The truth is that the correct answer to the regular question, “Is this healthy or not?” is almost always, “Well, it depends.” Unfortunately, we like generalizations; we want to have a short list of healthy choices that everyone can follow without further inquiry. The truth is that nothing is healthy for everyone all the time. Some people thrive as vegetarians, others become exhausted and anemic. Oatmeal helps some to lose weight, others become insulin resistant and gain more belly fat. Yogurt for some can help to heal an irritable gut, for others, it directly causes inflammation. We are all different. My focus when working with clients is to customize solutions for each unique person given their goals and the full set of dynamics happening in their body. So yes, coffee is indeed a health dynamo for some and a demon for others.
Here are some truths. Coffee is a beverage brewed from the roasted, ground seeds of the coffee plant. Coffee is loaded with a rich variety of phytonutrients, including a particularly high level of polyphenols, the same class of antioxidants for which we trumpet the cardiovascular health benefits of red wine and olive oil. Much of the world’s population gets well over half of their daily intake of polyphenols from coffee or tea. There are however, hundreds of specific nutrients in coffee (not just polyphenols and caffeine), and people may have a varying response to them.
Plenty of major institutions have published comprehensive research summaries to demonstrate that “generally”, “overall”, or “for the majority of the population”, coffee consumption up to a few cups daily is safe and perhaps even protective against a number of chronic, inflammatory diseases.
A situation in which I am likely to actually recommend coffee is for those with cognitive impairment, including dementia and early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
Genes can play a large role in determining how coffee might affect you. Coffee contains caffeine, and the stimulatory effects of coffee can vary dramatically depending on whether one is genetically a fast or slow metabolizer of caffeine. For example, research shows an increased risk of heart attack if slow metabolizers consume two or more cups of coffee daily, while fast caffeine metabolizers will reduce their risk of heart attack if they consume at least one cup daily. Similar studies have come to the same conclusion regarding coffee consumption and the risk of hypertension; genetic variation in caffeine metabolism is a key differentiator in whether intake is potentially harmful or harmless.
Here are some specific circumstances in which I definitely don’t recommend regular intake of coffee (or black tea):
1. Ulcers and gastritis or acid reflux (GERD). Coffee is very acidic and can exacerbate existing erosions in the protective mucosal lining of the stomach. It’s important to make dramatic dietary changes when gastritis is first detected, in order to prevent eventual ulceration. Coffee is also a known trigger for acid reflux and should be avoided by anyone with ongoing GERD challenges, so that the true root causes can be identified.
2. Adrenal fatigue. Cortisol is a vital stress hormone in the body, which protects us from the damaging effects of stress. Chronic levels of mental/emotional stress or physiological stress (e.g. unaddressed allergies or food sensitivities) can cause sustained, elevated cortisol, which eventually wears out adrenal function and drops levels of cortisol output to unhealthy lows. Low cortisol can also cause immune system imbalance and increase allergy, asthma, and autoimmune activation. While these individuals may be attracted to caffeine as an “energy boost”, in truth coffee just accelerates the metabolism of cortisol and worsens the root cause of the problem.
3. Type 2 diabetics. Similar to the above situation, T2Ds may be drawn to coffee for an energy boost because insulin resistance prevents their body from receiving the appropriate fuel source within their cells. Plus there is evidence that coffee or caffeinated beverages exacerbate blood sugar after meals, especially for those with poorly-controlled diabetes. Until the insulin resistance can be addressed at its root, these clients usually get much better relief by adding more medium chain fatty acids (MCFA – likely coconut oil) to their diet. MCFAs are readily metabolized in the cells, unlike other fats, when there is insulin resistance.
4. Insomnia – even mild. Despite myths otherwise, the stimulating effects of caffeine can be quite long-lasting. The half-life of caffeine in the body is up to 6 hours, which means it takes up to 24 hours for it to be fully excreted from your body. This means that your late morning cup of coffee can be a major reason why you struggle to go to bed early enough or why you don’t sleep as deeply as you wish.
5. Anxiety. This one is probably obvious, but many people who struggle with anxiety still choose to consume caffeine to counter the fatigue coming from anxiety-driven insomnia. This is of course a vicious, never-ending cycle, and in our experience the only way out – to real wellness – is withdrawing from the caffeine.
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