Thursday, January 8, 2009

Just Say "Know."

Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, by Stephen Braun, is one of the two best drug-education books I know of (From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know about Mind-Altering Drugs is the other.) Braun, an award-winning science writer, blends science with colorful lore. He tells about research on these psychoactive substances and what happens when they are ingested. A lot of recent research goes against conventional wisdom: alcohol is not simply a depressant, but is instead "a pharmacy in a bottle.” At low doses, it increases electrical activity in the same brain systems affected by stimulants, influences the same circuits targeted by Valium, and causes the release of morphine-like compounds known as endorphins. Alcohol can produce reactions from euphoria to dark, brooding hopelessness. Braun reveals why wood alcohol causes blindness, and explains the one-drink-per-hour sobriety rule (It takes the liver an hour to disable the half ounce of pure alcohol found in a typical drink.).

More than 100 plants produce caffeine, the most widely used drug on the planet. It occurs in tea, coffee, cocoa, chocolate, soft drinks, and more than 2,000 non-prescription drugs. We read that distances between Tibetan villages can be reckoned by the number of cups of tea needed to sustain a person (three cups equaling approximately 8 kilometers). Braun also explores the role of caffeine in creativity: Johann Sebastian Bach loved coffee so much he wrote a Coffee Cantata. Balzac would work for 12 hours non-stop, drinking coffee all the while; and Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire loved it, too. But, “When patience and calm are required,” Braun writes, “I have found caffeine to be of dubious utility.” And on caffeine withdrawal, one person wrote, “I felt like I had the flu, a severe headache, extreme fatigue.”

Buzz is an informative as well as amusing look at the two most popular drugs in the world. The book includes an excellent list of references and suggested reading. I've read it twice now, and recommend it highly.

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