Ahh, the age old question: is coffee good for you, or bad for you? Unfortunately, unlike coffee, the answer is not so black or white…
Given the popularity of the coffee industry, much research has gone into studying its health benefits. (What industry wouldn’t want to prove their drink is not only tasty but also healthy?!) According to two recent studies done in Europe over a period of 16 years, the conclusion appears to be that subjects who drank 1 cup of coffee per day, when compared to those who never or rarely drank coffee, have a 12% lower risk of death from cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, respiratory disease, and kidney disease. For those who drank 3 cups every day, mortality risk was 18% lower (1).
BUT… It’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. While there are many studies that are suggestive of health benefits, most are inconclusive due to conflicting results or inadequate data. However, there are a few studies that indicate promising effects of drinking coffee (not just “caffeine”, but specifically “coffee”) (2):
- Decreased risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer)
- Lower risk of advanced liver cirrhosis for those with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Decreased mortality for those with alcoholic liver cirrhosis
My goal here is not to deter you from coffee altogether but to educate you so you can make an informed decision about what is best for you.
Indeed, there are several studies that have shown benefits to drinking coffee (2), including a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (however, short-term clinical trials have found that caffeine impaired glucose tolerance and decreased insulin sensitivity in healthy individuals).
While there may be health benefits to drinking coffee, it’s important to also consider context. If you suffer from chronic inflammatory conditions, autoimmune disorder, digestive disorder, and even mental health disorders, you may want to rethink your morning cup of java.
Coffee has been linked to a significant increase of homocysteine levels in the blood.
One study at the Wageningen Centre of Food Sciences showed that 2 cups of regular coffee increased homocysteine by 11% after only 4 hours, whereas caffeine tablets on their own only raised it by 5%. This means that there is something other than caffeine in coffee that raises homocysteine levels. The jury is still out on this one (3).
But, what is homocysteine, you ask???
It is a by-product of the metabolism of an amino acid (protein) called methionine. Methionine is one of nine essential amino acids that we need to obtain from protein sources in our diet in order to function optimally, and it is part of a process called methylation. Methylation occurs in every single cell in the body: it is required to make energy, to make hormones and neurotransmitters, for detoxification, and to repair and copy DNA (aka. to make new cells). While methylation is a process that is absolutely necessary for living, we can develop a build-up of homocysteine as a part of this process if we do not have adequate nutrients to run this pathway (specifically, but not limited to, folate, vitamin B6, B12, and betaine). Elevated homocysteine levels have been linked to many diseases and chronic illness, including Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease (including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack, and stroke), migraines, headaches, mental health disorders (such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder), and behavioural problems (such as ADHD).
Of note, while there is a proven correlation of increased homocysteine with increased consumption of coffee, it has not been established that there is any direct link to increased coffee intake to cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s (8).
Caffeine/coffee raises cortisol levels.
Just one cup of coffee is enough to elevate and sustain high cortisol levels. This is the hormone released by your adrenal glands in response to stress. High cortisol levels have been linked to impaired digestion due to stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight” response), increased anxiety, weight gain, sleep disorders and fatigue (feeling “tired but wired”), hormonal imbalance, high blood pressure, decreased immune system and increased susceptibility to infection, increased blood glucose and susceptibility to diabetes, acne and other skin conditions, and a higher risk for osteoporosis. (What a list!!)
Because caffeine stimulates the release of cortisol, it also wears on the adrenal glands (which produce this hormone) and can contribute to development of adrenal fatigue. Elevated levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, have been linked to a higher rate of death from heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular disease.
Caffeine/coffee raises levels of dopamine and noradrenaline (more stress hormones).
Caffeine blocks the receptors for a brain chemical called adenosine, whose function is to stop the release of our primary “motivation hormones”, dopamine and noradrenaline. With decreased adenosine, levels of dopamine and noradrenaline increase, and this causes us to feel more alert and motivated to “get ‘er done”. This effect peaks at 30-60 minutes following coffee consumption.
However, the more caffeine we drink, the more we become insensitive to our body’s own natural stimulants, and so, we need more stimulants to feel normal (re: we need to drink more coffee). This pushes our body to produce more dopamine and noradrenaline which can eventually result in adrenal fatigue with feelings of anxiety, depression, exhaustion, and an inability to cope. (4)
Caffeine disrupts sleep.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in our brain in response to darkness, and it is responsible for allowing us to go to sleep at night. Melatonin levels start to rise a few hours before bed, and usually peak somewhere between 2 and 4 a.m.. But for coffee drinkers, the amount of melatonin that the body produces is halved, and these melatonin-depressing effects can last for up to 10 hours after drinking a cup of coffee (4).
Additionally, caffeine inhibits the release of GABA which is an amino acid and neurotransmitter that is responsible for “switching off” adrenaline (5). GABA is known for promoting feelings of calm, so inhibiting its release can contribute to feelings of anxiety or an inability to fall asleep.
Coffee/caffeine stimulates gastric emptying.
While the research is not conclusive, some studies suggest that coffee may stimulate emptying of the stomach contents into the small bowel (6). Some may think this insignificant; however, if the food in the stomach is not completely digested prior to moving into the small bowel, this can result in symptoms of gas, bloating, and abdominal cramping.
Caffeine is also known to stimulate the release of gastric juices which can precipitate symptoms of heartburn and reflux; and it causes contraction of the gall bladder to secrete bile, so for those suffering from gall stones, it may cause pain in the right upper abdomen (7).
Coffee/caffeine depletes mineral stores and vitamins.
Drinking coffee is associated with decreased circulating levels of folate, vitamin B2 and B6, most likely due to increased excretion, given caffeine is a known diuretic (8). It also causes depletion of vitamin C, and effects mineral absorption, especially calcium, magnesium, and iron.
There is limited evidence to support causation; however, some studies suggest that higher levels of caffeine intake found a 35% increased risk of osteoporotic fractures compared to participants with the lowest intakes of coffee. With iron, on the other hand, there are compounds found in the coffee bean (which means drinking decaf won’t ameliorate the problem) that can bind to plant-based iron and inhibit its absorption in the intestine by 24-73% (2).
Coffee contains compounds that may contribute to negative health effects.
There are bioactive compounds found in coffee that can contribute to both positive and negative health effects. Chlorogenic and caffeic acids have demonstrated antioxidant activities, but it is unclear how much they actually contribute in the body because they are extensively broken down by the liver, and the by-products have a significantly lower antioxidant activity.
Caffeine is another bioactive compound which has already been discussed in detail in the paragraphs above. Its activity is generally stimulatory on the nervous system.
Diterpenes are fat-soluble compounds which have been found to raise LDL cholesterol and total blood cholesterol in humans.
(*Note: While caffeine can be reduced to almost negligible amounts through decaffeination, this process has not been proven to eliminate the other potentially harmful constituents found in coffee.)
Coffee is also a crop that is heavily sprayed with pesticides: it’s actually one of the most chemically treated crops in the world. Pesticides have been linked to a wide variety of health problems, including hormone disruption, autoimmune disorders, gastrointestinal problems and disturbance of the gut microflora, cancer… and the list goes on. Therefore, it’s best to avoid food crops that are known for their heavy pesticide use by choosing organic. However…
Drinking organic coffee doesn’t completely eliminate the issue of chemicals: although organic coffee won’t be laden with pesticide residues, this means the crops are more susceptible to growing a type of fungus called mycotoxin. The mycotoxins with a specific affinity for coffee beans are aflatoxin B1 (which is a known carcinogen), and ochratoxin A (which has been less studied but may be a weak carcinogen as well)(9). While levels of these toxins may be present in low amounts, with frequent and repeated exposure (such as with your daily cup(s) of coffee), this has the potential to lead to cumulative effects – especially if your primary detoxifying organs (the liver, kidneys, and colon) aren’t functioning optimally.
Studies have shown that the highest level of aflatoxins have been found in decaffeinated coffee beans. While there is some research that suggests roasting the beans destroys the mycotoxins, the jury is still out on this one. If you’ve been suffering from symptoms of a non-specific origin, and you feel like you’ve tried everything under the sun to no avail, you may want to consider eliminating your daily coffee habit to see if your condition improves. I’m not saying mycotoxins will cause problems for everyone; I’m simply suggesting that for those with the right internal terrain and conditions in their body, they may cause issue.
To sum up, coffee and/or caffeine consumption may be linked to, or exacerbate, a number of health conditions or symptomatic complaints, including (but not limited to):
- High blood pressure
- Anxiety and depression
- Headaches, migraines
- Adrenal fatigue
- Insomnia and sleep disorders
- Female hormonal disorders, such as PMS or fertility problems
- Cognitive decline
- Decreased immune function
- Digestive complaints
Now I’m not trying to tell you that you need to completely eliminate coffee or caffeine altogether. Some people can tolerate it just fine. However, if you suffer from any of the conditions or symptoms discussed in this post, you may want to reconsider your coffee consumption and reduce, or, at least for a period of time, eliminate your coffee and/or caffeine consumption.
Fortunately, there are a number of healthy alternatives to coffee, some with caffeine and some without:
- Maca powder: Rich in antioxidants, this cruciferous vegetable enhances energy, mood and memory without the same jitters as drinking a caffeinated beverage. Buy it as a ground powder and mix it into a morning smoothie.
- Grain coffee: Generally made from roasted dandelion root, chicory or barley; it offers a similar bitter, nutty flavour without all the negative side effects. And, as an added bonus, dandelion and chicory root both support healthy liver function!
- Mushroom elixir/tea: A great coffee alternative with many options available on the market providing a powdered combination of different medicinal mushrooms and other beneficial herbs with antioxidants and mood-boosting properties. Specifically, mushrooms that can help improve focus and mental energy include Lion’s Mane, Shiitake, and Cordyceps. (There are many mushroom elixirs on the market, my current favourite is Harmonic Arts, Elevate.)
- Herbal teas containing ginseng, holy basil, or licorice: These brain-boosting herbs promote mental alertness without the use of caffeine and support healthy adrenal function. Peppermint can also give you a lift if you’re feeling fatigued or low energy.
- Water: Did you know that just a 2% reduction in fluid levels can cause slowed cognition and inhibit short-term memory? If you feel tired, have a headache, or find it difficult to concentrate, you may be dehydrated. Try having a glass of water. (See my post on how much water you should be drinking.)
- Green tea: While not caffeine-free, it offers a host of health benefits, including EGCG, which is a powerful antioxidant that protects cardiovascular and metabolic health. It also has a lower caffeine content than coffee and may be a good alternative for those who are slowly weaning off caffeine, or not quite ready to kick the habit entirely.
- Match green tea powder: This is basically like consuming all of the benefits of green tea, but in a concentrated form. One serving of this has only about a fifth the caffeine as coffee, and it is delivered slowly so there are no resultant caffeine jitters. Matcha has been shown to reduce risk of cancer, aid with weight loss, boost energy, improve immune function, and reduce risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.
To summarize, I again want to reiterate that I am in no way suggesting everyone stop drinking their morning java – I merely want you to consider how your morning routine may be affecting your health. If you are an individual living a healthy, happy, and active lifestyle without qualm or complaint, then by all means, continue to enjoy your cuppa’ joe. However, if you are someone who is living far from your optimal level of health or who is suffering from one or several of the symptoms or conditions that may be associated with coffee/caffeine consumption, I urge you to consider reducing (or, ideally, eliminating) coffee from your diet – at least for a few of weeks – to see how you respond and notice how you feel without the daily influx of caffeine and other potentially harmful constituents.
Optimal health is all about finding balance and what works for you, in your life. As I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again: nutrition is not a one-sized fits all formula. It’s all about experimenting to find out what creates a level of balance for us, as individuals.