Coffee and Caffeine… Healthy?

The consumption of moderate amounts of coffee increase energy availability, energy expenditure, physical performance, motor performance, cognitive performance, alertness, wakefulness, feelings of energy, concentration, focus, short-term memory, problem solving, decision making accuracy, and neuromuscular coordination and while decreasing physical fatigue, mental fatigue, and risk of dementia, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mortality. And yet, I’ve never once consumed a cup of coffee. Never buddied up with the world’s best friend Joe. I’ve stayed away from caffeine for nearly all my life despite the publicized benefits of coffee and caffeine. And it’s made me wonder, have I made the right decision? Am I missing out on America’s healthiest beverage? And should I start consuming coffee? Well, I did a lot of digging and uncovered a lot of interesting stuff. Let’s get into it!

How Caffeine Works

The active ingredient in coffee that nearly everyone falls in love with is caffeine. It’s the ingredient that makes us feel alive, like our true self, like a productive member of society. But what does caffeine do? Well, it has three main effects.

  • 1. Blocks Adenosine Detection: Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel tired. And throughout the day, as we fatigue, adenosine builds up in our brain signaling that we should sleep and recover. And once we finally get a good night’s rest, the brain clears out that adenosine overnight and our feeling of tiredness should be gone the next morning. But with caffeine consumption, the caffeine will attach to the brain’s receptors and block its detection of adenosine. And since the brain can’t detect adenosine, it will no longer feel sleepy or tired.
  • 2. Stimulates Adrenaline Production: Caffeine consumption also triggers the release of epinephrine also known as adrenaline or the flight-or-flight hormone. This hormone increases blood flow throughout the body and brain and can make people feel energized, alert, and awake.
  • 3. Traps Dopamine: Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter that allows us to feel pleasure. It can get released for several reasons including exercise, drugs, or even watching a funny video. And what caffeine does is it traps existing dopamine in the brain, not letting it flow back into the body. This is why caffeine can bring us short-term pleasure.

So, from these three mechanisms we can see why caffeine would increase our physical and cognitive performance. It allows us to not feel sleepy. It increases our blood flow throughout the brain and body. And it provides us with a short burst of pleasure. So far so good, right? Sure seems like it. Now how does coffee, which most commonly contains caffeine, prevent various forms of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality?

Why Coffee Is Healthy

Well, coffee contains an abundance of healthy antioxidants which are known to prevent numerous diseases. And with coffee being consumed by 62% of Americans daily, averaging 3 cups per day, it is by far the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet. Not fruits, not vegetables, not nuts, seeds, or beans. Well, I guess sort of a bean… a coffee bean… which is technically a seed. But I digress. Because of the sheer volume of coffee consumed in America, it is our number one source for antioxidants. And here’s a cute chart proving its antioxidant domination in America:

Top Sources of Antioxidants in the Standard American Diet

And as I delved into the research of why coffee can have a protective effect against some types of cancer, dementia, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, nearly all research pointed back to the antioxidants or compounds found in the coffee bean and not the caffeine. And furthermore, it became clear that these protective effects that coffee has have only been confirmed by association and not intervention. What this means is that associative studies have found a correlation between people who consume coffee and various disease prevention. But that doesn’t mean that coffee is driving this benefit. It could simply be that coffee drinkers also tend to socialize more, or exercise more, or eat breakfast. And it may be these other healthy habits that are driving the association and not the coffee. What we need is intervention-based studies to prove that. If you provide a group of people with coffee, do their risks of disease decline? And if you prevent people from having coffee, do their risks of disease incline? And to that end, there’s just not data out there to confirm these findings. But coffee is loaded with antioxidants which are healthy. So, here’s where it gets interesting…

How Healthy Is It Really?

Well, if you’re consuming the standard American diet, which is void of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, then coffee is really the only healthy thing you’re consuming every day. I mean compared to fast food, processed food, and factory food, coffee easily wins this battle. But on an antioxidant concentration basis, many other foods provide more benefits. You’ll find twice as many in strawberries. Four times as many in chia seeds. And nearly ten times as many in black raspberries! So, I’m not saying coffee is bad from this standpoint. It contains more antioxidants than kale, red onions, and oranges, but these can be achieved by consuming decaffeinated coffee or even better, a whole foods plant-based diet. And if you’re consuming a whole foods plant-based diet, where you’re consuming an abundant source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, then does coffee still have the beneficial effects on cancer, dementia, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease? The research hasn’t yet been performed on this, but many doctors are theorizing not so much. It may help those with nutrient deficiencies but not those with nutrient abundancies.

Why Caffeine Is Not Healthy

So, let’s get back to caffeine as coffee is mostly consumed in the caffeinated form. Let’s start off by establishing that caffeine is a drug just like alcohol, nicotine, and heroin. This is a fact we like to ignore since coffee and even alcohol are not just socially acceptable, but socially expected. But caffeine is addictive. As you consume caffeine, your body and brain adapt and your tolerance for caffeine increases. This means, for you to have the short-term benefits mentioned around alertness, wakefulness, focus, and performance, you’ll need to consume more and more caffeine. Your baseline vitality, or your non-caffeinated energy, will lower over time as it increases its dependence on caffeine for that boost. So, here’s a completely inaccurate, unscientific chart I just made up to explain the phenomenon which could apply to many drugs:

Based on this exaggerated made-up drawing, we can see that alertness does increase when you consume caffeinated coffee as a new caffeinated coffee drinker. But as your brain/body builds up a tolerance to it, your consumption of caffeinated coffee is just helping bring back your alertness to the original baseline. And as tolerance increases, you’ll need more and more caffeinated coffee to do so.

Sleep

But let’s recall what’s really happening here. The reason our energy, alertness, and wakefulness are increased is because the caffeine is blocking our receptors from detecting adenosine. But that adenosine is still present and still building up. And if it’s building up, there’s a reason for it. Our brain is telling us “I’m tired. I need to sleep. I need to recover.” And consistently ignoring our brain’s need for sleep by using a drug is just stupid. But it gets stupider. The half-life of caffeine is around 6 hours, and the quarter-life is around 12 hours. That means that 6 hours after we consume caffeine, half of it is still in our body and having an effect. It takes over 12 hours for caffeine to be flushed from the body. What does this mean?

As seen in that original chart I made up, if you’re consuming caffeine after let’s say noon, the caffeine is still in your body when it’s bedtime. That means you’re still more alert, awake, and energetic than you should be at bedtime. This, 1) makes it more difficult to fall asleep. 2) makes it more likely we’ll wake up and disrupt our sleep continuity. and 3) decreases the electrical quality of our sleep, especially deep sleep. So even if you don’t have an issue falling asleep on time, and you’re not waking throughout the night, you’re still degrading your sleep quality. And what does this mean? It means you’ll be less alert, awake, and energetic the next day from having a poor night’s sleep. And thus, requiring more caffeine to fix the problem that caffeine created. This can become a vicious cycle for people who consume more than two cups of caffeinated coffee per day or consume coffee in the afternoon.

Anxiety and Stress

Let’s touch on adrenaline production. Caffeine triggers the body to release adrenaline which is the same fight-or-flight hormone that gets released in emergency type situations as if a bear were chasing you. So, each cup of caffeine is a small signal to the body that a bear is on your heels. In response, the body will release cortisol to deal with that stress. And if I were to guess, I would say you’re not being chased by a bear every day. At least I’m not. So, the body is unnecessarily responding to you driving to work as if a bear was chasing the car down every single day. This isn’t good. Adrenaline is what causes people to feel irritated, anxious, and wired. And the cortisol response can trigger weight gain and overeating. It just isn’t a healthy situation… unless a bear is chasing you. In which case you might want caffeine then!

Addiction

And let’s finish off the caffeine section on dopamine. Do you feel happy after having that nice warm cup of coffee? Yes, you do because it’s causing dopamine to get trapped in your brain. And this is pleasureful. But that feeling will fade as the caffeine does and your dopamine levels will decline. And if you become dependent on this process, you’ll start experiencing lows that can only be fixed with another cup. And without another cup, those lows can turn into headaches. This is called withdrawal. Caffeine is a drug and if you’re addicted to it, it can become very unpleasant once it’s out of your system. And it can be a nightmare to break a caffeine addiction. It often takes weeks if not months for the brain and body to reset its natural dopamine levels. And the headaches could last up to a couple of weeks. And during this period, you’ll feel miserable. It’s just not a situation that I think is worth dabbling in.

Is Decaf the Answer?

And so, most of my concerns are with caffeine and not so much coffee. So, if you’d like to continue the coffee route and make the switch to decaf, here are a few more important nuggets worth considering.

  • GERD: Coffee isn’t great for digestion and can cause GERD. Luckily, decaffeinated coffee doesn’t have as much of an effect on it. But it’s worth paying attention to.
  • Common Use: Most people consume coffee with added sugar, creamer, and/or artificial sweeteners. This can increase its addictive nature and negate many of the benefits from the antioxidants. On top of this, you’re adding a lot of empty calories into your diet with can lead to disease, death, and disability. To mitigate this, try using organic unsweetened soy milk with cocoa, cinnamon, or vanilla instead for flavoring.
  • Cholesterol: Long term coffee consumption will likely raise your cholesterol levels. Luckily, if you brew your coffee with a filter, it can reduce the cholesterol in coffee by 95%. This mitigates most of the risk compared to boiled, French pressed, espresso, or Turkish coffee.
  • Origination: Most coffee comes from areas of the world where its producers are extremely poor and not treated well. Coffee production can also be detrimental to the environment. To mitigate this, you should opt for fair-trade, shade grown, organic coffee.
  • The Decaf Process: The process of decaffeinating coffee usually contains toxic additives which can be harmful for many reasons including rheumatoid arthritis. To mitigate this, choose a water-processed decaf.
  • Caffeine: Most decaffeinated coffee still contains some caffeine in it. Sometimes up to 15% of the original amount. So, I’d still recommend consuming it before noon, so it doesn’t affect your sleep quality.

Final Thoughts

Caffeine isn’t alcohol, or nicotine, or heroin. It’s not as dangerous or deadly. But it’s as addictive and much more prevalent. And it is the most overused drug in the world today found primarily in coffee that can lead to sleep issues, anxiety, and substance dependency. And so, I couldn’t really find many good reasons for caffeine use other than as a performance enhancing drug that could be useful in select situations. But for the average consumer, the risk of daily use outweighs the benefits.

And what about coffee? If you’re eating the standard American diet, then yes. Absolutely, keep drinking your coffee. It’s your only source of antioxidants. But if your focus is on optimizing your health and happiness, then a whole foods plant-based diet coupled with high quality sleep will do more than enough. But, if you go the decaffeinated coffee route then 1-2 cups of fair-trade, shade grown, organic, filtered coffee before noon every day with organic unsweetened soy milk and spices to flavor shouldn’t be much to worry about. As for me, I’ll stick to eating those black raspberry powerhouses while writing blog posts in my bedroom on Friday nights researching all the reasons why I should or shouldn’t consume coffee, all while never experiencing it myself. 🙃

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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognition, Finance and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.


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