Health Dynamo or Demon: Coffee Myth-Busting
So much of the health media promotes extreme viewpoints. Depending on where you get your data, vegetarianism is either touted as the best or the worst dietary solution for obesity. Soy either directly causes breast cancer or definitively prevents it. Oatmeal reduces risk of heart disease or directly contributes to it. Of course, sensationalism sells. And many sources (especially on-line) are just based on opinion and personal experience. But especially when these headlines are touting sound biochemistry (and perhaps clinical study results as well) to back up their claims, it makes you wonder how and why scientific inquiry comes up so often with opposed findings.
The truth is that the correct answer to the oft-asked-of-me question, “Is this healthy or not?” is almost always “Well, it depends.” Unfortunately we like generalizations; we want to have a short list of healthy choices that everyone can follow without further inquiry. The truth is that nothing is healthy for everyone all the time. Some people thrive as vegetarians; others become exhausted and anemic. Oatmeal helps some to lose weight; others become insulin resistant and gain more belly fat. Yogurt for some can help to heal an irritable gut; for others, it directly causes inflammation. We are all different. At Purpose, the focus in our client work is on customizing solutions for each unique person given their goals and the full set of dynamics happening in their body. So yes: coffee is indeed a health dynamo for some and a demon for others.
Here are some truths. Coffee is a beverage brewed from the roasted, ground seeds of the coffee plant. Coffee is loaded with a rich variety of phytonutrients, including a particularly high level of polyphenols, the same class of antioxidants for which we trumpet the cardiovascular health benefits of red wine and olive oil. Much of the world’s population gets well over half of their daily intake of polyphenols from coffee or tea (another study write-up). There are however, hundreds of specific nutrients in coffee (not just polyphenols and caffeine), and people may have a varying response to them.
Plenty of major institutions have published comprehensive research summaries (e.g. this one from Harvard’s School of Public Health, which is quite well-written) to demonstrate that “generally”, “overall”, or “for the majority of the population”, coffee consumption up to a few cups daily is safe and perhaps even protective against a number of chronic, inflammatory diseases.
A situation in which I am likely to actually recommend coffee is for those with cognitive impairment, including dementia and early signs of Alzheimers.
Genes can play a large role in determining how coffee might affect you. Coffee contains caffeine, and the stimulatory effects of coffee can vary dramatically depending on whether one is genetically a fast or slow metabolizer of caffeine. For example, research shows an increased risk of heart attack if slow metabolizers consume two or more cups of coffee daily, while fast caffeine metabolizers will reduce their risk of heart attack if they consume at least one cup daily. Similar studies have come to the same conclusion regarding coffee consumption and the risk of hypertension; genetic variation in caffeine metabolism is a key differentiator in whether intake is potentially harmful or harmless. That’s not conflicting science; it’s the devil in the detail. Increasingly, interested consumers are able to learn a bit more about their genetic make-up via at-home test kits such as that offered by 23-and-me.
But there can be devil in the detail – and thus confusion about the best personal health choices – on many other fronts. Here are some specific circumstances in which I definitely don’t recommend regular intake of coffee (or black tea):
- Ulcers and gastritis or acid reflux (GERD). Coffee is very acidic and can exacerbate existing erosions in the protective mucosal lining of the stomach. It’s important to make dramatic dietary changes when gastritis is first detected, in order to prevent eventual ulceration. A very effective supplement we often recommend to support natural healing in these cases is Metagenics Ulcinex. Coffee is also a known trigger for acid reflux and should be avoided by anyone with ongoing GERD challenges, so that the true root causes can be identified. We have also seen several clients eliminate 80%+ of their GERD simply by giving up coffee! So definitely worth the exploration.
- Adrenal fatigue. Cortisol is a vital stress hormone in the body which protects us from the damaging effects of stress. Chronic levels of mental/emotional stress or physiological stress (e.g. unaddressed allergies or food sensitivities) can cause sustained, elevated cortisol which eventually wears out adrenal function and drops levels of cortisol output to unhealthy lows. Low cortisol can also cause immune system imbalance and increase allergy, asthma, and autoimmune activation. While these individuals may be attracted to caffeine as an “energy boost”, in truth coffee just accelerates the metabolism of cortisol and worsens the root cause of the problem. We also need adequate cortisol in order to allow thryoid hormone to be active within our cells (as an aside, low cortisol is one of the major reasons why one’s thyroid hormone levels can be mid-normal or better and one can still struggle with hypothyroid symptoms).
- Type 2 diabetics. Similar to the above situation, T2Ds may be drawn to coffee for an energy boost because insulin resistance prevents their body from receiving the appropriate fuel source within their cells. Plus there is evidence that coffee or caffeinated beverages exacerbate blood sugar after meals, especially for those with poorly-controlled diabetes. Until the insulin resistance can be addressed at its root, these clients usually get much better relief by adding more medium chain fatty acids (MCFA – likely coconut oil) to their diet. MCFAs are readily metabolized in the cells, unlike other fats, when there is insulin resistance.
- Insomnia – even mild. Despite myths otherwise, the stimulating effects of caffeine can be quite long-lasting. The half-life of caffeine in the body is up to 6 hours, which means it takes up to 24 hours for it to be fully excreted from your body. This means that your late morning cup of coffee can be a major reason why you struggle to go to bed early enough or why you don’t sleep as deeply as you wish. Many of our clients over the years have been surprised to learn that even their single, early-morning cup of coffee was actually a major contributor to poor sleep.
- Anxiety. This one is probably obvious, but many people who struggle with anxiety still choose to consume caffeine to counter the fatigue coming from anxiety-driven insomnia. This is of course a vicious, never-ending cycle, and in our experience the only way out – to real wellness – is withdrawing from the caffeine.
Indeed the devil and the dynamos for wellness are often hidden in the details for each of us as unique individuals! As you look for new ways to increase your vitality and well-being (feeling fantastic most days!), if you are used to drinking coffee daily, consider stopping coffee for a full month and seeing how you feel post-withdrawal. Many are afraid of withdrawal, but in our practice, with adequate hydration and additional magnesium support, withdrawal usually only lasts 3-5 days.