reached the final stages of planning during the 2005-6 academic year. Even after approval on all three campuses from the Educational Policy Committee (EPC), though, the program never went into effect.

“It was all accepted by the EPC, but administratively, there was difficulty finding the time to make it happen,” Mr. Andre said. “The last time the committee met was in 2006, in September. The program is all ready to go. But it’s a logistical issue. It’s on hold, [but] hopefully, [that] will change.”

He adds, however, that he thinks such a program will eventually take shape due to its potential benefits.

“Considering the growing interest and support from parents, students and the entire community for the physical & intellectual benefits that such a program would provide, I’m confident that the school, like many others, will offer a weekly health class for everyone in the future,” he said.

Until then, many students—even those who admit to staying up late—have discovered other, healthier ways to keep energized. Ella Driscoll ’13, for instance, makes the choice not to drink coffee.

“I drink green tea,” she said, an option that Mr. Andre recommends instead of a latte or espresso. Per cup, green tea generally contains less caffeine than most coffee drinks.

For Ryan Simpson ’13, fruit juice is an alternative hit—due to its high sugar content—when he needs a boost.

“If ever I really feel tired, I’ll have a couple of glasses of grape juice, and usually that can kind of keep me awake,” he said. “Tea is great, too. It depends on your body. You kind of have to know what’s your thing and what works for you.”

Sophie Attie and Stephanie McLaughlin (both ’16) said coffee hardly increases their productivity, so they stay away from it.

“I drink it sometimes, on occasion,” Stephanie said. “It doesn’t really help.”

“It’s kind of gross,” Sophie added. “I don’t feel that much of a difference. There are some freshmen I know who do drink coffee, but not that many.”

For Sophie, a snack in the evening works more effectively if she needs to stay up. She added that doing work in an environment separate from the room she sleeps in also allows her to push through sleepiness.

And, ultimately, alternative solutions to coffee offer advantages beyond the health-related pluses.

“Coffee is a huge investment,” Alicia said. “The stuff is not cheap, especially if you fancy a latte. It can cost upwards of four dollars a day, too.”

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