Although I have never been too fond of coffee and I only really got introduced to my first weekend cups of almond/coconut lattes in my last year of University back in Huddersfield (believe or not, that’s true and my friends would assure you) and that’s simply because coffee always made me feel rather weird (I will get to that later)! So many people rely on coffee every morning to wake up and depending on who you ask coffee is often seen either as a healthy drink or incredibly harmful. I carried my own research on the subject and was intrigued to find out that there is indeed good evidence for caffeine’s stimulant effects on both body and mind. There are many studies showing that caffeine increases energy and alertness and that it has been proven to be useful for counteracting flagging energy levels. However, much of our dismay, a closer look at the research reveals that caffeine has a somewhat darker side. As research shows controversial results on coffee, I hope that after reading this post you will be able to find your own answer to the question “is coffee bad for you… or not?”
WHAT EXACTLY IS CAFFEINE?
The active ingredient in coffee is caffeine, which is a natural stimulant and the most frequently consumed psychoactive substance (chemical that changes brain function) worldwide. Coffee, black tea, green tea, chocolate, soft drinks, energy drinks and certain medications such as headache remedies all contain caffeine. Cocoa (the active ingredient found in chocolate) contains a much smaller concentration of caffeine than coffee or tea, but it also provides theobromine, whose action is similar to caffeine’s, though not as strong, but in some cases could also be significant. I am sure that one way or another you’ve all heard of the word caffeine, but do you really know what caffeine is and what it does to your body?
HOW CAFFEINE WORKS?
We know that caffeine is a natural stimulant, which works by stimulating your central nervous system (which includes your brain, spinal cord and the other nerves in your body), making you feel more awake and alert for a while, but how is this end result achieved? Once caffeine is consumed, it is quickly absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream. It then travels to the liver where it is broken down to compounds that can affect the function of various organs. Brain is affected the most. Eventually caffeine is being excreted in urine. Caffeine is fast acting and very permeable which means that it passes easily through blood-brain barrier. It has been suggested that after drinking a cup of coffee, caffeine usually reaches its peak level in your blood within one hour and stays there for 8 to 10 hours (1).
POTENTIAL POSITIVE EFFECTS OF COFFEE
Please Note: Many of the studies on potential positive effects of caffeine are observational, which means that they do not prove that it was specifically the coffee that caused any beneficial effects. Coffee is a very complex beverage with hundreds of different compounds in it, it’s not just a vehicle for caffeine. Also keep in mind that most research is typically based on coffee that’s plain black or with a little milk or sugar, but not the high-calorie beverages that have become so popular recently. A grande (470ml) mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks with whipped cream has 410 calories and a beverage like that adds so much to the energy intake and if that’s not compensated by either eating less or exercising that day it could impact on weight management, which can eventually influence a range of health problems.
COFFEE CAN IMPROVE MOOD, MEMORY, ALERTNESS AND ATTENTION
Caffeine helps to increase levels of stimulating chemicals such as dopamine and adrenaline. As a result, many studies demonstrate that caffeine can enhance a range of cognitive functions, including mood, memory and the perception of alertness and wakefulness in a short period of time (2). However, as with many things that provide an instant fix, there is a catch. The lift is only short term and gradually you would need more and more to produce the same effect as the brain and body become less sensitive to these stimulating chemicals. Studies also support the notion that the cognitive benefits of caffeine are associated with relief from withdrawal symptoms, rather than with actual improvements in cognitive functions (3). Ultimately this could result in feeling exhausted, depressed and feeling as if you cannot cope.
COFFEE CAN BOOST METABOLISM AND IMPROVE PHYSICAL PERFORMANCE
Research suggest that coffee can boost metabolism (rate at which your body turns food into energy) and even increase exercise performance (4; 5). However, these effects are short-term and drinking coffee every day will build up a tolerance to it with any metabolic effects minimised over time.
COFFEE MAY HELP TO PROTECT YOUR BRAIN
Research shows that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. However, these results are inconsistent (6). Another recent study suggests that higher coffee consumption (3–5 cups per day) is associated with reduced risk for Alzheimer disease (7). However, further studies are needed to determine this association.
COFFEE MAY LOWER THE RISK OF DEPRESSION
Depression is the world’s most common mental disorder and there is little doubt it leads to a significantly reduced quality of life. One large study, that followed women, free of depressive symptoms, for 10 years found that depression risk decreases with increasing caffeinated coffee consumption (8). There is also suggested association between caffeine consumption and lower risk of suicide (9).
POTENTIAL NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF COFFEE
CAFFEINE IS ADDICTIVE
Caffeine is proven to be addictive substance and when drinking coffee regularly you will most likely become tolerant to it, which means that it either stops working as it used to or a larger dose is needed to get the same stimulant effects (10). While that innocent morning coffee seems so appealing and when that caffeine flooding the bloodstream contributes extensively to our “wakefulness”, problems may come to the surface when the levels of caffeine start falling. Caffeine withdrawal (when caffeine usage is suddenly stopped) is a recognised phenomenon, characterised by undesirable side effects such as headache, tiredness, decreased energy, difficulty concentrating, foggy/not clearheaded and irritability (11). While it may seem that this would only be relevant to people drinking dozen cups of coffee a day, contrary to popular belief, the amount of caffeine to rise these withdrawal problems can be surprisingly moderate. Withdrawal from daily intakes as low as 2-3 cups of coffee have been shown to cause significant problems with headaches, fatigue and anxiety and, most interestingly, it doesn’t take long before these symptoms of caffeine withdrawal start to kick in. Research suggests that loading up on caffeine during the day, puts us at risk of caffeine withdrawal by the next morning, so no wonder that many people cannot seem to be able to start their day without a “caffeine fix”. If that doesn’t seem like a seductive charm, then what is? In fact, scientists started to question whether the feel-good effect of caffeine is really nothing more than a sense of relief that comes when the body is delivered from caffeine withdrawal after the first cup of tea or coffee in the morning is provided. The cycle is hard to break.
What all of this means in a very simple sense? 1. If a person gets withdrawal symptoms when they suddenly stop using caffeine, then the person has a physical dependence on caffeine in coffee. 2. For regular coffee consumer, a “caffeine fix” is likely to return the body to the state it would have been in if it had not had caffeine in the first place.
COFFEE INTERFERES WITH SLEEP QUANTITY AND QUALITY
Adenosine is a neurotransmitter (chemicals in the brain that help to control our mental and emotional wellbeing), which in normal conditions, promotes sleep and suppresses arousal. The body produces adenosine when we are awake. A build up of adenosine by the end of the day induces tiredness and eventually sleep. Although caffeine probably has multiple targets in the brain, but the main one seems to be adenosine. By blocking the effects of adenosine, caffeine sets off a chain of events that prevent the signals for rest from occurring therefore keeping us awake (12). In other words this simply means that even though your body is tired, it won’t be able to tell you, because your brain does not detect adenosine. Instead, caffeine increases brain activity, making you feel more energetic and less sensitive to your body’s natural desire for rest. Your brain needs to rest to work effectively and caffeine disrupts this time. I will leave it up to you to decide whether it’s a good or a bad thing (but I believe you know the right answer).
So, just like that coffee is proven to interfere with the body’s clock, decreasing the total amount of sleep and quality of sleep. Listen to what your body is telling you. If you feel worn down, coffee might be too much and exaggerate your symptoms especially when consumed closer to the late afternoon/evening times. Here as almost everywhere else it comes down to individual reactions to coffee. Although some can say that coffee doesn’t affect sleep at all, to others it might be completely different.
CAFFEINE CAN CAUSE ANXIETY
Caffeine in coffee is a stimulant and although it may be great pre-workout for some individuals, but definitely not for the ones suffering from anxiety, living with high stress or someone who is remotely sensitive to caffeine (13). Even though some studies contradict this information telling that caffeine may help to decrease depression and symptoms of anxiety (as mentioned above) those studies were based on people that were probably “fast metabolisers” (processes caffeine quickly), which is not your average person. If you struggle with anxiety and tend towards depression, I would highly recommend you to try cutting out coffee and see if you notice any difference in the way you feel.
CAFFEINE CAN HARM AN UNBORN BABY
It is known that caffeine crosses the placenta and reaches the foetus, and that the foetus is very sensitive to caffeine as it metabolises it very slowly. Research suggest that caffeine intake during pregnancy can result in babies having a low birth weight, which can increase the risk of health problems later in life (14); and may even increase the risk of miscarriage (15).
CAFFEINE CAN CONTRIBUTE TO WEIGHT GAIN
Caffeine increases cortisol secretion in people at rest or undergoing mental stress (16). Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands (that sit on top of your kidneys) and it’s known as a stress hormone because it’s normally released when your body is under physical/mental/emotional stress. Research shows that chronically high levels of cortisol lead to increased food intake which could lead to overeating and weight gain (17). Women who carry excess weight around the middle respond to stress with a greater increase in cortisol (18).
CAFFEINE IN COFFEE AND TEA CAN AFFECT NUTRIENT ABSORPTION
Caffeine can also affect your body’s absorption of minerals such as iron and zinc. If the diet is already low in these minerals, it may lead to iron deficiency anaemia or low immunity.
COFFEE IS A MILD DIURETIC
The major role of kidneys is to maintain the body’s fluid balance. They filter blood to remove wastes and excrete them in urine, and also reabsorb water to prevent dehydration. Caffeine in coffee, tea and other caffeinated drinks stimulate the kidneys to increase urine output, which makes you too loose slightly more water. To support good levels of hydration I always recommend to have one glass of plain water before or after you had your cup of coffee.
COFFEE INCREASES BLOOD PRESSURE
Caffeine can produce a short-lived increase in blood pressure even if you don’t have high blood pressure (19). Regular coffee drinking has been associated with a slight increases in blood pressure, but it’s generally thought that habitual coffee or tea drinkers develop a tolerance to the hypersensitive effects of caffeine, while some studies showed that repeated caffeine consumption produced a persistent blood pressure increasing effect. If you have a high blood pressure, or are concerned about caffeine’s effect on your blood pressure, try limiting the amount of caffeine you drink to no more than 200 milligrams a day. Also, avoid caffeine right before activities that naturally increase your blood pressure, such as exercise, weightlifting or hard physical labor.
SHOULD I BE DRINKING COFFEE?
Experts agree that this is an active area of research right now, and it’s definitely not at the stage where coffee would be recommended for everyone, because of its “health benefits”. The answer is that it’s all down to individual. Coffee isn’t particularly a “bad” or “unhealthy” thing, but it does affect everyone differently and some people should be more mindful of coffee than others. While some people may benefit from increased alertness, for others the stimulating effects of coffee can contribute to difficulty sleeping and anxiety. Also, people who constantly drink coffee may develop dependance, so sudden withdrawal can trigger temporary headaches or symptoms of depression. Some coffee drinkers may benefit from an increase of stimulating effect on bowel movements, which may help with constipation, but others may develop acid reflux or heartburn. Some people should definitely avoid coffee altogether. These include pregnant women and those with anxiety issues, hypertension (high blood pressure) and insomnia (difficulty sleeping).
I personally love an occasional cup of freshly brewed filter coffee or a cup of coconut latte on the weekends, but if I do more than this it does affect me in a way that I become shaky, foggy and I often find it hard to concentrate. So there really is a fine line between enjoying it in moderation and triggering some negative side effects. I never do more than one cup (240ml) of coffee a day.
I only use organic and fair-trade coffee (just like with chocolate), because coffee, as a crop, is heavily sprayed with pesticides and residues can persist in the ground coffee. Equal Exchange; Grumpy Mule; Cafedirect are great options.
If you don’t drink coffee at the moment then there is really no reason to start it as any of the supposed “health benefits” are not compelling enough to be the reason as it’s really hard to know for sure whether coffee actually causes any beneficial effects at all.
LIMITING YOUR COFFEE INTAKE
HOW MUCH CAFFEINE?
The amounts of caffeine expected per standard 240 millilitres (ml) small cup vary across popular drinks (depending on type, brewing method and the strength of the brew). An excessive daily consumption of caffeine is over 400 milligrams (mg) a day – that’s roughly the amount of caffeine in 3-4 cups of brewed coffee or 8 cups of tea, or 10 cans of cola, or 2 “energy shot” drinks. Be mindful when it comes to the size of cup, because a “cup” of coffee is a 240ml (approx. 8oz) cup with around 100mg of caffeine, not the 470ml (16oz) you would get in a grande coffee at Starbucks, which has about 330mg of caffeine. An espresso may contain as little as 40ml. Remember that milky, sugary coffees can contain up to 500 calories, particularly those found in coffee shops such as Starbucks, see here. Who wants to drink their calories? Not me, thank you. Be informed.
Caffeine consumption has been classified as follows:
low caffeine users: <200 mg/day
moderate caffeine users: 200-400 mg/day
high caffeine users: >400 mg/day
If caffeine is a part of your daily routine, you may want to take a look at just how much caffeine you get in a typical day, especially if you are having sleeping difficulties, feel stressed and uncomfortable, experience headaches, restlessness or anxiety, you may want to consider cutting back. The amount of caffeine found in some drinks (click to zoom or drag to save to your desktop):
If you are tempted to cut down on caffeine consumption, I suggest opting for softer alternatives at first, such as instant coffee and tea. A useful trick is to make it an enjoyable experience, very much what you would do with your regular coffee. I am convinced that to many people the major driving force behind drinking coffee is very much a matter of habit (smell, sentiments, emotions, socialising), not the “energy kick” itself. So starting to form new habits, drinking tea from small cups maybe, and making that experience really meaningful and enjoyable may help you to say goodbye to coffee without too much heartache.
- Matcha green tea
- Green tea
- Turmeric milk
- Warm water with lemon
- Bengal spice tea with almond milk and vanilla cream stevia extract
- Rooibos (Redbush) tea, naturally caffeine free
- Roasted barley*
- Roasted Dandelion*
TRY THIS: HOW TO CUT DOWN ON COFFEE CONSUMPTION?
Because caffeine acts like a drug, you should not attempt to eliminate it suddenly from your diet and go “cold turkey” as this could cause quite dramatic withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, nausea, tiredness, muscle cramps and even feelings of depression To minimise these effects, you should try cutting down gradually, over a period of a few weeks.
Depending on your situation, you may not need to cut caffeine out completely, but you should limit how much you have to no more than 200mg a day (e.g. equating to 1 cup of coffee, 1 cup of tea and some chocolate) . Try cutting down by 1/4 cup everyday until you reach your preferred coffee intake goal. You could start by substituting decaffeinated coffee (look for labels that state the product is decaffeinated using the “Swiss water” or “carbon dioxide” method) for half of your total coffee intake each day and gradually switch over completely to grain coffees. Your ultimate aim, ideally, should be to do away with decaffeinated coffee as well because it still contains other stimulants (theobromine and theophylline) that are not removed when the coffee is decaffeinated.
You will know when your body is starting to let go of the need for a cup of coffee or tea to “pick you up” because the urge for it will have disappeared. Once you have managed four clear caffeine-free weeks you could start to add some green tea. Green tea (which is made from unfermented leaves) does contain caffeine but it also has high levels of antioxidants called polyphenols, which are considered to be good for our health.