To drink or not to drink – that is a question many people ask, and the answer is far from simple. Coffee lovers tend to justify their habit by pointing out a few studies that prove certain benefits of coffee consumption. While those studies are real, and coffee in reasonable amounts is not harmful for certain individuals, and can even have some health benefits, coffee is one of the things that doesn’t follow the rule that “a little is good, so more will be even better.” Even the popular saying “everything in moderation” is not applicable here. With coffee (and caffeine, often the main reason why we drink it) we need to focus on the context. The question is not “is it healthy?” The question really is “is it healthy FOR ME?” We are not here to tell you that coffee causes adrenal fatigue or that you absolutely shouldn’t order espresso after 2pm. You should be honest with yourself though when it comes to coffee consumption. Here are the facts and all we ask you to do is evaluate those facts with your own current health and lifestyle situation in mind.
Coffee tastes like heaven in a cup. But let’s get serious now. Even though those little brown beans are called coffee beans, they really are pits of a fruit called coffee cherries. Coffee beans are roasted and then either sold whole or ground. The first evidence of coffee drinking goes back to the 15th century, so it is clearly a long standing ritual; coffee was here long before Starbucks opened their first café in 1971. Drinking coffee is a socially acceptable addiction and many people are almost proud to admit how much their morning abilities depend on having a cup or two. Coffee is a stimulant drug, and because of that, there is a difference between using and abusing it. Whether you are a coffee lover (like myself), unable to fully wake up in the morning without a cup, or use coffee to help you stay awake till midnight to study for a hard exam, you have to give credit to one specific compound in coffee for all the benefits you experience: caffeine.
In our post about tea we briefly touched on caffeine and promised to cover it later in greater detail, so here we are. Caffeine is a psychoactive compound found in coffee and tea, as well as in chocolate and all those nasty energy drinks. It is a mild stimulant that has many effects on the body; some are welcomed and even pleasant in a low dose, some are potentially harmful, and some can even cause a disaster in the body. Caffeine belongs to a family called the alkaloids, the same family as nicotine, morphine, and cocaine (yes, the drug). It is also a potent antioxidant and it has some ergogenic (physical performance enhancing) properties that can help your performance in endurance activities.
Coffee is neither good nor bad; there are people and circumstances caffeine is either good or bad for. A perfectly healthy individual can handle even larger doses of caffeine pretty well, while a person with certain health problems should stay away from it at all costs. To find out if coffee is safe for you, you need to ask yourself some questions and demand honest answers from yourself. We are all human beings with the same bodies, or so it seems at first glance, but there are differences in our biology and metabolism that make us all unique. Answering many health related questions is so much easier when we focus on these differences. Not only are we metabolically different, there is also an endocrine dominance playing its part. For example people with dominant adrenals handle caffeine way better than thyroid dominant individuals. Read more about different glandular types and after finding out where you stand, you will have an answer for more questions than just “Why can’t I drink coffee in the morning while my spouse or best friend is okay with it?” But let’s start with finding out the good, the bad and the ugly about coffee consumption and its effect on the body.
PICK ME UP OR SHUT ME DOWN?
Because caffeine is a stimulant that gives you that pick-me-up effect, drinking coffee became a regular morning routine for many people. It wakes you up, and helps you stay alert and overcome that afternoon slump you might experience every day. But how does it work? How does coffee make us less tired? The answer might surprise you: coffee doesn’t give us more energy, it gives us more stress. Caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands to create more adrenaline and cortisol – a stress hormone. This is okay for a healthy individual, but for someone who is already living a stressful life, suffering from lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and overall poor lifestyle, this is a road to adrenal fatigue, a severe condition caused by overworked adrenal glands, as well as placing you at greater risk of activating various autoimmune conditions that may be lying dormant in your genes. Chronic stress and not enough rest can damage your adrenals and coffee works as fuel for this fire. A good rule of thumb is this: if you think you need coffee to function, you should probably consider cutting it out of your life. You would be better served by nourishing your cells with Advancium to get sustained energy and mental sharpness throughout the work day (bye bye afternoon slump!).
Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors in your nervous system, so your brain loses the ability to hear the “we are tired, let’s take a nap” signal. It means that you are not less tired, you just don’t realize how tired you are because your body doesn’t receive the signal from the brain. You basically lose objectivity about your own abilities – you are SURE you can drive for another 100 miles, even though your body and brain are exhausted, so drive anyway, putting yourself (and other people in the car, or on the road) at risk. This is basically your brain on too much caffeine. It also stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, keeping you constantly in the “fight or flight” mode, making your brain think that there is an emergency or danger going on all the time, which creates too much stress in the body, once again putting a lot of pressure to your adrenals (or ramping up an active autoimmune condition). Chronically elevated cortisol is very bad news, it can damage your immune system, mess with your sleep, and even cause gut flora changes or weight gain.
Many of us drink coffee to stay awake, so it logical that it can cause problems when we actually need to fall asleep. Sleep is important for our overall health and the stimulant effects of caffeine prevent us from getting an adequate amount of restorative, deep sleep. If you consume coffee in the afternoon, you might still fall asleep easily and stay asleep for 8 hours, but chances are you will not get enough of that restful deep sleep, as caffeine still keeps you a bit alert and your cortisol levels remain elevated rather than dropping as they usually would during sleep. Elevated levels of cortisol after caffeine consumption can last up to six hours, so it is up to you to learn to what extent coffee affects your sleep. If you drink it late in the day and in the morning you don’t feel rested enough, and a big cup of coffee is the only thing that will get you going, it might be a sign that you are in an abusive relationship with coffee.
Maybe this scenario will sound familiar: You try to compensate for the lack of sleep by drinking more coffee in the morning, then have another cup to make it through the afternoon slump, just to grab a coffee to-go on your way home from work, where you possibly have to get a shot of espresso to be able to do all the housework, you get to bed late at night all wired, cranky, and exhausted at the same time, experience a restless night, and at 6am you turn on the coffee machine again.
It is a vicious cycle and the only way out is breaking up with coffee, because when life looks like this, it is not a healthy relationship. A key to a healthy life is taking control of your life first, and it will not happen if you let your morning beverage rule your day and dictate how you feel. Taking a coffee holiday for at least 30 days is a wonderful thing and I practice this every year. Feeling tired is certainly not caused by not enough caffeine in your life, but it might be a result of overusing it. If you are not a caffeine user so far – don’t even start. If you are, find your threshold, create some boundaries, and stick to them. Your adrenals will love you for that.
COFFEE’S LIGHT AND DARK MAGIC
Coffee has a few more effects you may find quite helpful. First, it works as a natural laxative and can relieve constipation by artificially improving bowel function (by increasing the movement of your stool with muscle contractions, and by the ability to draw water out of the body, making the stool softer and easier to pass through). It can be really helpful from time to time, but it is fair to point out that chronic constipations is a sign of something other than a lack of coffee and should be treated properly. As an occasional solution, using coffee as a laxative tool is probably one of the safest and most effective options you can get anywhere in the world, but do not rely on it as a substitute for proper treatment of some underlying health issue like undiagnosed Celiac disease, IBS, bacterial dysbiosis, or food allergies. Sometimes all you need is a little magnesium soak, or some quality probiotics in your life to keep things moving smoothly.
Second of all, coffee works as an ergogenic tool, helping your exercise performance. It has the same effect as ephedrine, which is illegal to use, but with coffee, you can get a natural, performance improving supplement you probably already have at home. The downside of using coffee as a workout booster is the fact that it can lead to overtraining; like we mentioned earlier, caffeine shuts down the receptors that tell your brain when it is time to rest, so while your body needs to rest and recover, you still feel a lot of energy to keep going. Recovery is very important in every kind of physical training, so make sure you don’t use coffee to push yourself through your “lazy days.” Instead, consider supplements rich in amino acids or MSM for your post training or workout recovery, or a protein rich superfood like ZoeTein, and listen to your body when it asks for a rest day.
Another thing worth mentioning about caffeine is the fact that it works as an appetite suppressant. Raise your hand if you are guilty of ever using a cup of coffee as a meal replacement (me). It is not the end of the world if you sometimes use coffee to suppress hunger (for example on the go, when there is absolutely no option to eat), but this needs to be treated very cautiously. When you are hungry, you should eat. Hunger is a perfectly healthy signal your body sends you when it needs nutrients. Using coffee as a daily meal replacement is not healthy and can even turn into nutrient deprivation, starvation, or an eating disorder. Your body needs food for energy, so don’t hide your appetite with a stimulant drug like caffeine. Be careful with that, especially if you already deal with some other health issues, digestive distress, or immunity problems. You need food, not coffee.
THE UNPOPULAR TRUTH ABOUT COFFEE
We tend to be very protective of our favorite foods and drinks, especially if we hear that something we love is hurting us and we should give it up. Most of us already know that fast food meals are not the healthiest option, and nobody will argue that smoking cigarettes is safe. But when it comes to socially acceptable addictions like coffee, we still hate to face the truth and admit it to ourselves.
People with gluten sensitivity should pay special attention now – coffee was shown to be the most common cross reactive food for Celiacs. Coffee proteins and gluten particles look very similar and the body usually treats them the same way. This problem applies to decaf coffee as well, so this is not a problem with caffeine itself. If you are sensitive to gluten, following a truly gluten free diet, but still experience gastrointestinal problems as well as neurological issues that are linked to gluten sensitivity, AND you are a coffee consumer at the same time, it might be time for you to kiss coffee goodbye.
Caffeine also has a negative impact on our lymphatic system. Lymph fluid in our bodies is filled with white blood cells and it moves slowly throughout the whole body, ready to serve as one of the immune system’s defense mechanisms in case of injury or inflammation. The lymph circulation is pretty slow, and sometimes the lymph vessels can get congested because the slow flow is disrupted. Caffeine can cause capillaries around the lymph vessels to cramp and tighten, which has a negative impact on the blood flow in the area, affecting surrounding tissues and muscles as well as the lymph vessel itself. When this happens, unwanted metabolic waste and toxins can build up in the system, causing headache, constipation, various digestive issues, or even cysts and cancer.
If you are living with an autoimmune condition of any type, you probably already know that nuts and seeds tend to be problematic for you and you should consider eliminating them from your diet (at least for a certain period of time to let your body heal). We learned that coffee beans are actually seeds, so eliminating coffee really might be necessary if you still struggle. If you eliminated all the food groups you were recommended and still don’t see the improvement you expected, a break from coffee might be the answer.
TIME TO BREAK UP
Now take a deep breath and answer these questions to yourself: Do you drink caffeinated beverage(s) every day? Do you need coffee to feel alive? Are you under a lot of stress and coffee is the only thing that keeps you going? Do you work late at night and sleep for five hours a night, using coffee as a boost several times a week? Do you replace lunch with coffee, because you just “don’t have time to sit and eat?” Are you constantly tired, but you feel like caffeine stopped working for you, no matter how much you drink? If you need to fuel and energize yourself, do you grab a can of Redbull instead of making a nutritious meal? If you answered YES to at least one of these questions, you really should consider making some changes. These are signs you might be addicted to coffee and no addiction with potential down sides is healthy. Break yourself free from coffee and take back control of your mug.
Whether you need just a caffeine break or a definitive break up depends of your personal story, your state of health, and your goals. If all you need is to fix your sleep, limiting coffee consumption to one cup in the morning might be enough. If you are constantly sleep deprived with no mental energy, you will probably need a longer break, and slow, careful reintroduction. If you suffer from chronic stress, immune issues, digestive problems, histamine intolerance, or Celiac disease, both caffeine and coffee should be left out for good. Start slow, take your time, and find what feels right for your own life.
MAKE BETTER CHOICES
Coffee, just like tea, is grown with heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. Actually coffee is one of the most heavily pesticide sprayed crops in the world and those pesticides stay in your cup after brewing. Also, roasted coffee beans processed in large non-organic plantations are very often over-roasted and covered with natural oil. This gives them a nice shiny look that is more appealing to the eye, but these oils oxidize very easily and when those beans are later ground, you get these rancid oils to your cup as well. Choosing organic, lighter roasted beans from small plantations is the best choice for your health, and for the planet.
If you decide to keep consuming coffee, make sure to get the best quality possible. Small, local roasteries usually buy natural, unroasted beans from small plantations and they roast them in small batches to always have the freshest coffee available.
If coffee is not your cup of tea (wink), you don’t have to give up a nice comforting cup of warm beverage all together! You can always make the switch to your favorite tea. Coffee does not contain any compounds you wouldn’t find somewhere else; black and green tea contain the same antioxidants, caffeine, and an extra bonus – theanine that balances the effect of caffeine. If caffeine is the issue, go for herbal teas, like Tulsi (aka holy basil), water infused with ginger and lemon, or even bone broth! We are going to focus on these wonderful comforting options in our next post, so be sure to check it out as well!
Nobody in this world needs coffee to get through life (we are more than coffee fueled robots!). We need real food packed with nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that nourish the body and help to maintain optimal health. No medical condition is caused by a lack of prescription drugs, and no energy or sleep issue is caused by not enough caffeine. Treat your cup of coffee as exactly that – a treat. Enjoy it if your health allows you to. Use it, don’t abuse it.