Unwitting addictions to seemingly harmless substances like tea and coffee can make our life a roller coaster ride.

Hot cups of tea/ coffee several times during the day. A stiff drink after a gruelling day at work. A smoke whenever you can. Candy or chocolate in-between … Habits as natural as breathing that do not merit a thought. Right? Wrong.

According to scientists, these are ways we have unwittingly acquired over time to cope with the stresses of life (see box). Most of the time, we are not even aware that we are “stressed” and use sugar, caffeine, alcohol etc — technically termed pick-me-ups — to restore balance to our overstressed brain.

Even mild stress affects our body systems — the brain is the first organ to change. Normally, vital chemicals carry messages between brain cells. “Happy messengers” (serotonin, noradrenalin, and dopamine) carry happy, upbeat messages. “Sad messengers” carry sad messages. Usually, our nerve centers receive a balanced input from both types of messengers and life runs evenly. However, during stress, the happy messages begin to fail.

Initial high

Pick-me-ups restore the supply of happy messengers to the brain, albeit temporarily. The inherent appeal of candies, chocolates and mithaimake sugar the most popular pick-me-up. Caffeine — the second-most widely used one — is a brain-active drug found not only in coffee, but also in chocolate, in sodas, and many teas. Alcohol helps us sleep and increases our sense of well being. Cigarettes, chewing tobacco and snuff contain nicotine, a potent pick-me-up. Often, these pick-me-ups are combined: a chocolate bar contains both sugar and caffeine; Bailey's Irish cream combines sugar, caffeine and alcohol!

In extreme cases, people resort to drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin, all pick-me-ups. Interestingly, many people use their own adrenalin release as a pick-me-up. The workaholic who works 16-20 hours day, compulsive shoppers and people with thrill-seeking hobbies like gambling, sports, etc. are also using their own adrenalin for a temporary high!

Unfortunately, pick-me-ups do not work very well. Few of us realise that we are actually walking a tight rope, balancing our stressors on the one hand against a variety of pick-me-ups on the other. Using pick-me-ups is a bad idea. Here's why…

Pick-me-ups make us binge: When the brain is starved of happy messengers, the effect of a pick-me-up is enormous. Thus, a normal person taking an alcoholic beverage may find it mildly pleasureful; a stressed person may take one drink, develop a binging bout and drink himself unconscious. Have you noticed that eating one small piece of chocolate is never enough?

Pick-me-ups always cause a rebound: When you eat a bar of chocolate, you are giving yourself a big slug of sugar and caffeine. The sugar high quickly boosts happy messenger levels; however, the subsequent sugar low, causing lack of energy, fatigue, aches and illness, is equally fast. Most pick-me-up users are on a constant up-and-down roller coaster of feeling well and feeling ill.

The body quickly adapts to pick-me-ups: A pick-me-up user has to take ever-increasing amounts of the pick-me-up to achieve the desired effect. Remember how you began by drinking just one cup of tea/coffee at work, and ended up drinking a potful? Same is the case with cigarettes, alcohol and drugs!

Pick-me-ups have side effects: Excessive caffeine can cause abnormal heart rhythms. Heavy tobacco use damages lungs and arteries and causes cancer. Excessive drinking runs a risk of accidents, liver failure, or bleeding complications. Heavy doses of illegal drugs can cause convulsions, overdose, or death.

Pick-me-ups worsen stress: The side effects of pick-me-ups add more stress to the body. This worsens the overstress and in turn, makes the person use more pick-me-ups.

Ups and downs

Continued use of pick-me-ups, even seemingly innocent ones like tea and coffee, thus makes our life a roller coaster ride: steep, fast and wild with rapid ups and downs! Here's how you can make it normal and smooth once more:

l Identify the pick-me-ups you as an individual have become accustomed to. Then, remove all these from the house (or to begin with, set a limit).

l Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as foods high in complex carbohydrates.

l Adopt any physical exercise for 30 minutes five times a week. Vigorous walking is considered the best way to reduce stress. Try out deep breathing exercises and a massage from time to time.

l Become a ‘kid' again: draw; paint; be creative and express yourself freely.

Begin today!

The writer, a Nutrition & Health researcher, is the author of the book The Power of N: Nutrition in Our Times (RUPA & Co).

RELATED NEWS

Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012