The preferred drug of pretty much every parent, entrepreneur or achiever on the planet.

In the wellness community, there is a lot of advice to give up coffee to either ease your gut or calm your adrenals…but is it really that bad for you? And, who in their right mind would ever consider giving up coffee?

Me, for one. I went caffeine free in May. It started because I caught my son’s particularly nasty stomach bug at the end of April and literally couldn’t stomach coffee for three days. I figured, since the caffeine headaches were behind me and I was devoting my energy to working out every day in May, why don’t I just give up coffee and see what happens? It gave me a lot of time to think about my relationship with the stuff…seeing as it felt pretty much essential to life at that point.

Argument One: Coffee has health benefits

It’s true: as maligned as it is, coffee is fairly well-researched and has documented health benefits. The reason for this? Well, it’s a plant extract. Coffee contributes a meaningful amount of phyto-chemicals and minerals like magnesium to the diet.

Roasting coffee beans sharply increases the number of active compounds versus green beans.The chemical complexity of roasted coffee is astounding. Caffeine is a documented mental and physical performance enhancer that may have mild-antidepressant effects. Chlorogenic acid, another main component of coffee, is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. Coffee intake, both caffeinated and decaffeinated, is associated with lower risk of type two diabetes; both chlorogenic acid and alkaloids in coffee are thought to protect against diabetes. In addition, systematic reviews have found no association or a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease with coffee consumption.

Argument Two: Coffee can over-stimulate

Coffee can overstimulate the nervous system, which isn’t fun if you have brain-gut conditions. As someone with irritable bowel syndrome, I can attest to the digestion stimulating effect of caffeinated coffee. Some people love that, using their morning cup of coffee to guarantee a little bathroom time. However, if you have digestive issues that lean to the overzealous, it’s probably not a good thing.

Coffee activates the hypothalamic-pituitary axis; those with a tendency to anxiety might feel worse when they add coffee to the mix. Long term heavy use of caffeinated coffee is associated with high blood pressure and can cause heart palpitations. However, one clinical trial found that healthy, habitual users of caffeine had an increase in sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system activity without increased cortisol leading researchers to predict a positive anti-stress effect although the trial was conducted in non-stressful conditions and we often use coffee to help us cope with high intensity days.

I find that for me, when I am in a high-energy, potentially anxious state, coffee makes it worse. However, if I am relaxed and happy, I tend not to feel overstimulated by a cup of coffee.

Argument Three: We often misuse coffee

It’s important to note that while coffee can help keep you alert temporarily, it does not replace the benefits of regular adequate sleep and its going to overstimulate your exhausted body. In addition, if you have a rough night and drink a lot of coffee to keep you up, the prolonged half-life of caffeine in the body (6 hours) means that your coping mechanism could lead to another terrible night. Try and cut off your caffeine intake by lunchtime. If I need a pick-me-up, I drink decaf coffee in the afternoon.

In addition, while black coffee isn’t an unhealthy drink, most of us consume it with all manner of sugar and creamy-type things that can make what should be a zero calorie, zero sugar beverage more closely resemble cheesecake-in-a-cup. And the health risks of consuming those kind of drinks are very well documented.

I recommend that if you consume caffeine, you keep it in the 1-3 cup range (an actual, 250ml cup)…not three extra large americanos! Go for unsweetened lattes or americanos and add just a touch of sugar if you need it to neutralize bitterness.

Argument Four: Our reaction to coffee is individualized

Our genetics, metabolic impact of our food choices and our gut flora help determine how we respond to our environments, which includes food and drink. Some of us are fast metabolizers of caffeine; it is thought that fast metabolizers may gain more benefit than slow metabolizers. We are just scratching the surface of our understanding of individualized responses to nutrition. For now, we have to default to experimenting and being mindful of how coffee affects us.

Before my caffeine-free month, I could tell that it was stimulating my gut more than I would like..but not to the point where I was willing to give it up. During the month, I noticed that not only did my gut calm down but my rosacea was less pronounced. I didn’t feel more tired or like I had lower energy. All this in a month where I was routinely working very long days and not getting a lot of rest. Not surprised…just annoyed with myself for ignoring this effect so I could justify my coffee habit! See, dietitians can rationalize less healthful behaviours just like anyone else.

I have clients for whom 1-2 cups of coffee per day has no noticeable negative effect on their gut or their mental wellbeing. Others run to the bathroom just thinking about coffee. Coffee may exacerbate ulcers, reflux or interstitial cystitis so whether or not coffee is good for you will depend on your current health state. And the best way to figure this out is to go without coffee for 1-2 weeks and then see how you feel. I recommend tapering down before your abstinence period to decrease risk of headaches and other side effects.

Bottom Line

Coffee isn’t unhealthy; but we don’t all feel our best when we are consuming it. Now that my month without caffeine is over, I tried consuming caffeinated coffee but realized I really don’t need it…especially because I have really good decaf. However, what I did miss was matcha. I find that using 1/2 teaspoon of matcha feels non-stimulatory while 1 teaspoon now feels fairly stimulatory in my newly less caffeinated self. Love coffee? Does it seem to agree with you? Then buy the best you can afford, and enjoy less, more mindfully. It can absolutely fit in a healthy, anti-inflammatory life.

Photo by Mike Marquez on Unsplash