Medical Student 101 – Coffee

[box style=”rounded” border=”full”]Jun Lao, Mess Editor, on the devilishly addictive appeal of coffee[/box]


There is an existential struggle which burns within the depths of my soul most mornings; an urge which threatens to tear me asunder as I fight the temptation to simply give in. It begins with an enticing suggestion floating into my mind under the pretence of spontaneity – despite arriving at the same time every day with unerring regularity. Soon enough that whispered suggestion develops into idle background chatter and then an annoyingly insistent nag clinging to the fringes of my psyche. In the space of mere minutes, that innocent suggestion has transformed into a delirious drunk in A+E screaming hysterically and then suddenly there’s a 24 piece orchestra, clashing cymbals and John Williams waving his stick around to the Jaws Theme. Yeah I get it. It’s coffee time.


Absolutely vital information about caffeine and definitely not put in just to space out paragraphs.

So what’s in a bean? Good question. Now I could do some painstaking research into the biochemical basis of coffee beans, caffeine and its effects at a cellular level. I could tell you all about the rich history of the coffee trade and how its influence has spread across the world. I could. But am I going to? No. Instead I’m going to summarise the contents of a brief Google search which you probably weren’t going to do yourselves. Welcome to the standards of British journalism – look what you’ve done Rupert Murdoch you dried up old prune.

Before I go onto explain what my meticulous Google search brought up (I found an image and looked at one link and that link was Wikipedia) I may as well put my rudimentary knowledge of pharmacology to some use and explain a bit about what caffeine does to your body. Caffeine is an adenosine receptor antagonist and is part of the methylxanthine drug class (others include theophylline and aminophyllines), therefore it also acts as a phosphodiesterase inhibitor. According to the chemical theory of sleep regulation, adenosine is a sleep promoting substance which builds up throughout the day and is responsible for increased sleep time by inhibition of wake promoting neurons. So obviously inhibition of adenosine leads to the opposite i.e. you staying awake. Adenosine receptor antagonism also has the handy side effect of encouraging neurotransmitter release which is likely responsible for the twitchy, fidgety state and palpitations you usually get after chugging a caramel frappucino from Starbucks. The 50g of sugar they put in probably won’t have helped either.


Now that I’ve exhausted the depths of my 2nd year pharmacology knowledge, let’s discuss the reputed benefits and possibly harmful side effects of caffeine. They are handily summed up in the picture above. The beneficial effects in reducing risk of the diseases seem rather impressive – but of course as medical students we can’t simply take isolated statistics and quote them ad nauseam without actually bothering to critically analyse the studies (a lesson Mr Hunt and co. could do with learning). But as I said, in keeping with current standards of British journalism I’m not going to go look those studies up. One, I can’t be bothered. Two, I need to get on with some actual work at some point today. Instead rest easy in the comfort that caffeine maybe, probably, might be beneficial for your health.

So now you know what caffeine does to your body. Still unfazed by the havoc it could potentially wreak? Or buzzed by the benefits and undeterred by the cost? Then let’s discuss the how to get this glorious substance into your body to get your buzz on when you’re out and about living your busy med student life.

Buying coffee

  • Coffee shops – yeah I know, some real blue sky thinking on display here. But hey common things are common right? The real question is independent or chain? Well it’s really a case of smooth, rich, complex, expertly crafted flavours in a cup versus a slightly burnt yet decadent, sugar heavy, calorie dump in a tub. Also friendly local businesses versus soul sucking corporations. Either way you get your caffeine hit in a warmish cardboard cup. So the choice is yours. Point is coffee shops have coffee.5186
  • Student union cafes – cheap, decent stuff and none of that asking for your name rubbish – let’s skip the demonstration of your embarrassing lack of basic listening comprehension and spelling skills and just give me my damn coffee. Plus it’s probably within striking distance from a library thus reducing the amount of time you have to suffer in your pitiful caffeine deficient state.
  • Home – get a decent thermos flask and sling some of that brown sludge in there. Of course you’ll have to lug it around all day and if you have any standards for coffee that Nescafe stuff likely won’t cut it and you’ll want some equipment to make something drinkable. Just don’t go too crazy. Stick to a French press/cafetiere or filters and if you’re feeling really fancy, an Aeropress. Leave those shiny machines to the pros. Buy some decent beans and a burr grinder and you’re sorted.
  • Supermarkets and fast food joints – cheap, fast and probably drinkable. It’ll do. And if it’s part of your meal deal? Even better. It’s basically free – or so I tell myself. And speaking of free…

Free coffee

Guy gets ill from free Waitrose coffee. Guy goes back to Waitrose to pose in front of it drinking said free coffee. Guy is an idiot. Taken from the Daily Mail obvs.

Guy gets ill from free Waitrose coffee. Guy goes back to Waitrose to pose in front of it drinking said free coffee. Guy is an idiot. Taken from the Daily Mail obviously.

  • Waitrose free coffee (requires a myWaitrose card) – free coffee? From Waitrose? But why? I can only assume they’ve taken after their decidedly middle class clientele and decided to start making charitable donations to the poor (i.e. me) to assuage their white liberal guilt. Hopefully these coffee-based charitable donations are Fairtrade or they’ll have more repenting to do.
  • Conferences, receptions and MDT meetings – Bloomsbury is especially fertile ground for those of you around UCL, with Cloisters almost constantly playing host to some sort of conference as well as the Institute of Child Health. Free food, free hot drinks and if you’re lucky, free alcohol. Boom city. Just grab your swag while feigning interest in a nearby poster on display. Also don’t forget MDT meetings. There is literally no other reason to go to one of these, other than to pick up some free lunch and a kick of caffeine. It’s a fair trade for the mind-numbing monotony and boredom you will undoubtedly be experiencing over the next hour or so.
  • Hospital wards – controversial one. It won’t be great, they’ll probably only have those disgusting UHT milk pots, it’ll come in a depressing Styrofoam cup and you run the risk of being screw-faced by some severe looking busybody walking past. But it’s free. And don’t act like you’ve never done it. Don’t act like you weren’t secretly thrilled at the chance of rebelling and fighting back against the man as you strode back onto the wards with your cup of ill-gotten coffee in hand. I’M NOT A PART OF YOUR SYSTEM*.

Non-coffee caffeine options

  • Tea – the only other acceptable alternative to coffee. But beware of making tea for others or allowing them to make it for you. Even the best of friends can fall out over the milkiness of their tea. Wars have been fought over those precious leaves – probably. Don’t fall into the trap. Make your own tea.
  • Red Bull/energy drinks – fine if you’re a pre-pubescent, bed-wetting, spotty little kid with no taste buds. If not – get some of that dark bitter stuff we grown ups call coffee down your neck and bask in your ability to remain continent whilst asleep.
  • Caffeine pills/ProPlus – the coward’s choice. For those too weak to withstand the full aromatic force coffee wields. The solution? Grow some balls/ovaries and drink some coffee you wuss.

Let’s try for one second to imagine medical student life without coffee. 8am tutorials (don’t you dare complain about 9am lectures pre clins). 6 hour long ward rounds. All day clinics. 6 hour long exams (Year 5 SBAs are going to be great guys). All without caffeine. A terrifying prospect isn’t it? So pray that the rumoured worldwide coffee shortage is nothing but idle speculation or you could soon walk into an MDT meeting and find nothing but soggy, disappointing sandwiches and mineral water to sustain you for the next 2 excruciatingly boring hours of your life. The horror.

*If you don’t get this reference watch this video – You’re welcome. Also you probably won’t be very productive for the next hour or so as it is a YouTube link after all. And to a video from the masters of ‘fake rap shit’ – to quote them directly (leave me alone GMC).

Quote of the week

GIF of the week

GIF of the week

“Of course I’ve been up all night! Not because of caffeine, it was insomnia. I couldn’t stop thinking about coffee. I need a nap. [snores] [wakes up] Coffee time! ” – Philip J. Fry, Futurama

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.