Coffee: Grounds for a Change of Habit?
By Bill Reddy, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac.
Coffee is an integral part of American life. You see commercials with smiling people chatting over cups of coffee. The camera captures in slow motion the rich brew pouring into a mug, steam rising gracefully…
You’re not supposed to be wondering if there might be some negative effects to your health from the caffeine that helps give coffee its magic. But there are negative effects. I used to drink quite a bit of coffee, but when I found it what it does to your body, I switched to herbal tea.
What is caffeine?
Among other things, it’s a natural pesticide. It is found in the leaves, seeds and fruit of certain plants that cause paralysis and death to those insects foolhardy enough to feed on them. Phytopharmacologists (folks who study the effects of plants on humans) define caffeine as a bitter, white crystalline alkaloid that acts as a stimulant and an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. You really don’t want to know what that is. (Hint: it’s found in such non-coffee-like things as chemical weapons and poisons.)
Caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, with approximately 90% of Americans drinking it daily in the form of coffee, tea, soft drinks or “energy” drinks.1 One of the harsh realities of Caffeine is its “Half Life.” That’s the amount of time it takes for your body to eliminate half of the total amount of caffeine, which varies from 5-30 hours depending on a number of factors including age, liver function, the use of oral contraceptives, smoking, pregnancy, etc2.
Here’s what that means. Let’s say you drink a 16oz Starbucks Pike Place brew, which contains 330 mg of caffeine. After ten hours, long after you’ve forgotten how good it tasted, half that caffeine, about 165mg, is still having a party in your body. Ten hours later (20 hours after drinking that cup of coffee) 82 mg remains. By that time, you’re ready to pour MORE caffeine down. Why? Because you didn’t sleep well and you’re tired.
Caffeine’s effect on sleep
According to the National Sleep Foundation,3 500mg of caffeine is considered “excessive” consumption. They suggest that even at “moderate doses,” caffeine can cause insomnia, headaches, nervousness, dizziness, anxiety, irritability, rapid heartbeat, excessive urination and a “caffeine crash” once the effects wear off. In a 1995 study by the Institute of Pharmacology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, researchers gave 200mg of caffeine upon waking to nine healthy men and found that “sleep efficiency and total sleep time were significantly reduced.” 4
Caffeine is also a diuretic, meaning that it causes more frequent urination and, therefore, dehydration. The Mayo Clinic says dehydration symptoms include “dry mouth, fatigue/sleepiness, thirst, decreased urine output, dry skin, headache, constipation and dizziness.”
Here’s my suggestion: If you’re feeling fatigued in the middle of the day, reach for a glass of WATER, not a soda or coffee. You will become more alert.
Coffee in the Media
You may have read conflicting reports about coffee’s health benefits in magazines and newspapers with headlines such as “Coffee reduces incidence of skin and colon cancers.” The media also report on studies indicating that a daily glass of wine will benefit cardiovascular health. As a healthcare professional, I couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend alcohol consumption to my patients because I personally believe the harm most certainly can outweigh the good. I believe that is true for coffee as well.
Caffeine and Cortisol
Cortisol has been featured in news stories relating high levels to excessive belly fat. Cortisol is a “stress hormone” produced by the adrenal glands. It’s part of the fight or flight mechanism that was key to our survival millennia ago, and still exists in our systems. But rather than an annoyed woolly mammoth charging at us, in modern times it is traffic, emails, voicemails, deadlines, and other stimuli which trigger the release of this hormone. When it reaches high enough levels through repeated stress, chronic health conditions may result. These include colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus, anxiety, insomnia, rheumatoid arthritis and obesity. Coffee intake further complicates matters by increasing cortisol and adrenalin production.
Mark Hyman, MD lists the following negative impacts of coffee consumption: 5
• It is addictive. It requires you to drink more and more to get the same "high" and eventually is needed just to feel "normal." Headaches, exhaustion and other biological signs of withdrawal put it clearly in the camp of addictive drugs.
• It stimulates the release of dopamine, which helps us focus, pay attention and remember. But it depletes those neurotransmitters over time and loses its effectiveness.
• It stimulates the release of stress hormones, including adrenalin and cortisol. This may lead to palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, and even spikes in blood sugar and insulin.
• It increases homocysteine (increasing risk for heart disease, depression, cancer and dementia) and depletes vitamins and causes mineral loss, including magnesium the relaxation mineral.
• It causes urinary excretion of calcium and contributes to osteoporosis.
• It can cause diarrhea, reflux and heartburn.
• It may interact with common medications such as Tylenol, causing liver damage.
• Coffee increases risk of stillbirths and iron deficiency in mothers and babies.
Dr. Hyman admitted to drinking quite a lot of coffee in his medical school days before changing his ways. He wrote “…I decided to "detox" and kick my drug habit. After a few days of headache and total exhaustion, I felt renewed energy, woke up alert and ready to embrace the day and felt steady energy all day long. My sleep deepened, and the low-grade irritability and anxiety I felt disappeared. I realized I was living on borrowed energy.”
Since “cold turkey” is a painful way to get away from your coffee habit, I recommend you start with ¾ regular coffee and ¼ decaffeinated for a week. Then do half and half, etc. and then switch to decaffeinated coffee or, better yet, herbal tea. In one month you will be more refreshed, awaken and energetic.
Bill Reddy is a nationally board-certified licensed acupuncturist who practices at the Pinecrest Wellness Center in Annandale, Virginia.
THE INFORMATION AND OPINION OFERED BY THIS COLUMN IS SOLELY THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE AUTHOR AND IS NOT A STATEMENT OF FACT OR OPINION FROM THE PUBLISHER, EDITOR OR STAFF OF ASIAN FORTUNE.