Java Java: Don’t Touch My Morning Cup’a Joe

Caffeine is the active substance found in coffee, tea, and chocolate that many of us look to for that energy boost. It is a stimulant that activates the central nervous system. It can improve energy, boost mood, increase efficiency, and bolster alertness. The dark side of caffeine is that it can increase anxiety, result in a rapid or irregular heartbeat, cause muscle tremors, elevate blood pressure, have you running to the bathroom (both # 1 and 2), and it may disrupt your sleep patterns. 

It is a compound found in various plants, like other stimulants (cocaine, for example). Caffeine is, in essence, a drug that alters our physiology. It is highly addictive and does have a withdrawal syndrome (headaches, fatigue, jitteriness).  It is the 3rd most abused drug in the world. The truth is we don’t need it for anything. There is no caffeine requirement for human function. Its usage in small dosages is well tolerated, but if used excessively, it can result in significant symptoms and potential harm. This may sound like many other substances that have been made illegal (cocaine, for example, was once in Coca-Cola). 

Now I am not suggesting that your morning java is going to kill you, nor make you psychotic, and send you off on a rage. This is hardly the case, and you can probably tolerate between 1 and 4 cups per day and may do very well with this. The science even goes back and forth on the health benefits of coffee – can it prevent or slow the development of type II diabetes? Is it heart protective? I guess it depends on who you read. The thing is that coffee beans are not merely caffeine. Coffee is loaded with antioxidants, molecules that blunt the inflammatory response in your cells. Tea and the cacao bean (the source of dark chocolate) also contain these in abundance. 

I used to be able to drink a cappuccino before bed and would sleep like a baby. I do not know if I could do that now, but then again, I cannot recall the last time I slept that well. Caffeine is a stimulant and can certainly affect the way one may sleep. This largely comes down to your personal genetic wiring and how it is expressing itself. Caffeine, like everything else, needs to be detoxified in the body. You have genes in your DNA that code for the enzymes that break down caffeine and other stimulants. You can be either a fast metabolizer or a slow metabolizer. These genes can also become less efficient as we get older as a result of other factors that alter their expression. This means you may not be able to handle caffeine as well now as you used to because this gene has become a little sluggish. 

For a slow metabolizer of caffeine, one cup of good coffee in the morning may still have this stimulant circulating in the late afternoon. If they have 2 cups of coffee, there is still measurable caffeine circulating at bedtime, making it hard to shut the brain down for sleep. A rapid metabolizer may be able to have 2-3 cups of coffee in the morning, and it is out of their system by afternoon. 

Individuals with HPA Axis Dysfunction (“adrenal fatigue”) would do best to avoid or at least significantly limit caffeine. They often rely on it to boost energy they can no longer mount themselves. The caffeine does serve as a stimulant, much like a jolt of adrenaline, to get their minds going and get the day started, but this prevents the body from ever adapting and the necessary changes from ever being made to heal from the reason they feel the way they do. This is not dissimilar to functional alcoholics drinking liquor in the morning to keep from having tremors or a seizure while they are at work. 

It is perfectly okay to enjoy your cup of coffee, or 2, or 8. You should, however, listen to your body and what it may be trying to tell you. Decaf coffee has far less caffeine (typically around 10 mg per cup), still offers the health benefits of antioxidants, and studies indicate that it may offer comparable benefits. If sleep is an issue for you, you should probably cut back or limit regular coffee to the morning and switch to decaf in the afternoon. Maybe just have one cup of regular and then do half-caf or decaf. Most coffee lovers will say that Decaf tastes horrible (I cannot disagree that it is not anywhere near comparable), but some brands are better than others. There is an argument against decaf for the way it is processed and treated with chemicals – choosing decaf made with Swiss Water Processing negates this problem. All Coffee carries the risk of mold exposure, and for individuals with mold sensitivity or concerns for mold illness, coffee may not be a good option.

A good alternative, with less caffeine, is green or black tea. These still contain a high antioxidant count and similar health benefits, but with far less caffeine per cup. If you are willing to go caffeine-free but are not a fan of plain water, you may wish to consider herbal teas. These are naturally caffeine free, offer many health benefits, and allow you to hydrate with some flavor. One of my favorites is Red or Green Rooibos. 

Dark chocolate is something that I do not think I could ever give up. I have given up coffee in the past, and I never really started drinking coffee until I was in my residency after medical school. Chocolate, on the other hand, is a different story. I have loved chocolate since I was a kid. I often crave it (this is not a good thing, by the way). Still, dark chocolate does have several things that confer health benefits – chock full of antioxidants and contains a good dose of magnesium that is needed essentially everywhere in the body. L-theanine is a calming compound that soothes the stress response.  Caffeine is one component, but it is counter-balanced by these others. A bit, 1-2 oz, can be beneficial without significant adverse effects. 

The Bottom Line: Caffeine is a stimulant with no necessity in human function. It confers no direct health benefits but may result in harm. Ultimately, the harm from poison is in the dose. A little bit may be okay and result in no harm, whereas a lot can be deadly. One to two cups of coffee daily will not likely harm most people. However, having several energy drinks daily can lead to symptoms (anxiety, heart arrhythmias, elevated blood pressure) and even death. The plants caffeine is found in have health benefits and may be a good reason for some to eat/drink them. If you do so in moderation, listening to how your body responds, this shouldn’t be a problem. 

Some things affect the metabolism of caffeine. Women tend to be better metabolizers than men. Exercise helps break it down faster. Smoking cigarettes also helps to detox the caffeine quicker, but I would not advise this as an option to allow you to keep drinking your coffee all day.

Photo Cred: Fullscript