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2:53 PM Tue, Dec. 18th

The myths of drinking coffee

Ah, yes ... there is nothing like a cup of steaming black coffee in the morning. (No sugar or cream, please.) Fortunately for all of us, today's coffee is not like the kind I used to drink in the Navy, which was dark and looked so much like sludge you could have used it to cover the whitewall tires on your car. Yuck!

Now, however, we need to clear up some misconceptions on this wonderful drink, so I have several freshly brewed comments on coffee and caffeine. Actually, they are questions and answers, so please pay attention. There will be a test later.

Question: What is the most widely used stimulant in the world?

It's coffee - duh! See how easy that was.

Question: Does caffeine aid short-term memory?

Look at it this way. Researchers have demonstrated that short-term memory skills and reaction times are heightened after consuming caffeine.

While this startling announcement may not come as news to anyone who uses coffee to clear the fog of sleep, it had not been scientifically proven until 2005. Oh, those skeptics. Actually, coffee drinkers showed increased activity in the parts of the brain that control working memory and attention.

Question: Is coffee addictive?

Nice try again, skeptics. Coffee can be habit-forming but has not been proven to be addictive. The painful symptoms of coffee withdrawal, however, are quite real. Even people whose sole caffeine hit is a daily 12-ounce cup of a good brew in the morning report headaches if they stop. Withdrawal symptoms can range from a mild headache, irritability and drowsiness to muscle aches, vomiting, blurred vision and even low-level depression. Not to worry. If you want to quit hard enough, you can.

Question: Does caffeine work fast?

Like few other drugs or foods, caffeine is immediately absorbed through the stomach and intestines. Seconds after coffee hits the stomach, caffeine permeates the digestive tract's soft lining and spreads throughout the body via the bloodstream. It's fat-soluble, it's water-soluble and, like Superman, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Caffeine even crosses the blood-brain barrier, which is otherwise nearly impervious to molecular invasion. Once caffeine storms the castle walls of the brain, the drug sets loose the full potential of its stimulating effects.

Question: What other good news is there about coffee?

Well, one biological response to caffeine is that it opens up the oxygen-seeking bronchia in the lungs - those little waving wands of string-looking things. This pans out well for you smoking coffee drinkers since it provides them with oxygen they would otherwise strangle with cigarette smoke.

Question: All this good news about coffee, what's the bad news?

There is some indication that caffeine might be linked to a disease that makes bones weak and brittle. It's called osteoporosis. If you want to protect yourself or your family, just a daily glass of milk will offset the depletion of calcium.

Like anything else you read that pertains to your health, one day it's bad for you, the next year it's okay. I know guys who drink so much coffee in a 16-hour period they're sleeping in the bathroom.

My great, great grandmother from Arkansas drank coffee and bourbon like it was going out of style with an occasional dip into her snuff box, and she lived to be 102, with her picture on the cover of Life magazine back in the 1940s.

Do what feels good. Just use sensible moderation. I don't trust the FDA, so I plan to keep drinking my coffee each day.

So should you.