There's A Reason We Pair Coffee & Cigarettes — But Don't Confuse The Feel-Good Sensations

It's why some smokers swear the first cup of the day is just magic. ☕

Contributing Writer
​A latte with foam art of a clock next to a lighter and cigarillo.

A latte with foam art of a clock next to a lighter and cigarillo.

Nicotine in cigarettes and caffeine in coffee make up two-thirds of modern society’s 'Holy Trinity' of socially-accepted psychoactive drugs (the alcohol in beer, wine and cocktails rounds out the panoply).

A majority of Canadians open their eyes with a cup of coffee and many combine that with their first smoke of the day.

The effects of each molecule are surprisingly similar and the overlap in how they affect our bodies may explain why some smokers swear that the first cup is just magic.

Co-opting toxins

Nicotine and caffeine are plant molecules that we consume for their mood-altering effects. Both are part of natural plant defense systems that dissuade insects from munching on otherwise tender and tasty leaves. And, consuming either can make us feel so, so much better. How they drive those feelings of joy is also strikingly alike.

Nicotine binds to a set of acetylcholine receptors — caffeine to a set of adenosine receptors. Their binding kicks off unique, and different, messenger cascades in our brains that both ultimately trigger, among other things, the release of dopamine, the feel-good messenger commonly associated with sex. So, we suck in a toxin, or two, and feel like we’re having sex. Not a bad system. It’s no wonder coffee and cigarettes are so popular.

The different paths leading to the same destination may explain why nicotine is more addictive than caffeine. The shared destination suggests how the two systems could interact.

Frog eggs to the rescue

That anecdotal magic of the first coffee and cigarette of the day suggested to researchers that the systems may overlap. In a recent study, researchers placed the nicotine receptors in frog eggs, essentially turning the eggs into giant pseudo-human nerve cells.

While studying Kermit’s sister’s crackleberries may seem a bit odd, they’re actually pretty amazing for studying small things, like neurons, in a larger format. They’re also substantially less ethically loaded than pulling neurons from some smoker sitting outside your local coffee shop.

The researchers monitored how these model neurons responded to being dosed with coffee extract. Coffee clearly exaggerated neural activity normally part of the nicotine-driven pleasure response. Essentially, the magic of the coffee and cigarette Breakfast of Champions is coffee supercharging the smoking effect at the molecular level.

Surprisingly, the effect isn’t driven by the caffeine in the coffee and maybe not even something specific to roasted coffee; green coffee extract had a similar or even larger effect. Brewed coffee is a complex beast containing 1000s of molecules. One, or more, of these components of coffee, seems to bind and sensitize the nicotine receptors.

The future of smoking cessation programs?

These results are more than just a scientific curiosity and could pave the way to more effective ways to limit smoking. The hope is to harness the molecules found in coffee and use them as part of a treatment to combat, and effectively turn off, nicotine addiction.

The study was part of a larger effort to understand nicotine and nicotine addiction. A little vice may be good for you, but a lot unfortunately isn’t. For me, it’s a weakness of the occasional cigar and whisky, maybe for you, it’s a coffee and a cigarette.

Unfortunately, while smoking is on the decline, cigarette smoking still kills over 45,000 Canadians every year, almost 20% of all deaths in Canada, with a healthcare cost of $16.2 billion. The molecule, or molecules, in coffee that drives that combo bonus, may have a future in short-circuiting the nicotine effect and treating smoking addiction.

The value of moderation

While studies, and millions of smokers, clearly identify cigarettes, and nicotine, as addictive, the story of coffee and caffeine is more complicated. Coffee drinking does seem to lead to at least a mild dependency, but not everyone agrees that caffeine is addictive.

Addiction is multifaceted involving both biochemistry and behavior and whether caffeine is addictive in a strictly medical sense is still unclear. Caffeine is, however, clearly a drug and one that can have a substantial impact, both positive and negative on our bodies.

Given this potential impact, perhaps we can all heed the words of Oscar Wilde, a person who knew a thing or two about vices, excess, and its consequences: "Everything in moderation, including moderation."

Thomas Merritt
Contributing Writer
Thomas Merritt is a contributing writer for MTL Blog.
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