That morning cup of coffee may be causing more harm than you know. The energy boost you get is an artificial caffeine-induced high that creates a vicious circle of dependency, which can be hard to break. Besides causing insomnia, nervousness, mood swings, headaches, stomach problems, hypertension and increased blood sugar, coffee may also be making you fat. There are better ways to become more productive and alert.
Many claim to not be able to function without it, but do we really need coffee? Just because everyone does something, does not mean it’s OK. Compulsive consumption of caffeinated beverages is deeply rooted in our culture. In my field of work, it’s such a clichée — the writer who cannot put a word on paper, let alone get out of bed, without a tall cup of coffee to wake her up. Coffee gives us an instant boost of energy, sure, but like any drug it does so at the expense of long-term health.
Some feel that coffee helps them accomplish things, thereby relieving stress, but a ten-year old study by researchers at Duke University suggests the opposite is true: caffeine actually exaggerates stress hormone production — levels rose by an average of 32% on the days caffeine was consumed — an increase that lasted throughout the day and into the evening.
The study found that the equivalent of four cups of coffee raises blood pressure for many hours and found it to be consistently higher on days when subjects consumed caffeine. Although this may not seem like a big deal if you are otherwise healthy, it is enough to affect heart attack and stroke risk, according lead author James D. Lane, PhD. For those that already have high blood pressure and are taking medications for it, consuming coffee may totally cancel out the effects of antihypertensive drugs.
Elevated Stress Hormones
When you consume caffeine, your body initiates uncontrolled neuron firing in the brain, which triggers your pituitary gland to secrete a hormone that, in turn, tells your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline. A stress hormone, adrenaline is what gives us that rapid boost of energy that enables us to power through, whether we are an athlete who needs to win a race or a cave man who needs to run from a dangerous wild animal. Caffeine puts you in a constant state of “fight-or-flight,” which serves no purpose unless we actually need to physically run from some impending danger. (No, an onslaught of emails does not count.) When this adrenal high wears off, you get a headache, you get tired and irritable and you usually reach for another cup to get the circle going again.
Even the cup of coffee you drink in the morning can contribute to disturbed sleep patterns. Hormone levels are thrown out of whack, which makes us develop symptoms like nervousness, irritability, insomnia, dizziness, chronic fatigue, headaches, heartburn, anxiety, hypertension, and heart palpitations. Eventually, your body can enter a state of adrenal exhaustion, which means that excess caffeine consumption has pushed your adrenal glands so hard that they’ve actually burned out. What you feel when this happens is that caffeine doesn’t produce the same effect, and you start to consume more of it to get that boost of energy you’re looking for — another vicious circle. This may work for a while, but the fact is that when you drink too much coffee, your body does not work as it is intended to. You can compare it to a farmer who uses pesticides to push his soil into producing more and more. What actually happens is that the soil gets successively more depleted, until it’s so dry that you can’t grow anything in it.
Is coffee making you fat?
Many crash diets recommend coffee as a calorie-burning stimulant. This is a bad idea for many reasons (if you’ve read this far you know many of them), one is called tannic acid and is a mild gastrointestinal irritant, which can be found in many caffeinated beverages. Consuming too much of this can prevent your body from being able to properly absorb the nutrients and minerals it needs to function. It doesn’t matter how healthy you eat, if too much tannic acid is present in your system these nutrients cannot be absorbed, you will experience hunger and suffer from constant deficiencies.
Despite what the fashion people say, coffee may actually be making you fat. How, you ask? Our bodies produce a stress hormone called cortisol, which is even more powerful than adrenaline and is, coincidentally, also triggered by caffeine consumption. Excess cortisol production reduces the body’s ability to use stored fat for energy, and also causes increased body fat to be stored in the abdominal region. You know those otherwise skinny men with protruding beer bellies? Yup, that’s what excess cortisol can do for you. Even in extremely healthy people, elevated cortisol levels make it nearly impossible to loose weight and also reduces the body’s ability to build muscle. As if cortisol wasn’t evil enough, it also stimulates our appetite, which can explain why we start craving a piece of chocolate or something sweet with our afternoon coffee. Coffee shops also take full advantage of this by putting heaps of sweet stuff right in front of helpless coffee-craving patrons, appealing to the munchies we get through this cruel, complex brain chemistry of ours.
People, of course, have different tolerances for caffeine — some can’t consume any without unwanted side effects, while some can drink the stuff all day long and still function. Interestingly enough, research suggests that men are more susceptible to the effects of caffeine than are women.
What to do
No matter how much coffee (or other caffeinated beverages) you are consuming today, it’s worth cutting down, especially if you are experiencing any of the symptoms or are trying to loose weight. You don’t have to tell me how hard it is to stay away from coffee, I grew up in a coffee-brewery town where the sweet smell of roasting beans was constantly in the air, and I started drinking the stuff when I was thirteen. The first time I took a break from coffee was when I used to run long races, because it’s a diuretic and causes fluids to pass through your system faster than they should — not good for runners. I didn’t experience that many side effects, but this was almost a decade ago and perhaps my younger self was more able to handle rapid changes. Last year, after working a stressful job in New York City for quite some time, I decided it was time to give up on the coffee for a while. This time, I experienced excruciating headaches for three days straight. Everyone thought I was nuts, but this just proved to me that caffeine is, indeed a drug, and if not getting it makes me feel that crappy then I’m probably having too much of it. Since then, I’ve started drinking a bit of coffee again, but with certain rules.
1. Drink only one cup and do it before noon. This keeps my total caffeine consumption down and largely prevents my sleep from being disturbed. Most weeks, I actually just have coffee on the weekends.
2. Only good stuff. At the office, I drank horrible “kitchen coffee” simply because it was there, it was free and I was bored and restless. Now, I only drink organic coffee that I actually enjoy.
3. Explore alternatives. Besides the energy boost, what I enjoy the most is the actual taste of coffee. Drink tea instead, but remember to stay away from teas that contain a lot of caffeine. While it may not be exactly the same thing, herbal coffees are a great alternative that make you feel like you can still enjoy that morning cup, without any of the nasty side effects. Teeccino is a great brand that makes many different flavored herbal coffees that has some body to them and actually taste really good. I have some every morning.
4. Start the day with a real energy boost. The best way to increase your level of energy, first thing in the morning and throughout the day, is to actually give your body energy. The best way to do this is by consuming nutritious green smoothies or juices, they are jam-packed with nutrients and give you an energy boost without the crash.
5. Get enough sleep. This may be the most boring advice ever, but make sure you get enough sleep. Your body needs a chance to recharge its batteries, and that only really happens when you sleep. Quality of sleep is also important, once you’re off the caf you should experience a deeper, more restful sleep. It’s the oldest trick in the book.