26 October 2012

The low-down on coffee

As the quintessential morning 'comfort food,' coffee is consumed to the tune of
350 million cups per day in America. And for good reason. Aside from the solace
of a warm cup in your hand, coffee offers an energy boost, along with improved
mood and enhanced concentration. But due to its high caffeine content and addictive qualities, coffee often gets a bad rap. And with so much conflicting information out there, it’s hard to know what to believe.

So here's the good news:

Combat Depression and Parkinsons: All coffee drinkers know that a good cup of Joe leaves you feeling a little bit happier than before you drank it. This is, of course, primarily due to the caffeine, which affects the feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, serotonin and dopamine. The Nurses’ Health Study has shown that women who drank 4+ cups of coffee each day had a 20% reduction in depression compared with women who drank 1 cup or less. And speaking of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is deficient in Parkinson’s disease, studies show a 30% reduced risk of developing Parkinsonʼs disease among coffee drinkers, again due the caffeine and subsequent boost in dopamine.

Cancer Fighter: Coffee is the single highest source of antioxidants in the diet of
Americans. That's not to say that it is the highest antioxidant you can consume.
In fact, on a side note, the most potent source of antioxidants on the planet is
none other than my long time love, cacao (aka raw chocolate). But back to the
elixir at hand. Polyphenols, the antioxidants in your morning cup of Joe, ward off
inflammation and fight free radicals, providing protection from heart disease, type
2 diabetes and cancer. For an added antioxidant boost, as well as tasty treat, try
topping your coffee with a dash of cinnamon or raw cocoa powder.

Ward off Diabetes: This claim may be a bit of a stretch, but a study
performed at Harvard has shown that subjects who drank 6 or more cups of coffee
per day lowered their risk of type 2 diabetes by 35%! The obvious problem here is
that along with the diabetes reduction comes the negative effects of too much
caffeine in 6+ cups of coffee per day. However, subjects who drank only 4-6 cups also showed a risk reduction of 28%, and even subjects who drank just one cup per day showed an improvement in blood sugar stabilization. At this point, researchers are unsure of what causes these benefits. Some have hypothesized that the high antioxidant content helps to regulate the body’s sensitivity to insulin, while others postulate that a substance in coffee called chlorogenic acid slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream. Whatever the reason, one thing we know for sure is that the benefits are not due to caffeine, since the study’s improvements were also noted with decaf coffee drinkers.

Heart Health: In the Iowa Women’s Health Study, coffee drinkers who consumed 1-3 cups per day lowered their risk of heart disease by 24% when compared with their non-coffee-drinking peers. Since heart disease is primarily caused by inflammation of the blood vessels, the suspected culprit of benefit here is again the antioxidants, which reduce inflammation and thus promote heart health.

Improve Athletic Performance: Years ago when I began training for my first marathon, my typical pre-training run was half a bagel with peanut butter and banana, and nice big cup of coffee. I knew always ran better after my coffee, I just didn’t know why. I now know it’s because the caffeine draws more calcium into the muscles, which improves their contractions. It also, as we know, releases endorphins, which make us feel good and raises our pain threshold, thus allowing a harder workout.

And now for the bad news:
As with most good things in life, TOO much of a good thing can lead to problems. In the case of coffee, this reasoning still stands.

Caffeine Addiction: It is not news that caffeine can be highly addictive. As already mentioned, the caffeine makes you feel good. And so then what happens? We want MORE! The caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones. This is where the energy boost comes from. The problem with this is that, over time, we burn out our adrenal glands. When the adrenal glands cannot make enough cortisol to maintain a baseline of energy, you are left with a condition referred to as adrenal fatigue. You are basically trying to run a car with no gas. In addition, the constant artificial energy boosts from caffeine rob your body of its normal rhythms. We all need some down time. Sure, a few cups of coffee per day may keep you plugging away from 6 am to midnight, and then back at it the next day, with just 5-6 hours of sleep per night. But even if you have temporarily tricked your body, and your adrenals, into thinking you have energy, it will eventually catch up to you. But it’s hard to quit, since typical withdrawal symptoms include fatigue, irritability, headaches and trouble concentrating.

Exacerbation of Insomnia and Heartburn: It should go without saying that if you have insomnia, you should avoid the potent effects of coffee’s caffeine dose. Also, the jolt to the nervous system can worsen anxiety, and since caffeine amps up the production of gastric juices, it can cause heartburn and may worsen irritable bowel disease. Some research even links caffeine to an increased risk of miscarriage, so pregnant women should avoid it.

Highly acidic: Some hypothesize that the root cause of all disease is an acidic pH of the body. If this is true, coffee drinkers beware! Coffee has a highly acidic effect on the body, and can lead to ailments such as weight gain and osteoporosis, as the body attempts to buffer the acidity. One point to note, the espresso bean has been found to be less acidic than the coffee bean, so an Americano or an Espresso may be a better choice than an average cup of java.

Weight Gain: As mentioned above, the acidity can lead to weight gain, but that's not the only reason coffee consumption can lead to weight gain. And to be fair, this negative point is not really due to the coffee itself. It's what we put IN it. And what we eat WITH it. Most of us take our morning cup of cream and sugar with a little coffee, instead of the other way around. And for those who get their coffee on the run, the overwhelming temptations of the sweet treats in the bakery counter are all too often given into. And so one acidic cup of coffee is compounded by heavy doses of sugar, cream, and sugar laden, heavily processed, gluten-rich sweet treats.

High Doses of Pesticides and other chemicals: The coffee plant is unfortunately one of the most heavily sprayed crops consumed by Americans. So the more you drink, the more you are overloading your body with toxicity. In addition, many folks drink caffeine-free coffee in attempt to be more health-minded. The dilemma with this is that often times, conventional decaffeinated coffee has more chemicals than regular. To strip the caffeine from the bean, most coffee companies use chemical solvent such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. The solvents are rinsed away at the end of the process, but of course there still may be chemical residue. If caffeine-free is your MO, make sure the caffeine is removed in a natural way, such as the Swiss Water Process, which uses water instead of chemicals.Taking into consideration the good and the bad, here are some tips to consider when having your 'morning cup of comfort':
  • Choose organic whenever possible
  • Brew at home. This way you are in control of choosing organic, choosing what you add to it, and you will avoid the temptations of store bought baked-goods being placed in your path.
  • If you like to add cream and sugar, try transitioning to healthier options, such as non-dairy milk or creamer (rice or almond milk tastes great, and So Delicious makes a fantastic coconut based dairy-free creamer). Swap out the processed sugar for a more natural sweetener such as Stevia. Most coffee joints now offer dairy-free options, but I always practice B.Y.O.S (bring your own stevia) to ensure that I can sweeten my coffee without guilt.
  • If you are a coffee addict and you want to start to reduce your intake, try swapping out a cup or two for herbal tea, or even mixing some Teeccino into the brew. Teeccino is a caffeine-free coffee replacement that can be brewed by steeping in bags, or in regular coffee pot. A great weaning strategy is to mix half coffee grounds and half teeccino in your pot. This way, you can enjoy four cups of java but actually consume only 2 cups of coffee and caffeine.

Above all, honor your body, and don't just boost your energy with caffeine and sugar. Fuel your body with self-care, regular down-time, healthy, healing foods, and exercise. You will find that the better you care for your body, the less reliance you will have on caffeine. That way, a cup of coffee in the morning can become a pleasurable choice rather than an addictive necessity.

Lori Zito | @LoriZito
Lori is an animal-loving, life-loving vegan who is passionate about spreading the message of better health through a vegan diet. She works as a certified holistic health and nutrition coach, a yoga instructor, and a physical therapist. Learn more at her website Live In The Balance and follow her on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/larryvincent