It’s 5:30 a.m. as I stumble out of bed and make my way toward the kitchen and a new day. I have a family to feed and clothe and get out the door for work and school. The baby was up last night. I have a work deadline looming.
In automatic mode, I open the kitchen drawer, pull out a filter, and measure the water and grounds. Yep, it’s a coffee kind of morning.
And I’m not alone. The morning pot, the lines at Starbucks, the breakfast cans of Diet Coke and Mountain Dew. Eighty percent of Americans depend on these rituals as an antidote for the morning coma—not to mention the cure for the afternoon blahs and extra fuel for late-night work projects or study.
While we may not be ingesting more than previous generations of coffee drinkers, we’ve given an increasingly prominent role in modern life to lattes, cappuccinos, sodas, and more recently, caffeine-laced energy drinks. Coffee shops, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants have made the stuff readily available. And our culture, along with our bodies, seems to depend on it.
“Hey, I was just in the neighborhood and wondered if you’d like to get a cup of coffee,” Jerry Seinfeld asks his interview subjects in the online show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
“Sure,” comes the invariable reply. “I love coffee.”
But in spite of its widespread acceptance (90 percent of the world uses caffeine in some form) and some specific health benefits, caffeine is a drug. Users develop a tolerance to it, requiring more and more to achieve the same effect, and have difficulty—biologically and emotionally— withdrawing from it. Caffeine ends up affecting the entire set of bodily systems, from neural function to waste excretion, in ways that do not promote long-term health.
“Caffeine is like the air,” write Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer in their book The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. “You don’t see it and usually hardly notice it, but it’s there all the same, and it becomes part of you in a critical metabolic exchange that involves every cell in your body.”
Weighing the benefits and risks
Caffeine does not affect the nervous system directly. Instead it masquerades as the naturally occurring compound adenosine, produced by neurons in the brain and found in every cell. Adenosine is responsible for the body’s urge to sleep or relax, but caffeine blocks its receptors, freeing the brain’s natural stimulants—dopamine and glutamate, specifically—to do their work, resulting in the increased alertness and wakefulness that marks caffeine’s reputation.
When exposed to caffeine, the body also releases adrenaline—the “fight or flight” hormone—leading to a series of side effects that range from dilated pupils to a faster heart rate, from increased blood pressure to a release of sugar from the liver into the bloodstream for an extra jolt of energy.
The effects of caffeine can differ widely, depending on genetic predisposition and whether a person has built up a tolerance. Most recent studies show little connection between caffeine and life-threatening diseases such as cancer and heart disease. One study demonstrating a connection between coffee drinking and bladder cancer, for example, showed a similar result between those who drank regular and decaffeinated coffee, indicating that another toxin present in coffee itself led to the higher risk.
Other studies have pointed out that drinking coffee can have a protective effect against diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. It reduces the risk of suicide and stroke (in older women) and assists long-term memory. Caffeine has also been shown to be beneficial in athletic performance (take Serena Williams’s match-breaking coffee break in the Australian Hopman Cup last year), improve asthma symptoms, and protect against certain cancers. And coffee contains phytochemicals, such as chlorogenic acid and trigonelline, that the body needs for optimal health.
But there’s a downside too, and studies promoting caffeine’s health benefits should be handled with care, says Wes Youngberg, a lifestyle medicine specialist and assistant clinical professor at Loma Linda University.
For example, in the Harvard health study that showed a reduced risk of diabetes among coffee drinkers, it’s important to note that benefits were found among those who were drinking at least six cups of coffee a day, he says. That’s not a realistic amount for most people—in fact, one to two cups a day is the limit recommended by standard medicine—and likely reflects a subset of the population that is less prone to diabetes in the first place, Youngberg says.
He says, “I totally agree with what the study says. That doesn’t mean we should start drinking coffee.”
Reasons to quit
Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat to Live, a New York Times bestseller, encourages his patients to quit caffeine entirely when trying to clean up their diets and lose weight.
“Caffeine is an addictive substance, and it is best to meet our nutritional needs with as little exposure to toxic and stimulating substances as possible,” says Fuhrman. “Although one or two cups of coffee or tea per day are not likely to cause significant disease risks, for many people, weight loss progresses most effectively if a person gradually reduces and eventually eliminates caffeine, so that they are not eating to quell caffeine withdrawal. One can more easily connect with the body’s true hunger signals when you are not feeling caffeine withdrawal.”
Caffeine intake has also been shown to negatively affect people who have high blood pressure and diabetes (remember that caffeine causes the liver to dump extra sugar into the bloodstream). Plus, continual caffeine use takes a toll on the adrenal glands, which, when consistently and artificially activated, can cause a person to feel much worse in the long run, Youngberg says. Without an adrenal reserve, he explains, “We don’t have the capacity to deal with a major stress event.”
But perhaps more significantly, the caffeine-triggered adrenaline alters the brain’s ability to make healthy decisions on a number of levels by shifting function from the upper part of the brain, where more conscious decision making takes place, to the lower part of the brain, which responds more instinctively to external stimuli.
“There’s a battle between the lower brain and the upper brain,” Youngberg says. “The lower brain can actually shut down the higher brain when we perceive stress at a certain level, which means we’re not making good decisions at that point.”
A study from Johns Hopkins medical school shows that while caffeine drinkers may believe they’re getting a mental boost from their mochas, what’s actually happening is simply “a short-term reversal of caffeine withdrawal,” writes Travis Bradberry in a column “Caffeine: The Silent Killer of Emotional Intelligence” for Forbes.com. “In essence, coming off caffeine reduces your cognitive performance and has a negative impact on your mood.”
Plus, Bradberry notes, caffeine has been shown to raise blood pressure and induce shallow breathing, which in turn reduces the flow of oxygen to the brain, which in turn affects decision-making ability.
Caffeine also negatively impacts sleep. With a half-life of 6 hours, it takes a full 24 hours to completely leave the system—about the time most people wake up to start the cycle all over again.
“If you are using caffeine to keep you alert, it is problematic. If you are tired, you need more sleep, not caffeine,” advises Fuhrman.
Many of the benefits demonstrated by coffee intake may actually reflect a lack of proper nutrition in the Western diet, he adds.
“It is likely that the standard American diet is so nutrient poor that a significant portion of people’s phytochemical intake comes from their morning coffee,” Fuhrman writes. “Coffee is probably the largest source of dietary antioxidants in industrialized countries. . . . If a person is already consuming a high nutrient density diet, a cup of coffee would probably not provide any additional benefit.”
How to overcome caffeine addiction
There’s a reason 90 percent of the world’s population uses caffeine. It’s hard to give up. It’s a drug, after all; and when choosing to quit, Youngberg advises patients to do so gradually.
“We have to cut back on caffeine by no more than 50 percent per week—that’s a general recommendation,” he says.
An alternate method is to switch to green tea, a gentler alternative with some demonstrated health benefits, for a period of time until caffeine withdrawal subsides. And decaf coffee, while an alternative to help wean users off the stronger stuff, should be a short-term solution, he says, because trace amounts of caffeine are present along with other toxins.
What Youngberg says serves as a coffee replacement for many of his patients is simply a mug of hot water first thing in the morning. “It’s amazing how it can wake people up,” he says.
Reprinted with permission, from Vibrant Life magazine, November/December 2014.