If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed I’ve been spending a lot of time visiting cafes and drinking coffee lately. This is all part of my strategy to help me settle into a new home in a new area I’ve never lived in before, and the get me back into the rhythm of working while minimising my sense of isolation (you can read more about my 31 Cafes in 31 Days mission here!)
But I’m also a nutritionist and have a very deep curiosity about how the things we do on a daily basis affect the way we feel.
So let’s talk about coffee. Is it good for you? Bad for you? How much is too much?
There are often articles popping up on the Internet about new research showing coffee is good, bad or indifferent when it comes to health. Usually when this kind of conflicting information exists, we tend to cherry-pick the articles that support our current view and use them to validate our actions – so, if you’re a coffee lover, you’ll get excited about the news that coffee is going to extend your lifespan, and tend to ignore the research showing it could exacerbate your anxiety. And if you avoid coffee like the plague, you’ll use the latter to justify your decision and ignore the former. This is just how our human brains work!
But what if you really genuinely want to know how to decide whether something is good for you or not, in the face of this conflicting information?
I thought it might help to walk you through the steps I follow as a practitioner, when I am advising my patients on the pros & cons of drinking coffee for them.
- First, always first: what is your body telling you? How do you feel when you have a coffee? How do you feel when you have three coffees? How do you feel when you go a day or two without it? Have you ever thought about this?
- Second – what role does it play in your life? Why do you drink it? Is it one of your most pleasurable moments of the day? Is it a ritual that you savour? Do you need it to get you through the day? Is it part of fitting in at work or school or with the people you spend time with? Think about the times you drink coffee and the underlying reasons.
- Third – think about your health. There are specific circumstances in which I would almost always counsel against a regular coffee habit. Some of these include people who suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, women suffering from menstrual cycle irregularities or trying to conceive, and people with insulin resistance or blood sugar dysregulation.
By considering all these factors and discussing how a patient’s caffeine intake may be impacting their ability to improve their health, we can make an informed decision about whether a daily caffeine habit is really supporting us.
The truth about coffee…
Here are the top 11 factors to consider when deciding on whether caffeine is right for you:
- Coffee improves mental acuity, concentration and alertness and can temporarily improve mood (although these effects lessen over time, meaning you need increasing quantities to gain the same effect)
- Coffee stimulates the release of cortisol and adrenaline – If you’re already stressed, this this can make you jumpy or quick to anger, and also impact your decision-making & conflict-resolution skills.
- Coffee impairs sleep in a number of ways: it’s harder to fall asleep, it’s harder to stay asleep, when you wake during the night it’s harder to get back to sleep, and while you are sleeping your sleep quality is poor. All of these contribute to a feeling of tiredness and lethargy when you wake the next morning, leading most people to reach for another coffee to get them going.
- Coffee improves athletic performance, making your muscles more efficient and effective, and improving coordination & stamina
- Female hormonal health:
- Caffeine is detrimental to hormone balance, and is linked to difficulty conceiving, increased prevalence of endometriosis and exacerbation of PMS symptoms
- Caffeine also has a negative impact on bone density and as such, minimising intake during and after menopause is highly recommended.
- Coffee has a negative impact on blood sugar regulation due to its ability to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (which triggers your “fight or flight” response and increases blood sugar levels)
- The temporary energy boost gained by drinking coffee has a rebound effect causing greater fatigue – it should definitely be avoided in conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, adrenal depletion and other conditions characterised by fatigue.
- Caffeine depletes your body of essential nutrients (including B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, calcium), either by increasing excretion or reducing absorption.
- Heart health: coffee has been shown to increase both total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol; high coffee intake has been linked to increased incidence of angina and heart attacks; caffeine can increase homocysteine levels, which is a contributing factor to coronary artery disease; it also contributes to increased blood pressure and reduced flexibility of arteries. If you have any other risk factors for heart disease, caffeine is best excluded from your diet.
- Mental health: – caffeine has been linked to depression and anxiety, depletes B vitamins that are essential to healthy neurotransmitter synthesis, and impacts your ability to get the adequate quality sleep needed for healthy mental function
- Pregnancy – caffeine consumed during pregnancy crosses the placenta and has been linked with lower birth weight babies in mothers who regularly consume coffee during pregnancy. An increased risk of miscarriage in the first trimester has been observed in women who consume coffee daily.
It’s worthwhile noting that everyone metabolises caffeine at a different rate, which is why my advice is always first and foremost to observe how you are affected when you drink coffee. All of the above effects will vary between individuals, and are also dose-dependant and may not occur at lower levels of consumption; but once you know how your caffeinated beverage of choice is affecting you, you can make an informed decision about how much coffee to include in your day-to-day life.
For me, I know that coffee is a bit of a mixed blessing – it definitely sparks my motivation and productivity if I drink it early in the day, but also can increase feelings of anxiety and irritability if I’m already that way inclined. If I drink more than one in a day, my sleep really suffers, as it does when I have it too late in the day. It also impacts my ability to feed my body well – because it suppresses my appetite for a while I have a tendency to skip meals, only to suddenly find myself ravenous and desperately craving high-carbohydrate foods later on as my body & brain demand energy.
I also know I can go without for a couple of days without getting withdrawal symptoms – if I ever get to the point where I feel withdrawal symptoms (nasty, nasty headaches!!) I know I’ve overdone it and I take a couple of weeks off the caffeine altogether. Ideally for me – 3-4 coffees a week is probably the optimal, so now that I’m done with my 31 Cafes in (much more than) 31 Days challenge, I will back off and make sure I have a few caffeine-free days each week.
I hope this has shed some light on the potential effects of coffee and helps you to work out what’s best for you. Would love to hear your experiences with caffeine below! Comment away or pop over to join the discussion on Facebook.
Now, I’m off to have another coffee…. 😜