I have never been part of the anti-coffee brigade (you know who those people are). As a writer who covers health and wellness, I know that especially in recent years, coffee has been found to have plenty of physical — and mental — benefits, from protecting against Alzheimer's to lowering rates of diabetes — and I've even written about it (though I've always embraced alternatives too). And regardless of whether we think coffee is great or evil, most agree that it can improve focus, or keep us going when we really need it.
So this isn't a story about why coffee is "bad"' for you, because it just plain old hasn't been proven (and has actually been mostly disproven) that a cuppa will negatively impact your health. But during a recent trip to El Salvador, I was so busy seeing as much as I could — and eating all kinds of other food — in the time I was there, I couldn't be bothered to search out coffee more than a couple of times.
I had a huge realization during that break, which was that as much as I loved how coffee made me feel (really happy and excited for the day — or task — in front of me), the comedown for my body was too harsh. I was able to look back and see that many of the giant mood swings that I had been having in the last couple of years were actually caffeine-related. I would often have really horrible several-hour-long afternoon depressions, which made it hard for me to get work done, which would mean that I would generally wait to do work until after dinner and then well into the night. I was also drinking wine at night to level myself out. The days without coffee are noticeably bummer-free.
I think that combination of coffee in the morning or throughout the day, followed by wine or other alcoholic beverages later in the evening was part of the same cycle. And because I never had trouble falling asleep, I thought the caffeine wasn't affecting me. But our bodies are all different. So while the caffeine wasn't preventing me from getting as much sleep as ever (eight to nine hours a night) — it wasn't really affecting my physically — it was definitely affecting my mental state, both positively and, unfortunately, negatively. It was making me so restless and depressed that I couldn't do my work. (Even though the data shows that coffee consumption has been linked to lower rates of depression in women, that just wasn't my experience).
During my trip I realized that while I missed the fun "high" of an espresso beverage, I was enjoying not being melancholy in the afternoons more. For me, the benefits of drinking coffee don't outweigh the uncomfortable parts. So upon return to the U.S., I have quit coffee. I'm drinking jasmine green tea on some mornings, which seems to bring me a bit of a lift (and as a bonus, has 0 calories and tons of flavor), and Earl Grey here and there. I've really enjoyed raw cacao beverages (which taste like hot chocolate but have a shot of antioxidants instead of just cocoa taste), and I'm looking forward to trying yerba mate, which has been recommended to me by several friends.
I only share this story because for many people, coffee is not a purely positive experience, though that's the way it's often portrayed in the media. It's important to always listen to your own body, and follow its lead when it is sending you messages about what works for you, and what doesn't. I think this message isn't reinforced often enough, and it's easy to forget when the messages from outside are telling you that you should feel OK. I didn't drink coffee until I was 30, and part of the reason I ignored my sometimes-discomfort when I got too strong a dose of caffeine was due to the media's constant stories about how coffee isn't bad for us. But it actually doesn't work for me. I'll enjoy a fair-trade, organic decaf cappuccino every so often from here on out, and try to feel less silly when I order it from the barista (because right now, I always feel like they think I'm a little lame for going to a good coffee shop and ordering decaf). But no matter — my health is more important than others' opinions. And occasionally ordering a decaf will actually be a good reminder of that.
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