Stress, Caffeine and Hallucinations

Many years ago, on the advice of Dr. Gerasimos and other doctors, Geronda Ephraim quit drinking coffee for health reasons. Geronda Paisios (AZ) quit drinking coffee because it caused him anxiety attacks. Many of the other abbots and abbesses also  quit drinking coffee. Geronda Ephraim had also given an obedience to some of his monasteries to ban coffee for the monastics. Before this time period, in the heyday of the 90’s, there was a general blessing for the monastics to drink coffee. Generally, one cup for vigil and one cup in the morning upon waking up (though some monastics had a blessing to drink more than one cup during the day). Later, it changed to only one cup at vigil and the need for a blessing to have any during the day. Later, in some monasteries, it became no coffee whatsoever.

Geronda Ephraim sitting on a bench

Before all these changes, the average father confessor in Geronda Ephraim’s monastery would drink anywhere from 1-4 coffees a day (either Greek or American or a combination of both; and sometimes 1 or 2 Frappé/day in the hotter months). I.e. one for vigil, one in the morning, one at the start of confessing lay people, another in the afternoon. Basically, the father confessors were running their vigil and day on stimulants. The monastics were running their vigils on stimulants.

f_DSC_0039_400 frappe

The History of Coffee and Monasticism

Though there are various legends about the discovery of coffee in both Ethiopia (ca. 875 A.D.) and Yemen (ca. 575 A.D.), the most popular version is the story of Kaldi the goat herd:

In the Ethiopian highlands, where the legend of Kaldi, the goatherd, originated, coffee trees grow today as they have for centuries. Though we will never know with certainty, there probably is some truth to the Kaldi legend.

It is said that he discovered coffee after noticing that his goats, upon eating berries from a certain tree, became so spirited that they did not want to sleep at night.

Kaldi dutifully reported his findings to the abbot of the local monastery who made a drink with the berries and discovered that it kept him alert for the long hours of evening prayer. Soon the abbot had shared his discovery with the other monks at the monastery, and ever so slowly knowledge of the energizing effects of the berries began to spread. As word moved east and coffee reached the Arabian peninsula, it began a journey which would spread its reputation across the globe.

Kaldi, the Ethiopian goat herd who, according to legend, discovered coffee and introduced it to the monks.
Kaldi, the Ethiopian goat herd who, according to legend, discovered coffee and introduced it to the monks.

To this day, in many monasteries, the monastics drink a cup of coffee to start their vigil as it helps them stay more alert and it is also a measure to prevent falling asleep during vigil or the practice of kardiaki proseuche (Prayer of the Heart).

For more stories about coffee’s origins, see:

Ethiopia’s Coffee Origin Myth:

Coffee History Chronology:

Ripe coffee berries.
Ripe coffee berries.

Caffeine Dependence

Caffeine addiction is a common problem. The most commonly consumed psychoactive substance on earth, caffeine, is used daily by an estimated 90% of Americans. The Coffee Statistics Report for 2010 reports more than 400 billion cups are consumed worldwide every year.

Caffeine is a commonplace central nervous system stimulant drug which occurs in nature as part of the coffee, tea, yerba mate and some other plants.
Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors A and A2A. Adenosine is a by-product of cellular activity, and stimulation of adenosine receptors produces feelings of tiredness and the need to sleep. Caffeine’s ability to block these receptors means the levels of the body’s natural stimulants, dopamine and norepinephrine continue at higher levels.

Caffeine structurally resembles adenosine enough for it to fit into the brain's adenosine receptors
Caffeine structurally resembles adenosine enough for it to fit into the brain’s adenosine receptors

Mild physical dependence can result from excessive caffeine intake. Caffeine addiction, or a pathological and compulsive form of use, has never been documented in humans.

Health effects of caffeine (negative and positive)
Health effects of caffeine (negative and positive)

Studies have demonstrated that people who take in a minimum of 100 mg of caffeine per day (about the amount in one cup of coffee) can acquire a physical dependence that would trigger withdrawal symptoms that include headaches, muscle pain and stiffness, lethargy, nausea, vomiting, depressed mood, and marked irritability. Professor Roland Griffiths, a professor of neurology at John Hopkins in Baltimore strongly believes that caffeine withdrawal should be classified as a psychological disorder. Through his research, withdrawals occurred within 12–24 hours after stopping caffeine intake and could last as long as nine days. Continued exposure to caffeine will lead the body to create more adenosine receptors in the central nervous system which makes it more sensitive to the effects of adenosine in two ways. Firstly, it will reduce the stimulatory effects of caffeine by increasing tolerance. Secondly, it will increase the withdrawal symptoms of caffeine as the body will be more sensitive to the effects of adenosine once caffeine intake stops. Caffeine tolerance develops very quickly. Tolerance to the sleep disruption effects of caffeine were seen after consumption of 400 mg of caffeine 3 times a day for 7 days, whereas complete tolerance was observed after consumption of 300 mg taken 3 times a day for 18 days.

Main symptoms of caffeine overdose.
Main symptoms of caffeine overdose.

Too Much Coffee Can Make You Hear Things That Are Not There

People with a higher caffeine intake, from sources such as coffee, tea and caffeinated energy drinks, are more likely to report hallucinatory experiences such as hearing voices and seeing things that are not there. Even five coffees per day can trigger this type of hallucination.

Professor Simon Crowe
Professor Simon Crowe

Professor Simon Crowe says:

“High caffeine levels in association with high levels of stressful life events interacted to produce higher levels of ‘hallucination’ in non-clinical participants, indication that further caution needs to be exercised with the use of this overtly ‘safe’ drug.”

“There is a link between high levels of stress and psychosis, and caffeine was found to correlate with hallucination proneness. The combination of caffeine and stress affect the likelihood of an individual experiencing a psychosis-like symptom.”

“The results also support both the diathesis-stress model and the continuum theory of schizophrenia in that stress plays a role in the symptoms of schizophrenia and that everyone, to some degree, can experience these symptoms.

It is apparent that the health risks of excessive caffeine use must be addressed and caution should be raised with regards to the exacerbating use of this stimulant.”

The following measurements of caffeine in a cup of coffee are cited from an article by Bunker and McWilliams, from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (74:28-32, 1979):
• 1 cup, brewed (7 oz, 207 ml). 80 to 135 mg of caffeine.
• 1 cup, drip (7 oz, 207 ml). 115 to 175 mg of caffeine
• 1 cup, espresso (1.5-2 oz, 45-60 ml). 100 mg of caffeine

Greek coffee levels vary on whether it is a single (40-60 mg) or double (80-120 mg):

See: The effect of caffeine and stress on auditory hallucinations in a non-clinical sample

Greek Coffee

Interesting articles:

Caffeine, stress, and proneness to psychosis-like experiences: A preliminary investigation

Caffeine-Induced Psychosis: Case Report:

Turkish Coffee or Greek Coffee?

(The following is an essay/short story by Besnik Mustafaj, former Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs (2005-2007) and former Ambassador of Albania in the Republic of France, 1992-1997. )