Is your morning coffee just another stress ‘hit'?
There's a lot of news at present regarding the health benefits of coffee, and most people embrace this news, because everyone loves hearing good news about their (potentially) bad habits. Before we get too self-satisfied with our coffee habits and the recent news, let's consider the facts.
The most widely used drug in the world
Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant drug in the world. It's also the second most-consumed beverage in the world, with tea being number one. Technically it's a psycho-pharmacologically active compound: it originates from a plant and has a direct psychological effect on our central nervous system (CNS). Caffeine is found in about 60 plant species such as cocoa beans, kola nuts and tea leaves. Yerba mate and guarana berries are other sources of caffeine.
Coffee and our brain
Caffeine, one of over 1 000 compounds found in coffee, influences our brain via our CNS by making us more alert and focused. This is the effect that most people who have coffee first thing in the morning rely on and also need. In addition, it affects our circulatory system, increasing blood pressure and heart rate; it affects our digestive system, reducing appetite and it affects our excretory system by increasing urination via its diuretic action. Coffee also stimulates bowel activity, which a lot of people miss when they give up caffeine.
Caffeine influences brain function in three main ways:
Caffeine stimulates the production of dopamine, the same neurochemical that is responsible for the high you experience when you have an orgasm or use illicit, stimulating drugs, albeit with varying intensities involved. This is why caffeine is enjoyed by so many people: it stimulates the pleasure parts of our brain. It's also why it's so addictive, and unfortunately, over time, becomes less and less effective at producing the same high as the brain gets used to its effect and reaches 'tolerance'. However, this isn't the end of caffeine’s march through your CNS, because dopamine, after producing the lovely 'high' that allowed you to feel alert and capable, gets converted into adrenaline, which is the 'fight' or 'flight' neurochemical and is a lot less fun than dopamine. The brain is now on high alert expecting a threat to your physical survival so it shunts glucose to your muscles to allow you to fight or flee. This effect is what helps you to feel so focused and alert – after all, you'd need to be if a tiger was chasing you! However, the CNS has evolved to experience this state of hypervigilance for no longer than about 60 seconds which means that when you expose your brain to caffeine regularly throughout the day, your brain feels 'threatened' too often. This is not a natural pattern of neurological functions. In addition, to be able to produce adrenalin, the body needs a variety of important nutrients, the lack of which will impact health in other ways. So, if you are drinking a lot of coffee, you are also using up a lot of nutrients required for other purposes, one of which is producing energy naturally.
The next two steps that occur in the brain when you consume caffeine are related to sleep. The first is related to a neurochemical called adenosine. Caffeine blocks the production of adenosine that normally starts being produced when you awake in the morning. Adenosine levels should naturally rise during the day because they lead to you feeling sleepy towards evening and make sleep top-of-mind. However, with caffeine’s interference this doesn't happen and the natural buildup of adenosine doesn't happen so falling asleep and staying asleep become challenging. Caffeine fits into the adenosine receptor site, which is what stops its production, and this also leads to a further increase in adrenaline production.
The next step related to sleep that caffeine interferes with is the production of the hormone melatonin, which is the hormone produced in the pineal gland. This is the part of the brain that is sensitive to light and dark and manages our circadian rhythm. When darkness falls, melatonin tells your brain that it's time to go to sleep and helps you to stay asleep, allowing for deep, rejuvenating sleep. Some people can have a cup of coffee just before bedtime but they are the exception to the rule.
So, is caffeine just a stress and inflammatory 'hit'?
As per the chart above, coffee raises adrenaline and cortisol, a stress hormone, which is also an inflammatory compound. Research in 2004, where 3 000 participants consumed two cups of coffee per day over an almost two-year period, showed elevated levels of IL6, TNF and CRP, all inflammatory markers found in blood. In fact, they had between 28 and 50 percent higher levels of these three markers than non-coffee drinkers.
A longitudinal study that followed 400 000 coffee drinkers for over 13 years found that they lived slightly longer, on average, than non-coffee drinkers. However, their risk didn't go down the more they drank and cancer deaths were not reduced among coffee drinkers although the risk of heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, infection and type 2 diabetes were reduced. However, a small study using only men as subjects, indicated that consuming a carbohydrate-rich snack with coffee offset this positive effect and increased the risk of type 2 diabetes and weight gain as excess blood glucose is dumped as fat. There is no reason to assume that women won’t experience the same negative effect. In two recent studies, drinking decaffeinated coffee benefited insulin release, thereby reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes in both groups, suggesting that caffeine wasn't the beneficial compound but rather some other compound. Coffee consumption does lead to reduced appetite, which is why it's a popular addition to weight-loss supplements. Coffee assists with weight loss because it promotes the release of the hormone glucagon that breaks down glycogen, which is stored glucose (also known as fat.) Coffee can increase the risk of bladder cancer but the risk of other cancers is unlikely to be increased with the consumption of coffee. Coffee may reduce the risk of fatal prostate cancer. Once again, decaffeinated coffee also produced this effect, suggesting that some other compound besides caffeine was the effective agent.
Coffee also contains antioxidants
Coffee also contains antioxidants, including polyphenols, the quantity of which is influenced by roasting, the ratio of water to coffee and the addition of milk or sugar to coffee. Although the antioxidants in coffee do possess health benefits, as they do from all plant foods, more research is required to ascertain which of these compounds have direct, positive bioactive effects on our health. Research suggesting that coffee may be providing more antioxidants in people’s diets than any other food may be more of a testament to a lack of antioxidants in their diet generally and only assessing the antioxidants in the beverages not via participant’s blood. In other words, the drinks may contain antioxidants, but are they working once consumed? The verdict is still out on this.
What about the cognitive benefits of coffee?
Due to caffeine’s effect on the CNS, it is not surprising that the research directed at coffee’s effect on the brain shows clearly that it improves focus, concentration and alertness. Anything that stimulates adrenaline production will result in these effects. So, the real question is: does coffee have positive, long-terms benefits on brain function? A recent large systematic review which examined 28 research papers investigating the effects of caffeine on cognition, with the aim of finding the answer to this question, resulted in a mixed verdict. Some research suggests coffee can be beneficial against age-related cognitive decline, while others show no benefit.
What about Alzheimer's disease and coffee?
Although some animal studies have suggested coffee may be useful as a preventive agent against Alzheimer’s disease, no human studies have found this benefit to be conclusive. A number of research studies have shown clearly that coffee leads to elevated levels of an inflammatory marker called homocysteine, which has been associated with a significantly greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. At this point in time the verdict is still out as to whether coffee is associated with a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
What about adrenal fatigue and coffee?
People who are experiencing adrenal fatigue, a condition not yet fully embraced by the medical fraternity, feel tired all the time and sleep poorly. This may be as a result of chronic stress coupled with a severe infection. These individuals, ironically, are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine because of its adrenalin-producing effects yet crave the substance due to low levels of energy. Caffeine will therefore be particularly counter-effective to their attempts to heal their adrenals and they should look for other ways to increase energy levels naturally, as described below.
How long does caffeine ‘live’ in your body?
Coffee has a half-life of between five and six hours, depending on sex, liver health, weight, age and medication intake. This means that the body will take between five and six hours to eliminate half of the caffeine that you consume. So a good rule is to stop drinking coffee at about 2 p.m. if you plan to sleep restfully from 10 p.m. Consuming coffee later than that will impact your sleep negatively.
Caffeine hides in more than coffee
Tea contains about 50% of the caffeine that coffee does, with green tea containing a little less than 50%. Soft drinks, energy drinks and dietary supplements also contain caffeine, as do some chewing gums, lollies and you can even purchase caffeine powder to add to other food items of your choosing. Chocolate does contain a small amount of caffeine but it's the compound theobromine that increases heart rate rather than the caffeine. [Click here to read more about chocolate.] The FDA recommends consuming no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day although many energy drinks and large coffees contain more than this amount. Reading the label is therefore well-advised if you want to avoid consuming more than what's recommended in one drink.
Dirty secrets of the coffee industry
Coffee beans are one of the most pesticided plants on earth, and we know that pesticides are not healthy for the brain, and have been linked to Parkinson’s disease. In addition, most decaffeinated products use harsh chemicals to get rid of the caffeine, which also expose us to toxins we don’t yet know the side effects of. Always choose organic coffee, or organic Swiss water-filtered decaffeinated products to ensure you’re only consuming plant compounds and not a cocktail of unknown chemicals.
So, what now?
If you need coffee to provide energy to your tired and overwhelmed brain first thing in the morning and during the day, then coffee is being used as a treatment or form of self-medication. If you simply love your daily coffee and see it more as a treat then there’s no concern.
If you’d love to get off the blood glucose roller coaster that coffee drinking provides, then choose to cut down slowly versus stopping completely, as the side-effects of stopping ‘cold-turkey', such as terrible headaches, are not pleasant. A simple and effective way of cutting down without missing the flavor and ritual associated with this brew is to start off using ¾ of your normal coffee and adding a ¼ decaffeinated coffee to your cup. As described above, choose a Swiss water-filtered option. Slowly decrease your normal caffeinated coffee while increasing the decaffeinated option until you are only drinking decaffeinated coffee. Attempt to complete this switch from caffeinated to decaffeinated coffee over a three-week period, so that each week you are slowly decreasing your need for caffeine. In this way you get to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of your warm drink but no longer feel at the mercy of caffeine. And, as the benefits of consuming decaffeinated coffee seem to be similar to those of normal coffee, you can enjoy the benefits without having the artificial energy ‘hit'.
Alternatives to coffee
Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others are but its biochemical effects are basically the same for all people. Unfortunately, a general lack of energy can miraculously – artificially and quickly – be transformed into a state of energy via coffee consumption, which makes it a great pick-me-up for people who aren't willing to, or don't know how to obtain energy in a healthier and more sustainable way. Consuming coffee is a personal decision but if you feel that you can't live without it, and are tired of needing it to function and get through the day, this may be a sign to find a healthier form of energy. Find a form of safe and healthy de-caffeinated coffee, which still contains all the aroma and flavor we love and enjoy, but removes the highs and lows that normal coffee provides.
In conclusion …
Before we either start drinking coffee, or continue drinking it without any thought to possible negative effects, I'm reminded of the quandary of knowing the truth about what we love doing which may not be good for us whenever I speak on the effects of nutrients on the brain. I ask the audience if they'd like to know how coffee 'works' and half of the audience raises their hands nervously to say 'yes', although I can see they're not really sure that they want to know, while the other half says 'no', sheepishly. Together, we fortunately come to the conclusion that knowledge is power, and I provide them with the facts, which I have done here for your benefit too.
Ashihara H, Suzuki T. Distribution and biosynthesis of caffeine in plants. Front Biosci 2004 May 01; 9: 1864-76.
Cherniske S. Caffeine Blues. Wake up to the hidden dangers of America’s #1 drug. New York, USA: Warner Books Pub; 1998.
Ding M, Bhupathiraju SN, Chen M, van Dam RM, Hu FB. Caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and a dose-response meta-analysis. Diabetes Care 2014 Feb; 37(2): 569-86.
Freedman ND, Park Y, Abnet CC, Hollenbeck AR, Sinha R. Association of coffee drinking with total and cause-specific mortality. N Engl J Med 2012; 366(20): 1891-904.
Grubben MJ, Boers GH, Blom HJ, Broekhuizen R, de Jong R, van Rijt L, et al. Unfiltered coffee increases plasma homocysteine concentrations in healthy volunteers: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2000 Feb; 71(2): 480-4.
Hoang VD, Tran VD, Lee AH. Chapter 39 - Coffee Consumption and Prostate Cancer A2. Preedy, Victor R (eds). Coffee in Health and Disease Prevention. San Diego: Academic Press; 2015. 359-66.
Huxley R, Lee CM, Barzi F, Timmermeister L, Czernichow S, Perkovic V, et al. Coffee, decaffeinated coffee, and tea consumption in relation to incident type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med 2009 Dec 14; 169(22): 2053-63.
Lieberman HR (ed), Kanarek RB (ed), Prasad C (ed). Nutritional Neuroscience (Nutrition, Brain and Behavior). Florida: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group; 2005.
Moisey LL, et al. Caffeinated coffee consumption impairs blood glucose homeostasis in response to high and low glycemic meals in healthy men. Am J Clin Nutr 2008 May; 87(5): 1254-61.
Moisey LL, Robinson LE, Graham TE. Consumption of caffeinated coffee and a high carbohydrate meal affects postprandial metabolism of a subsequent oral glucose tolerance test in young, healthy males. Br J Nutr 2010 Mar; 103(6): 833-41.
Shilo L, et al. The effects of coffee consumption on sleep and melatonin secretion. Sleep Med 2002 May; 3(3): 271-3.
Talbott S. The cortisol connection – why stress makes you fat and ruins your health and what you can do about it. CA: Hunter House Publishers.
Tunnicliffe JM, Shearer J. Coffee, glucose homeostasis, and insulin resistance: physiological mechanisms and mediators. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 2008 Dec; 33(6): 1290-300.
Verhoef P, Pasman WJ, Van Vliet T, Urgert R, Katan MB. Contribution of caffeine to the homocysteine-raising effect of coffee: a randomized controlled trial in humans. Am J Clin Nutr 2002 Dec; 76(6): 1244-8.
Zampelas A, Panagiotakos DB, Pitsavos C, Chrysohoou C, Stefanadis C. Associations between coffee consumption and inflammatory markers in healthy persons: the ATTICA study. Am J Clin Nutr 2004 Oct; 80(4): 862-7.