Author: Sophia Gerontakos.
As a naturopath I find people often seem to feel a little guilty about disclosing their coffee intake to me, and the debate on whether coffee is good or bad seems to be quite a hot topic so I’m here to rescue the coffee lovers… kidding! Well, sort of.
It’s very hard to label most *natural* food/beverage items as good or bad, because ultimately it depends on the dose. As Paracelsus said, “there is nothing without poisonous qualities, it is only the dose that makes a thing poison”. Very high doses of caffeine are never a good thing, though on the other hand a good quality coffee does have some positive qualities with moderate intake.
However, when it comes to caffeine there may be a few other factors which also influence how you and your body respond to it. This article will delve into the potential benefits and drawbacks of drinking coffee, as well as the physiological effects of caffeine and some other factors to consider when selecting what type of coffee to drink.
Health Benefits of Coffee
Coffee contains significant levels of polyphenolic antioxidants. Coffee also has significant anti-radical activity against free radicals. A 2013 review of the antioxidant and anti-radical activity of coffee found that the total antioxidant content of coffee is similar to that of cacao and red wine (quite high, and I will talk about both of those other two items soon). The process of roasting green coffee beans decreases the total antioxidant content, however, during roasting other polymeric compounds (such as melanoidins) are formed which are also potent antioxidants, so it’s still a win on that front.
Antioxidants are popularly known as ‘anti-aging’ compounds and have a protective effect within the body. This being said, it is still all about the dose. Drinking coffee in high quantities will lead to negative effects on other body systems as outlined below, so moderation is the key to reaping the benefits.
Drinking coffee also brings with it certain social benefits. A coffee break is often a treasured part of the day where you get to ‘take five’ to catch up with colleagues and/or friends, and positive social interactions such as these are essential to mental health and wellbeing. Grabbing a coffee with a friend is almost a cultural norm for us here in Australia, and coffee drinking is predominantly a social activity in many other parts of the world such as parts of Europe and South America.
Different Types of Coffee
It’s important to note the differing qualities and types of coffees. Instant coffee for example, goes through a long process to becoming instant coffee. This involves dehydration and a process of either freeze-drying or spray-drying, to get it to a shelf-stable product which turns back into coffee when water is added by the consumer. Valuable compounds are often lost in this process, and in some cases it may contain the addition of added compounds you may not want to consume. Brewed or filtered coffee on the other hand is made from coffee beans which have been dried and roasted, but have undergone no other processing methods and thus still contain optimal antioxidant levels, flavour and generally higher levels of caffeine.
Additionally, when you purchase ‘coffee drinks’ from large commercial retailers they are often laden with sugary sweeteners, syrups and other additives which not only reduce the benefits and the coffee content, but also have detrimental health effects. It is important to choose a quality product that contains pure coffee or coffee and milk/milk alternative at the most. If you are looking for sweetness you could try adding a little stevia to your coffee, or alternatively try a chai latte instead of a flavoured syrup drink.
Physiological Effects of Coffee
Caffeine increases circulating cortisol concentrations (in healthy people), hence why it often keeps people awake. Cortisol (a glucocorticoid) is often referred to as a ‘stress hormone’. Sounds bad, but it is a necessary and beneficial element of the stress response system as well as contributing to blood glucose regulation, blood pressure regulation and inflammatory responses.
Glucocorticoids are needed in situations where extra energy and reserves are needed (such as escaping a predator… or just doing manual labour, exercise, sport etc.). They serve the body well in the short term by restoring energy through conversion of protein and fats to usable carbohydrates. However, chronic elevation of glucocorticoids (e.g. cortisol) which could be caused by ongoing stress, poor sleep, poor diet and excessive caffeine consumption (or a combo of all of these) is when they start having a very negative effect on health.
Chronic elevated cortisol is a key factor in anxiety, as well as increasing the risk of insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease. Which means drinking large quantities of coffee can have a negative impact on health in the long term. If you are someone who suffers with anxiety, caffeine intake will almost definitely sustain this and I would recommend to avoid coffee intake, at least until anxiety and stress is well-managed. If you are going through a period of high or ongoing stress you also likely have elevated cortisol levels and this is another reason to avoid (or very much minimise) coffee consumption.
It should also be noted that certain drugs and herbal medicines can heighten or prolong the effects of caffeine which can be dangerous and unpleasant, so it is always good to disclose your caffeine intake to your health care provider and check with them if you are in doubt about what you are taking or how you are feeling.
But tea also contains caffeine right??
Yes, black tea also contains caffeine. However, a regular cup size of coffee contains 95-165mg caffeine, whereas a regular cup size of tea contains 25-48mg caffeine. Big difference! So one cup of coffee could be equivalent to about 3 cups of tea on the high end in terms of caffeine intake. Green tea contains 25-29mg caffeine per cup but also has the added relaxation effect of its theanine content (an amino acid which can have a calming effect). So switching to tea is definitely a feasible option for those needing to ween off coffee, and green tea is a better option for those with anxiety.
So What’s the Verdict?
For the average healthy person, coffee in moderation (e.g. one cup a day or less) can certainly have positive health and wellbeing effects. It’s all about the dose, and choosing a pure product.
We all have occasional days where we need an extra push to get through, but if you find you are needing more than one coffee a day to get you going (or keep you going) on a regular basis then you could benefit from booking an appointment with a naturopath so that we can get you feeling good enough that you don’t need to depend on stimulants, besides for enjoying it in moderation for the flavour and social benefits that are part of the experience.