Coffee is one of those things - you either love it or hate it. You know if you like the taste or not (or if it’s just a reason to drink sugar and cream). You know how it makes you feel (i.e. your gut, your mind, etc.).
Not to mention the crazy headlines that say coffee is great, and the next day you should avoid it!
There is actual science behind why different people react differently to it. It's a matter of your genetics and how much coffee you're used to drinking.
Before we delve into this subject, let’s note that coffee does not equal caffeine. Coffee contains between 50-400 mg of caffeine per cup, averaging around 100 mg per cup. Coffee is one of the most popular ways to consume this stimulant. But… a cup of coffee contains a lot of beneficial compounds other than the caffeine. Not just water, but antioxidants, and hundreds of other phytochemicals. These are the reasons drinking a cup of coffee is not the same as taking a caffeine pill. And decaffeinated coffee has a lot less caffeine; but, it still contains some.
Let's look at caffeine metabolism, its effects on the mind and body, and whether coffee drinkers have higher or lower risks of disease. Then I’ll give you some things to consider when deciding if coffee is for you or not.
Not all people metabolize caffeine at the same speed. How fast you metabolize caffeine will impact how you’re affected by the caffeine. In fact, caffeine metabolism can be up to 40 times faster in some people than others.
About half of us are “slow” metabolizers of caffeine. We can get jitters, heart palpitations, and feel "wired" for up to 9 hours after having a coffee. The other half is "fast" metabolizers of caffeine. They get energy and increased alertness and are back to normal a few hours later.
This is part of the reason those headlines contradict each other so much - because we’re all different!
The effects of caffeine on the mind and body
NOTE: Most studies look at caffeinated coffee, not decaf.
The effects of coffee (and caffeine) on the mind and body also differ between people; this is partly from the metabolic differences mentioned. But it also has to do with your body’s amazing ability to adapt (read: become more tolerant) to long-term caffeine use. Many people who start drinking coffee feel the effects a lot more than people who have coffee every day.
Here’s a list of these effects (that usually decrease with long-term use):
Stimulates the brain
Boosts energy and exercise performance
Increases your stress hormone cortisol
So, while some of these effects are good and some aren’t, you need to see how they affect you and decide if it’s worth it or not.
Coffee and health risks
There are a ton of studies on the health effects of coffee, and whether coffee drinkers are more or less likely to get certain conditions.
Here’s a quick summary of what coffee can lead to:
Caffeine addiction and withdrawal symptoms (e.g. a headache, fatigue, irritability)
Increased sleep disruption
Lower risk of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's
Lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes
Lower risk of certain liver diseases
Lower risk of death (“all cause mortality")
Mixed reviews on whether it lowers risks of cancer and heart disease
Many of the health benefits exist even for decaf coffee (except the caffeine addiction and sleep issues).
What is very important to note here is that coffee intake is just one of many, many factors that can affect your risks for these diseases. Please never think regular coffee intake is the one thing that can help you overcome these risks. You are health-conscious and critical-minded and know that eating a nutrient-rich whole foods diet, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep and exercise are all critical things to consider for your disease risk. It’s not just about the coffee.
Coffee and adrenal health
Here's the problem. Caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands, which means that every time you drink coffee, you're activating the body's fight-or-flight response, which means releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the system. But, instead releasing these hormones so the body can react to a true stressor, the adrenals are releasing them in response to your coffee consumption. This desired effect of caffeine is why so many people start their morning with a cup of joe!
However, if you are suffering from adrenal fatigue, then you are asking your body to release even more cortisol. If you are in the alarm phase, that means that your cortisol will raise even more. But if you are in the exhaustion phase, then your adrenal glands won’t be able to output more cortisol in the system since there are already depleted. Which is when you are left feeling even more tired and crabby than you did when you woke up and had your first cup of coffee.
The temptation for some in this vicious cycle that is adrenal fatigue is to reach for another cup of coffee or a shot of espresso to help with increasing energy and unveil that mental fog, which will further tax the adrenal glands.
Should you drink coffee or not?
There are a few things to consider when deciding whether you should drink coffee. No one food or drink will make or break your long-term health.
Caffeinated coffee is not recommended for:
People with arrhythmias (e.g. irregular heartbeat)
People who often feel anxious
People who have trouble sleeping
People who are pregnant
If none of these apply, then monitor how your body reacts when you have coffee. Does it:
Give you the jitters?
Increase anxious feelings?
Affect your sleep?
Give you heart palpitations?
Affect your digestion (e.g. heartburn, etc.)?
Give you a reason to drink a lot of sugar and cream?
Depending on how your body reacts, decide whether these reactions are worth it to you. If you’re not sure, I recommend eliminating it for a while and see the difference.
The last thing you should take into account before deciding if coffee is actually not good for you and you shouldn’t have it as part of your daily regimen is the quality of coffee. Not all coffee are created equal! Most store bought coffee grounds as well as many popular coffee chains use poor quality beans that are often moulded even before being processed. Some studies show that upward of 90% of coffee beans sold worldwide are contaminated with mycotoxins! You heard right!
Mycotoxins are damaging compounds created by molds which grow on coffee beans, among other hosts like vanilla leaves and cacao pods. These compounds can lead to many healthy problems like cardiomyopathy, cancer, hypertension, kidney disease, and even brain damage. If you feel jittery and foggy after your cup of coffee, it is probably because it is molded. These mycotoxins also make your coffee taste bitter, so hence why people tend to add sugar to their cup of Folgers.
To increase your chance of drinking high quality coffee free of mold, buy whole coffee beans from a local roaster that have been roasted within the last 10 days, and use within 2 to 3 weeks of roasting time. Ground your coffee beans prior to brewing your coffee as ground coffee has more surface area for oxygen to leach out the flavor compounds and oxidize the coffee.
For some, coffee brewing and drinking is an art. If that is not your style, make sure to buy coffee beans that have been roasted recently by checking the roasting date, and invest in an inexpensive coffee grinder to grind coffee prior to brewing at home!