Coffee – drink it or avoid it?
Coffee is far more than a beverage. It is an invitation to life, disguised as a cup of warm liquid. It’s a trumpet wake up call or a gentle rousing hand on your shoulder … Coffee is an experience, an offer, a rite of passage, a good excuse to get together. ~ Nichole Johnson
Coffee is the most popular hot beverage in North America and you either hate it or love 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!
Coffee is actually used medicinally to relieve constipation, headaches and indigestion and to stimulate liver function. Coffee can be taken as a tincture, infusion, or coffee charcoal.
The American Gastroenterological Association journal published a meta-analysis on effects of coffee consumption and liver cancer. A 40% risk reduction in hepatocellular carcinoma was associated with coffee consumption versus no consumption. An article in the Circulation journal reports that women who consumed 4 or more cups of coffee per day had a 20% lower risk of stroke. Another health benefit of coffee is reduced risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes. In an 11-year prospective study by Pereira et al., women who consumed 6 or more cups of coffee per day had a 22% lower risk of diabetes.
Coffee does not equal caffeine. Coffee contains between 50-400 mg of caffeine/cup, averaging around 100 mg/cup. Coffee is one of the most popular ways to consume this stimulant. But… a cup of coffee contains a lot of things over and above the caffeine. Not just water, but antioxidants, and hundreds of other compounds. 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 40x 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 coffee (and 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 metabolism I 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):
- Increases your stress hormone cortisol
- Boosts energy and exercise performance
- Stimulates the brain
- Boosts metabolism
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)
- Mixed reviews on whether it lowers risks of cancer and heart disease
- Increased sleep disruption
- Lower risk of certain liver diseases
- Lower risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Lower risk of death (“all cause mortality”)
- Lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes
Many of the health benefits exist even for decaf coffee (except the caffeine addiction and sleep issues).
What’s super-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 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.
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.
It’s important to note that a compound called cafestol that is found in coffee can elevate cholesterol levels in the body. It can be removed by passing coffee through a paper filter. Studies have shown that drinking unfiltered coffee can raise cholesterol. This suggests that choosing paper filtered coffee over boiled, French press coffee and espresso may be beneficial. Long-term use of coffee can cause diarrhea, elevated blood pressure, heart palpitations and insomnia. Coffee is also highly correlated with fibrocystic breasts in females and can cause colic in babies whose mother consumes coffee.
Caffeinated coffee is not recommended for:
- People who are pregnant
- People with arrhythmias (e.g. irregular heartbeat)
- People who have trouble sleeping
- Children and teens.
- People who often feel anxious
If none of these apply, then monitor how your body reacts when you have coffee. Does it:
- Give you a reason to drink a lot of sugar and cream?
- Give you the jitters?
- Affect your sleep?
- Increase anxious feelings?
- Give you heart palpitations?
- Affect your digestion (e.g. heartburn, etc.)?
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.
- Francesca Bravi, Cristina Bosetti, Alessandra Tavani, Silvano Gallus, Carlo La Vecchia. Coffee Reduces Risk for Hepatocellular Carcinoma: An Updated Meta-analysis. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 2013; 11 (11): 1413.
- Lopez-Garcia E, Rodriguez-Artalejo F, Rexrode KM, Logroscino G, Hu FB, van Dam RM. Coffee consumption and risk of stroke in women. Circulation. 2009 March 3; 119(8): 1116–1123
- Pereira MA, Parker ED, Folsom AR. Coffee consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus: an 11-year prospective study of 28 812 postmenopausal women. Arch Intern Med. 2006 Jun 26;166(12):1311-6.
- van Dusseldorp M, Katan MB, van Vliet T, Demacker PN, Stalenhoef AF. Cholesterol-raising factor from boiled coffee does not pass a paper filter. Arterioscler Thromb. 1991 May-Jun;11(3):586-93.
- Global Industry Analysts, Inc. http://www.prweb.com/releases/hot_beverages/coffee_tea/prweb8128159.htm
- Can your coffee habit help you live longer. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-your-coffee-habit-help-you-live-longer-201601068938
- How much coffee should you drink. https://authoritynutrition.com/how-much-coffee-should-you-drink/
- All about coffee. http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-coffee
- A wake up call on coffee. http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/a-wake-up-call-on-coffee
- Coffee Association of Canada. http://www.coffeeassoc.com/coffeeincanada.htm
- Coffee Resistance? http://suppversity.blogspot.ca/2014/05/caffeine-resistance-genetic.html
- Coffee good or bad? https://authoritynutrition.com/coffee-good-or-bad/
- Godfrey A, Saunders PR, Barlow K, Gilbert C, Gowan M, Smith F. Principles & Practices of Naturopathic Botanical Medicine Volume I: Botanical Medicine Monographs. Toronto, Ontario: CCNM Press, 2010.