You either love, love, LOVE it (I do!), tolerate it as a means to get through the day, or flat-out hate it. You know if you actually like the taste, or if it’s just a thinly-veiled excuse/vehicle to deliver mounds of sugar and cream to your bloodstream. You know how it makes you feel (i.e. your digestion, your appetite, your mental acuity, etc.).
But then you have all the crazy headlines sending you mixed signals, with some that say coffee is great, and the next day that you should avoid it!
And even more confusing, some people can manage to consume coffee on the regular with seeming ease, citing that it’s their super-power elixir that carries them effortlessly through errands, workouts, homework, and more; while there are others who experience a plethora of not-so-super symptoms ranging from jitters, restlessness, anxiety, digestive distress, and counter-intuitive energy lows and sleepiness after one cup.
There is actual science behind why different people react differently to it. It’s a matter of your genetics and how much coffee you’re used to drinking.
Let’s be sure we have our terminology straight. Coffee does not equal caffeine – the words are not being used interchangeably here. Coffee contains between 50-400 mg of caffeine per cup, averaging around 100 mg/cup. Caffeine content can also vary drastically between different coffee shops, between different roasts and brewing methods, and between seemingly similar size drinks. Coffee is one of the most popular ways to consume this stimulant. But a cup of coffee, caffeinated or not, contains hundreds of other compounds, including antioxidants. These myriad compounds are the reason that drinking a cup of coffee is not the same as taking a caffeine pill. And while decaffeinated coffee has a lot less caffeine, it still contains some.
Now let’s look at caffeine metabolism, its effects on the mind and body, and whether coffee drinkers have higher or lower risks of disease. Then I’ll give you some things to consider when deciding if coffee is for you or not.
Not all people metabolize caffeine at the same speed. How fast you metabolize caffeine will impact how you’re affected by it. In fact, caffeine metabolism can be up to 40 times faster in some people than others.
About half of us are “slow” metabolizers of caffeine. We can get jitters, heart palpitations, and feel “wired” for up to 9 hours after having a coffee. The other half are “fast” metabolizers of caffeine. They get energy, increased alertness, and are back to normal a few hours later.
This is part of the reason those headlines contradict each other so much – because we’re all different!
The effects of coffee (and caffeine) on the mind and body
NOTE: Most studies look at caffeinated coffee, not decaf.
The effects of coffee (and caffeine) on the mind and body also differ between people; this is partly due to those differences in metabolism I mentioned. But it also has to do with your body’s amazing ability to adapt (i.e. become more tolerant) to long-term caffeine use. Many people who have just started drinking coffee feel the effects a lot more profoundly than people who have coffee every day.
Here’s a list of these effects (which usually decrease with long-term use):
- Stimulates the brain
- Boosts metabolism
- Boosts energy and exercise performance
- Increases your stress hormone cortisol
So, while some of these effects are good and some aren’t, you need to see how they affect you and decide if it’s worth it or not.
Coffee and health risks
There are a ton of studies on the health effects of coffee, and whether coffee drinkers are more or less likely to get or aggravate certain conditions.
Here’s a quick summary of what coffee can lead to:
- Caffeine addiction and withdrawal symptoms (e.g. a headache, fatigue, irritability)
- Increased sleep disruption
- Lower risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes
- Lower risk of certain liver diseases
- Lower risk of death (“all cause mortality”)
- Mixed reviews on whether it lowers risks of cancer and heart disease
Many of the health benefits exist even for decaf coffee (except the caffeine addiction and sleep issues).
Now, as with any food with health claims, what’s super important to note here is that coffee intake is just one of many, many factors that can affect your level of risk for these diseases. Please never think regular coffee intake is the “one thing!” that can help you overcome or eliminate these risks. You know that eating a nutrient-rich whole foods diet, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep and exercise are all critical things to consider and conglomerate for managing your disease risk.
Should you drink coffee or not?
There are a few things to consider when deciding whether you should drink coffee. No one food or drink will make or break your long-term health.
Caffeinated coffee is not recommended for:
- People with arrhythmias (e.g. irregular heartbeat)
- People who often feel anxious
- People who have trouble sleeping
- People who are pregnant
- Children and teens
If none of these apply, then monitor how your body reacts when you have coffee. Does it:
- Give you the jitters?
- Increase anxious feelings?
- Affect your sleep?
- Give you heart palpitations?
- Affect your digestion (e.g. heartburn, etc.)?
- Give you a reason to drink a lot of sugar and cream?
Depending on how your body reacts, decide whether these reactions are worth it to you. If you’re not sure, I recommend eliminating it for a while and see the difference.
As an interesting caveat, some (like me) who experience anxiety or restlessness co-morbidly with an autism-spectrum disorder, such as ADHD or Asperger’s, may actually find regular caffeine intake calms them down or otherwise reduces certain symptoms. (This is also one of the reasons the active component of Ritalin and similar ADHD medications, which otherwise acts as a stimulant, helps these individuals become less restless and more focused with use.)
Whether you choose to consume regular, decaf, or no coffee at all, here’s a delicious recipe to try!
Recipe: Mojolicious Pumpkin Chai Shake
- 1¼ cup unsweetened almond milk
- ¾ cup organic pumpkin puree or pumpkin pie filling (with real pumpkin!!)
- 1-2 Tbsp. walnut or cashew butter
- 1 tsp. chia seeds
- ¼ tsp. cinnamon
- ⅛ tsp. each ground cardamom, ginger, & turmeric
- pinch cayenne, to taste
- 1 tsp. maca powder
- 1 shot espresso (OR reduce almond milk to 1/2 cup and use 1 cup regular/decaf coffee), hot or chilled
- optional: 1 scoop vanilla plant protein (I used Iron Vegan)
Add all ingredients to blender and blend until creamy.
Serve & enjoy!
Update September 2018: This recipe is available with 24 others in the newly updated 3rd edition of LPFL Plant-Based Holiday Solutions, on sale now through October 10 2018. For each sale of this edition, $5 will be donated to the Ottawa Food Bank to help them refill their shelves after the devastation of the September 21 tornadoes. Grab your copy here.