Coffee and I have had a distant, distrustful relationship, until recently. I got interested in health food during high school, so I was warned early of the “evils” of coffee. I also saw how addictive coffee could be to many people. It seemed a shame to not be able to “wake up” in the morning without coffee, or to desperately need it to keep going during the day. I reasoned that it was better not to start.
However, I do live in Portland, where coffee is an important part of the culture and, quite frankly, the this area has some of the best coffee in the country. I had a few mochas during high school and found them delicious, but for the most part I remained uninterested in coffee.
The year my second daughter was born that changed. One day I was out doing errands with my dad and two daughters when my dad stopped for a cup of coffee. It wasn’t even good coffee, but I drank half of it. I was so tired from lack of sleep and I thought it would help. It certainly did! I was up until the wee hours of the morning wide awake. I stayed away from coffee for a couple of months after that experience. But then I allowed myself some coffee when my baby had a cold and was restless during the night, making me feel like a zombie. I found if I had it early enough in the day, I could still sleep fine and it did help me cope. While I have to admit that it was a deep tiredness that first drew me to coffee, I have since fallen in love with the taste and have even have become something of a coffee snob.
I like coffee. But since I have started to get more sleep, I have made sure that I am not dependent on coffee. The last few months I have been going back and forth from just forgetting about it for a couple of weeks, to rediscovering it and enjoying it (both regular and a water-processed decaffeinated version). I am not really committed to being either a coffee drinker long-term or a coffee teetotaler. So, I thought I would look into some of the studies on coffee, and also what some of the voices in the health community have to say about the topic.
Why you should drink coffee
Coffee and cancer: There are so many studies on coffee and health, I'm sure I am not going to touch on all of them. Overall, coffee drinkers are found to have lower rates of certain cancers, including skin cancer, colon cancer, endometrial cancer and prostate cancer. There is some discussion about whether coffee promotes estrogen-dominant breast cancers or not, but this 22-year follow-up paper found that there was no link to estrogen-dominant breast cancer in pre-menopausal woman with either caffeinated or decaf teas and coffee consumption. However there was a slight correlation between breast cancer and postmenopausal women.
Coffee is thought to prevent cancer because of the wide variety of antioxidants found in coffee. For further proof, one study showed that coffee consumption was linked to a decrease in colon cancer among Chinese who smoke.
Coffee and diabetes: Another benefit to coffee drinkers (at least those who drink four cups or more per day) is a significant decrease in risk of developing diabetes. Preliminary research seems to point to three proponents of coffee for this effect: caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid and caffeine.
Coffee, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: Coffee also shows promise in decreasing risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. One study found a decrease in risk of Alzheimer’s disease with long-term caffeine exposure. Another study found that consumption of coffee and tea were linked to lower risks of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. And, in case you were wondering, roasted coffee beans have the best brain-protecting elements.
Coffee and Parkinson’s disease: There has also been a link to decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease among coffee drinkers. However, recent research cautions women taking replacement hormones against drinking coffee, as the two combined could increase your risk. There may be an explanation on why some people are protected from Parkinson’s disease when drinking coffee. About 25 percent of the population has a gene, GRIN2A, that appears to protect them from developing Parkinson’s disease if they drink coffee. If you don’t have that gene, you may not get the protective benefit of drinking coffee.
Coffee, depression and MRSA: If that wasn’t enough, some studies also show less depression in coffee drinkers and that coffee drinkers are to less likely to be carriers of the superbug, MRSA.
I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to go out and get an espresso. So what’s the hold up? Why do some doctors, health experts and nutritionists caution against drinking coffee? Here are a couple of reasons.
And why you shouldn't ...
Pregnant women: Dr. Joseph Mercola has long warned against drinking coffee, but he especially warns against pregnant women drinking it. One 2008 study found that just one “dose” of caffeine could damage the heart of offspring for a “lifetime.” This study was done with rodents but is “plausible” in humans. There has also been linkage from coffee consumption to stillbirths and miscarriages. Basically, the problem is that caffeine crosses over the placenta barrier into the baby, and such a small baby does not have the capabilities to process caffeine well.
However, last year Mercola did an interview with Ori Hofmekler, who described the health benefits of drinking coffee. One should note that in the end, his recommendations boil down to drinking one cup of coffee in the morning right before a workout. No more.
I have long admired and been influenced by Sally Fallon Morell’s work ("Nourishing Traditions" and "Wise Traditions Journal"), and she recommends that you stay away from all food and drink containing caffeine because of its stimulating and addictive qualities.
Coffee and adrenal stress: Within the health community, there's a lot of talk and shared personal experience of heavy coffee drinking leading to “adrenal insufficiency.” Basically, coffee stimulates your adrenals to release adrenaline, which is why it gives us energy. But if we are constantly drinking coffee, it requires our adrenals to constantly be releasing adrenaline, which puts unnatural stress on them. This can lead to what many people experience as “the crash.” This is when coffee no longer works and you are just more tired then ever. Your adrenals are simply worn out. You can read more about this idea and some interesting quotes from the health community here.
Coffee drinking can lead to nutritional deficiencies: Coffee does block the absorption of certain minerals, including iron. This can obviously be a problem. But more then that, it is a powerful appetite suppressor for many. If you drink coffee instead of eating a well-balanced meal, you can end up with deficiencies of macro and micronutrients, which can lead to a host of problems. And don’t think that this appetite-suppressing effect will help you lose weight long-term, because you can turn down your metabolism rate when you don’t eat enough.
Drinking coffee can lead to sleeping issues, irritability and anxiety: If you are stimulating your body for a fight-or-flight response with coffee, sleeping won't be the most likely first response from your body, hence why many people suffer from sleep issues when they drink coffee. Caffeine can also make you shaky, irritable or anxious.
Caffeine can also interfere with GABA metabolism: GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain, nervous system and GI tract. It helps you with stress management and exerts a calming influence. I’ve taken it as a supplement to help me sleep before. Caffeine can prevent the binding of GABA to GABA receptors, which is another reason why caffeine can make some people feel more anxious.
Plus, coffee can irritate the gut, bother those who suffer from heartburn and make some people more prone to ulcers. (Read more about that here.)
All in all, with some of the above concerns with coffee, you can see why many people are better off leaving coffee behind. I have known more then a handful of people who have found that their health significantly improved after they dumped coffee. So, like I said in the introduction, it's easy to paint coffee as purely bad and not good for us. However, in doing so, we ignore a lot of studies that show coffee helps prevent or lower the risk of a wide variety of diseases.
What's a person to do?
I can’t speak for you, but this is where I am with the “coffee issue.” Coffee is a highly sprayed crop, so I almost always buy an organic brand to avoid a high pesticide residue. Coffee, in my mind, should also be bought fair trade as workers are often abused in the coffee industry. This makes coffee much more expensive, which also limits my coffee drinking.
When it comes to coffee and my health, I have had a lot of issues overwhelming tiredness in the past. While coffee could have helped me survive some hard days with more ease, I took the hard route and rebuilt my health using food and nutrition. It was worth it.
Coffee should never be a substitute for good energy caused by good health. In fact, when I was writing my salad cookbook last summer, I got such a huge energy boost from all the salads I was literally stuffing my face with all day, that I didn’t even want to drink regular coffee as a treat because I didn’t want any more energy!
To get all the benefits that coffee has to offer, it seems you have to drink a lot of coffee. (Many studies found a positive effect from those who drank four or more cups of coffee per day.) I personally would find it much too stimulating to have that much coffee. Plus, I'm hoping to have more children. I don’t want to drink coffee while pregnant, and I certainly don’t want to get addicted to it beforehand.
I have found it reassuring to read about the possible benefits of drinking coffee, as I hope that all of my coffee-loving extended family will reap the benefits. For me, I'm not sure my body would cope well with high amounts of coffee, and if I was drinking four to six cups of coffee a day, I am sure it would backfire before I could reap any benefit! Some studies found that decaf had some of the same benefits, but that theory has not been proven across the board.
So, for now, I am enjoying coffee on a somewhat regular schedule, but not everyday or even every week. I am definitely not drinking enough to reap the health benefits found in the above studies, but I drink it for the enjoyment. I like a water-processed decaf blend almost as well as the regular beans. I wouldn’t feel comfortable making a blanket statement against coffee because of the possible benefits, but I also wouldn’t feel comfortable making a blanket statement in support of coffee, since there are certainly concerns.
I like coffee. I like good coffee. I may not be the best person to drink a lot coffee on a regular basis, but I find it an appealing beverage. But to answer my original question, “Should we drink coffee?” — in the end, I can’t tell you what to do. Like all decisions, I think the decision to drink or not drink coffee is a personal decision you need to make.
I know that I only briefly touched on both many of the disadvantages and advantages of coffee, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on expanding this topic. I’d also love to hear about your personal experience with coffee.