Coffee: Friend or Foe?
We hear a lot of conflicting reports on coffee.
For years, we were told that coffee was bad for health. But in the recent decade, the media have often been spinning stories about the health benefits of coffee.
I’m going to try to put things in perspective for you, on a topic I have thoroughly researched over the years, in books and on myself.
My Personal History with Coffee
I never drank coffee or caffeinated sodas growing up. And I preferred white chocolate to dark or milk chocolate, for some reason.
I did my graduate studies in a music school (specializing in classical guitar) and noticed that many of my musician friends started to drink coffee. I remember giving it a try one day, thinking it would improve my concentration while practicing.
Since I was not used to drinking coffee, it gave me an instant buzz. My heart was racing, and when I sat down to practice the guitar (I was practicing 5 hours a day at the time), I noticed that my hand was shaking! I certainly couldn’t practice like that, so I didn’t try coffee again.
Later, a friend of mine told me that some Flamenco players drink a lot of coffee in order to be able to play in a very fast, jittery style. I remember thinking, “This doesn’t make sense! I couldn’t even play an arpeggio right when drinking the stuff!”
After that, I got into raw and healthy foods, and so I wasn’t enticed to drink coffee (even though I met many raw-foodists who were fond of black espresso coffee).
I eventually slipped off when a girlfriend introduced me to the wonderful world of gourmet coffees: lattes (you could even order it with soy milk!), cappuccinos, espressos, mochaccinos, and so many more delicious combinations.
I instantly became a coffee fan.
Since then, I have had a love/hate relationship with coffee. For most of the last 15 years, I managed to stay away from the stuff. But for quite a few occasions, I fell back into a coffee-drinking habit.
I basically love the stimulation I get from coffee and other caffeine-containing drinks, but my body seems to react more negatively to it than most people. So this led me to investigate the world of coffee to try to understand its dangers and its benefits.
The Biggest Commodity in the World
Isn’t it funny that what started out as a European delicacy has turned into one of the most craved substances and addictions in the world?
People drink coffee more than any other beverage, including soft drinks or tea. Second only to oil in world trade, annual coffee consumption worldwide was estimated in 2003 to be over 400 billion cups, with Brazil as the largest producer globally. Americans consume more than 400 million cups a day!
What’s Wrong with Coffee?
There are a few, well-researched dangers and negatives for drinking coffee. The amount necessary to bring about those negatives can vary according to the person, but there’s plenty of data to support each negative.
1) Unfiltered Coffee Raises Cholesterol Levels
Coffee contains two substances — cafestol and kahweol — that raise total cholesterol, including the bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Cholesterol is raised by an average of 10% through consuming coffee, but strong, boiled coffee can raise cholesterol by as much as 23%.
Cholesterol-lowering medications will usually lower cholesterol numbers by 10%, so that means that most people could experience the same benefits that statin drugs provide just by giving up their daily coffee.
Which types of coffee raise cholesterol levels? Any type that has not gone through a paper filter, as the filter traps the cafestol and kahweol. Unfortunately, that includes the types of coffee popular these days:
- Espresso and any beverage made from it (cafe latte, cappuccino, etc.)
– Boiled coffee made in a French press (this type of coffee raises cholesterol levels the most)
– Decaf coffee
Filtered coffee may not raise cholesterol levels. Instant coffee is also safe in that regard.
2) Coffee Raises Blood Pressure
Coffee, and in fact any type of caffeine, raises blood pressure for most people. Decaf coffee also raises blood pressure, so there are probably elements in the coffee, besides the caffeine, that contribute to this rise.
Systolic blood pressure can rise from 5 to 15 mmHg, and the diastolic (bottom number) can rise 5 to 10 mmHg. Many medications lower blood pressure by this amount, so again, in sensitive individuals, giving up coffee can be as effective as medicines in lowering blood pressure.
3) Coffee Upsets the Stomach
Not every coffee drinker is sensitive to this effect of coffee, and consumption levels will greatly affect it. Both caffeinated and decaf coffees increase acid production in the stomach. Other factors are also at work that can create problems like heartburn and acid reflux, or ulcers.
4) Coffee Causes Headaches
Caffeine is a widely known migraine trigger. I’m prone to migraine headaches, like my mom, but I know it’s very difficult for me to get a migraine if I don’t consume any source of caffeine (that includes chocolate or raw cacao). One of my readers wrote:
“I love coffee so much but it gives me terrible migraines, insomnia, and anxiety. If I drink it 2 days in a row, I am a mess. I tried drinking decaf but after a week, I start getting migraines. I tried matcha green tea and I get the same migraines. When I stop the coffee, green tea & decaf, I no longer get migraines for months. If I try to have a cup, I know within a few weeks I will get a migraine. I have found that yerba mate will give me the same insomnia as coffee but no headaches.” Lola
5) Other Negative Effects that Come From Overstimulation
According to Gayle Reichler, MS, RD, CDN: “Within five minutes after you drink your morning coffee, the caffeine begins to stimulate your central nervous system, triggering the release of stress hormones in your body, causing a stress (‘fight or flight’) response. Within the next hour or so, after the stress response dissipates, you will probably feel more tired and hungry.” So what appears as “quick energy” is in reality a stress response triggered by the adrenal glands!
Some people are more or less sensitive to the stimulation provided by caffeine, and take more or less time to recover from it.
Over time, and depending on the level of consumption, coffee drinking can lead to many problems in sensitive or heavy users:
The negative effects of caffeine on the body include:
- Energy swings or periods of fatigue during the day
- Mood swings or periods of depression
- Constipation and/or dependence on caffeine for bowel movement
- Tension or stiffness in the neck, shoulders, hands, legs or stomach
- Premenstrual syndrome, menstrual irregularity, camps, sore breasts
- Painful/sensitive lumps in breast
- Irritability, including inappropriate fits of anger
- Irregular or rapid heartbeat
- Waking up feeling tired
- Generalized pain (back, stomach, muscles)
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty in concentration
- Ringing in ears
- Coldness in extremities
- Hand tremor
This list is taken from the highly researched book Caffeine Blues.
The Benefits of Coffee
Every now and then, a news story comes out touting the health benefits of coffee.
Some of the benefits include:
1) Lowers Type 2 Diabetes Risk
Research has shown that coffee consumption lowers risk of type 2 diabetes, especially with high consumption (6 to 7 cups a day!). Decaf coffee actually led to more benefits than regular coffee.
2) Protects the Brain and Lowers Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease
The whole coffee/caffeine benefits for Alzheimer’s prevention research was done through animal studies with mice. Mice were given caffeine in their drinking water from a young age into adulthood. The caffeinated mice got some protection against memory impairment and other brain abnormalities that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. The equivalent of 500mg of caffeine a day was used.
I personally take this one with a grain of salt, considering that humans have a much more complex brain and other ways to stimulate it to prevent its decline.
3) May Help Ward Off Development of Parkinson’s Disease.
Research shows that in people prone to developing Parkinson’s disease, a higher caffeine intake lowers risk of developing the disease, and may also help movement in people affected from it.
4) May Help Protect Against Certain Kinds of Cancer, such as Skin Cancer.
People drinking at least 3 cups of coffee per day are less likely to develop certain types of skin cancer (21% less for women and 10% less for men).
The benefits are attributed to caffeine itself, but apparently more research is needed to confirm this positive association.
What to Think of the Benefits vs. the Risks
Coffee drinkers rejoice whenever news arrives that show that their favorite drinks isn’t so bad after all. It has some health benefits!
The health dangers of caffeine and coffee are well researched and established science. So what should we think of it all?
One critical element that is often missing from the discussion is the issue of caffeine sensitivity.
You’ll notice that many of the benefits of coffee come with high or extreme consumption (3 to 9 cups a day!). But missing from all the news stories are the dangers associated with such a high consumption of coffee.
Most people who enjoy coffee without too many side effects limit themselves to 1 to 3 cups a day.
But there is a significant percentage of the population, to which I belong, that could be considered extremely sensitive to caffeine. A genetic mutation was even found that slows down the breakdown of caffeine the body in some individuals, leading to increased risk of heart disease with caffeine consumption.
A study done on 4000 coffee drinkers found that drinking two or more cups of coffee each day increases the risk of heart disease, but only in those individuals with this genetic mutation. But this mutation apparently affects 54% of the population!
People without this gene can apparently drink as much coffee as they want and not risk their heart health! How do you know if you’re one of the lucky ones? There’s no way to test for now.
However, I do believe that signs of caffeine sensitivity are fairly easy to identify.
Regular consumption of coffee or caffeine leads to the following symptoms in sensitive individuals:
- Skin irritation: eczema, rashes, itching, etc.
– Back and shoulder pains
– Angry, irritable, bad mood
– Flu/Cold like symptoms
– Chronic fatigue and irritability
– Anxiety and panic attacks
– Lack of focus and concentration
– Extreme jitters
A lot of information has surfaced in recent years on the web about individuals suffering from caffeine allergy. Tongue, glands or throat swelling are one sign, as well as all the symptoms I listed on caffeine sensitivity.
A documented case in 1936 presented a young woman allergic to caffeine, with symptoms of delirium and mania, resembling schizophrenia. (It’s actually my belief that many people are falsely being diagnosed with mental illness when in fact they have an allergy/hyper-sensitivity to caffeine.)
There seems to be a fine line between caffeine sensitivity and allergy.
“The allergic person may experience sneezing, an itchy mouth, hoarseness, difficulty breathing, hives, swollen throat/tongue/lips/face, difficulty swallowing, eczema, fainting, heart palpitations, pain in the chest or hyperventilation.” (reference)
Many of my readers who are also very sensitive to caffeine wrote to me with similar stories:
“I have given it up more times than I can remember. I give up because it ultimately makes me feel very bad. After about 4 days of having just one small cup a day, I begin to feel tired, headachy and even sickly. It’s like a buildup of caffeine in my system that my body can’t get rid of quickly enough. So then I have to stop drinking it because I feel sick and when I do stop drinking it, I get withdrawal symptoms of feeling even worse until it leaves my body. And yet, and yet… so far, I always go back to it because after I am caffeine-free, I feel good, and then I think, oh, just one cup won’t hurt. But, of course, it does, and it’s never just one cup.” Lisa Walpole
“I am very sensitive just like you Frederic, but I have discovered that combining even a healthy raw diet with too little sleep at times still leaves one tired. So I decided to buy some food grade matcha powder since (though probably not raw, but possibly) I thought it would be the purest form of the “drug.” It does work like coffee in keeping awake and I found that regulating the amount taken (in my green smoothies) I was able to have more ‘of that fake energy.’ But soon anxiety and depression came back. Instead of using that energy to be more productive I often found the caffeine energy helped me find more ways to procrastinate. The famous Russian scientist, Pavlov, called coffee ‘bad habit glue,’ and I have found this to be true.” Christopher
So What’s the Truth? Is Coffee Good or Bad?
Many people drink too much coffee and experience many health problems as a result. Their bodies are in a constant state of stress caused by the chemical stimulation of caffeine.
Others enjoy a daily cup or two with no or very few side effects.
Would I tell these people to quit? Unless you’re noticing many of the symptoms that I listed in my article, you can probably continue safely your moderate coffee drinking. In fact, I secretly envy you!
A smaller subset of the population is probably too sensitive to caffeine to consume it on a daily basis. Some people should avoid it completely. We don’t know if it’s an allergy, or the mysterious genetic mutation that makes some people process caffeine more slowly. But in any case, you probably know that you are sensitive to caffeine after reading this article, and in this case quitting makes sense.
Yes, there could be some benefits associated with coffee drinking, but clearly, there are also many negatives. What worries me with all those “pro-caffeine” articles is that nobody talks about the fact that caffeine is a drug, that people self-medicate with it, and few are aware of the side effects.
Many people live with “clinical depression” that is, in fact, a consequence of drinking coffee. Nobody ever told them that depression can have physical causes and be as simple as the regular consumption of coffee, when one is very sensitive to caffeine.
If you do realize that caffeine is not good for you, and you try your best to quit caffeine, you then have to face the terrible withdrawal symptoms, which include:
- Profound fatigue
- Increased muscle tension
That’s one of the main reasons why people are afraid of quitting caffeine: those damn withdrawal symptoms.
Here are a few helpful tips for you:
- Don’t go cold turkey! Allow a period of 2-3 weeks to completely get off caffeine. Use the painless program at: http://www.teeccino.com/quitting.aspx?
- Once you have completely quit caffeine, don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t immediately feel better. It will take 4 to 8 weeks AFTER you are completely off caffeine to feel back to your old self. But be prepared for a big change in your health: you will feel a lot better! Just give it enough time.
- Replace caffeine with exercise! Get a natural oxygen boost that way.
- Learn some valuable breathing exercises.
- Improve your diet. Drink more green smoothies. The beneficial elements in greens will help you overcome caffeine addiction.
I’m not saying that there’s no place for caffeine in the world, and that everybody should quit drinking coffee. But you have to find out how your body can operate at its best, and for many people, that means drinking no coffee or caffeinated beverages at all.
But I want to hear from you. Do you consume any form of caffeine? Do you consider yourself sensitive to caffeine?
Did you quit coffee or caffeine?
I’d be curious to hear your story! Let me know in the comment section below…
Coffee to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes?: A systematic review.
Caffeine and coffee as therapeutics against Alzheimer’s disease.
Association of Coffee and Caffeine Intake with the Risk of Parkinson Disease
Coffee May Help Protect against Skin Cancer
Genetics Found to Have a Hand in Coffee Risk
Coffee: The Great Energy Sapper:
Coffee: Pleasure or Pain: