I officially lost my hospital coffee virginity two weeks ago (ie. drinking my first cup of Coffee within the hospital) – it was a big deal for me. To put things into context, sometimes it felt that a doctor who doesn’t drink coffee in a hospital was as common as a dancer in a strip club that’s a virgin. I was that odd virgin stripper up until now.
I had been totally against coffee, secluding myself from the medical community norms as a result, for a stubborn opinion I hadn’t fully considered.
My first ever coffee was at the age of 13 where a friend and I were working together putting stickers on buckets. We thought it would be cool to drink a coffee with 7 spoons worth while at work to speed things up and increase our efficiency, but unsurprisingly the coffee didn’t speed things up 😛 Instead I had an over-reaction to coffee where I couldn’t focus, became totally unaware of my environment and I promised myself to never drink coffee again.
It’s funny that this one experience had a huge long-term consequence on me, limiting my opinion of coffee without ever allowing me to objectively consider its benefits and harms. I always considered coffee to be harmful for you (along with “common public wisdom”), and this experience subconsciously blocked me from examining that perspective.
Things changed as I was recently listening to a Podcast with Dr Sanjiv Chopra, a professor of Medicine at Harvard, where his top health recommendation was drink more coffee. If it were anyone else, I would have probably dismissed the recommendation as typical health propaganda by some random guru, but because of his credentials I decided to look further into it. I found this Harvard article which summarises the research around Coffee from 2001, where benefits were first found, and a whole lot more studies finding further benefits up until now, where there is surprising consensus around the benefits of Coffee. The studies that the article links to found that long term coffee consumption reduced cardiovascular disease risk, type II diabetes, Liver Cirrhosis, Suicide risk and Prostate Cancer risk amongst others.
I’ll be the first to admit, these studies are not fully conclusive being based on observational studies rather than the Medicine gold standard of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs), because of the ethical difficulty of setting up an RCT with a substance most believe to be harmful in the long term. However, many have adjusted for confounding factors and analysed huge population sample sizes to reduce the error, and have still found similar results. More articles are linked below in case you’re interested in reading further.
Now, while I could wait another 20 years before fully-designed RCT results would come out with more conclusive long term effects (it took that long to figure out the effects of smoking for example), I decided it was worth a shot experimenting with coffee at the very least, starting with half a coffee each day with the goal of up-titrating to about 4-5 coffees/day over the next 6 months. This way I’d get to see how it affects my body in the short term, and whether the benefits like increased concentration would outweigh the harms such as difficulty sleeping.
Each time I’d tell someone about having started drinking coffee, it was either with enthusiasm and encouragement from the coffee drinkers, or doubt/shocked horror from those who didn’t drink coffee – each having a pre-set mindset around the topic that wasn’t easily changed. Some dug further into it the evidence for themselves, but even when digging, many of those only agreed with the articles which matched their beliefs the closest. A similar thing happened when I wrote about why I want to be a billionaire, with people either loving or hating it depending on their pre-set opinion. If you asked me a year ago, I would have hated the billionaire post too, having been a naive young student with respect to my attitude towards money and impact.
On a bigger picture, the thing is, change is hard. It feels shameful to announce change since it implies you were previously wrong. That’s why we don’t like talking about change in society, instead labelling people as fixed, constant characters who we never expect to change. This is why the question “What have you changed your mind about in the last year?” is one of the most insightful interview questions there are – it reveals how willing you are to change, at what scale and frequency, and gives an idea of your method of reasoning.
Off course changes in lifestyle don’t always have to be drastic, but as a young person, I think there’s still far too much to explore for moving in slow increments. I for example am changing more slowly in terms of study technique given that I’ve been training myself for years (though thankfully there’s been some positive progress there too), but when it comes to career decisions, you’ll hear me regularly change my answers. Some days I say I want to be a cardiologist, other days working in healthcare management, and other days in healthcare entrepreneurship or consulting. I used to struggle with this uncertainty like we all struggle in choosing subjects, job offers, or career paths to take until we’ve made a decision, but I’ve come to be content with the uncertainty, developing broad skills which allow me flexibility, rather than locking myself down to one pathway and forcing a decision.
So off course, the key takeaway here far more important than coffee is around change – specifically how frequently we are changing, and by how much. An exercise I do for myself is write a reflective piece on my thoughts and progress every 6 months. Amazingly, every time I read back on the other pieces before writing my new reflection, I am consistently surprised at how stupid I used to be. Granted, extrapolating from history, I’m likely to find this post itself stupid in 6 months time, but at least to me, that will be a sign of progress rather than stagnation.
I look forward to making many more changes in lifestyle and opinion, and hope you consider doing so too.
Extra literature for the interested: Here’s a whole lot more systematic review articles you might want to start with, showing coffee consumption resulting in a dose-response decrease in risk of Cirrhosis, Depression (yes, they found that coffee lowers your risk of depression), Cardiovascular Disease, Endometrial Cancer (Published in the prestigious Nature Journal), Colorectal Cancer and an even more general overall cancer risk per cup of coffee consumed. I literally just linked most of the first-page results when googling “meta-analysis on coffee consumption”, but feel free to research things further or more comprehensively than I did – happy reading!