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Coffee: THe Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I’ve never liked the taste of coffee, which I thought was a blessing in disguise since it meant I’d never be someone who needed a cup in the morning to function. But then I tried a latte from Starbucks. And then I had to write four exams in three days and needed an extra energy boost. And slowly but surely, despite not liking coffee, I found myself slowly getting addicted to caffeine.

I’m certainly not alone: Coffee is the second-highest most consumed beverage in Canada (second only to water) according to Statistics Canada. As such, it has been the centre of quite a debate over the years. While some say it’s a nutritional powerhouse, others claim it’s simply a legal drug we’re all addicted to.

So, who’s right? And do the benefits outweigh the risks?

The Good News for Coffee Drinkers

The good news is that coffee in particular contains a plethora of nutrients that can provide a number of health benefits, including: 

  1. Caffeic acid: a highly protective, anti-inflammatory antioxidant. 

  2. Chlorogenic acid: a powerful antioxidant that can help prevent atherosclerosis, cancer, and diabetes while reducing LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, heart disease risk, and supporting weight loss by helping our body use fat for energy. 

  3. Polyphenols: powerful antioxidants that regulate our cells’ processes and help drive down inflammation associated with common diseases of aging like diabetes and atherosclerosis according to Life Extension magazine. 

  4. Lignans: phytoestrogens found in the walls of plants that may help regulate hormone levels and support the immune system. 

  5. Micronutrients like magnesium—which helps maintain nervous system balance—and vitamin B2 (or riboflavin), which is involved in energy metabolism. 

But perhaps the biggest reason people gravitate toward coffee is that it contains caffeine. Caffeine not only helps improve our attention and alertness, but it can enhance insulin sensitivity as well—a welcome byproduct for those suffering from metabolic syndrome or diabetes. Furthermore, caffeine exerts benefits on glucose metabolism, leading to “decreased glucose storage capacity” according to a studypublished in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. Translation: caffeine makes it just a bit harder for your body to store sugar.

Other added benefits of coffee include its ability to: enhance performance in high-intensity exercise, reduce one’s risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia, and lower one’s relative risk of cardiovascular disease and heart disease mortality according to astudy in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 

The Bad 

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and truly is considered a drug. It helps us feel alert by stimulating the adrenal glands to release adrenaline while also increasing dopamine levels—the same neurotransmitter that’s affected by drugs like amphetamines and heroin, according to Brown University (though obviously to a much smaller degree). 

Other problems associated with coffee use include: 

  1. Ulcers: caffeine can stimulate acid secretion in the stomach, which may cause GERD according to the John Hopkins School of Medicine. (Studies yield inconclusive scientific results about this but anecdotally speaking, many individual seem to experience improved symptoms of GERD with reduced or non-existent caffeine consumption.) 

  2. Dehydration: as a diuretic, caffeine prompts the body to lose water through urination. 

  3. Insomnia: While caffeine’s strongest effects are felt an hour after consumption, its effects can last for 4 - 6 hours according to a study by Brown University. 

  4. Headaches: these normally occur during caffeine withdrawal, and usually go away during caffeine ingestion.

  5. High heart rate: it can make you feel jittery, restless, skittish, excitable, or anxious, which can have negative effects on individuals who have an anxiety disorder.

  6. Fat storage: coffee releases cortisol, known as the “stress hormone.” High amounts of cortisol are associated with low thyroid functioning, fatigue, sleep disruption, sugar cravings, and fat storage. 

The Ugly

Here’s what really bugs me about coffee consumption: insomnia remains the number one sleep disorder in Canada. Thanks to our high-stress, fast-paced lifestyle, almost one quarter of Canadians say that most days are “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful, according to Statistics Canada. These two factors lead to extreme adrenal fatigue that results in symptoms like: insomnia, digestive tract upsets, irritability, depression, fatigue, heart disease, PMS, menopausal syndromes, and more. 

And yet, coffee has been linked to the very symptoms that many of us complain about the most: insomnia and a poor ability to handle stress. I ask you: if we’re all feeling stressed out and are having a hard time falling asleep to begin with, is it not a bit masochistic to down a beverage that simply aggravates these symptoms? 

What many people also fail to realize is that although the antioxidant capacity of caffeinated coffee is slightly higher than decaf coffee, the benefits of improved glucose metabolism or increased antioxidant intake are still found in decaffeinated coffee. In other words, decaf coffee can provide many of the benefits of coffee without insomnia-causing and adrenal-fatiguing caffeine. 

Also, cortisol levels also have a natural cycle throughout the day, peaking at 8am when we wake up and lowering around 4pm when most of us crave that sugary snack or fifth cup of coffee. Since coffee stimulates cortisol production, our body gets confused about when it’s supposed to be awake and when it’s supposed to be asleep. Find yourself waking up in the middle of the night for no reason? It’s because your natural cortisol cycle is out of whack. 

And finally, if you’re someone who desperately needs that cup of coffee just to feel normal, you’re likely ignoring other issues in your body that need attention, such as dysglycemia (abnormal blood sugar levels), dysbiosis (imbalance of bacteria in your gut) or, of course, adrenal fatigue. 

The Bottom Line

So, is coffee bad? Absolutely not. What isn’t great, though, is the amount of coffee many of us are drinking. While antioxidants and even caffeine are associated with some health benefits, needing coffee to improve your mood or focus is a sign that your other bodily systems are in dire need of attention. My advice is to try slowly wean yourself off it entirely, address these bodily symptoms, and then reintroduce it into your routine and stick to two cups a day at the most (normal cups, people, not two Starbucks Ventis).

Here are some more tips:

1. Limit caffeine consumption to 200 - 400mg per day at the most. 

  • NOTE: While caffeine content varies, a medium original blend coffee from Tim Hortons has 205mg of caffeine. My preference is that you only have ONE medium coffee from Tim’s in the morning.

2. Drink water. You need 1 cup of water for every cup of coffee you drink just to counteract its effects. So, if you drink two cups of coffee per day, have four cups of water to fully hydrate yourself. 

3. Watch your portions. When research says drinking two cups of coffee a day doesn’t pose any health effects, they mean two literal cups. That doesn’t mean two Grande coffees from Starbucks. 

4. Stop drinking coffee around 1:00p.m. Since its effects remain in your system for 4 - 6 hours, your body will be “caffeine-free” around 7pm and experience declining cortisol levels. Though this is a few hours past the time that cortisol levels naturally decline (at 4:00pm), you should be able to fall asleep when you hit the sheets later. 

5. Stay away from coffee if you’re generally an anxious or stressed out person. 

You Tell Me!

What are your thoughts on the coffee debate? Where do you stand? Let me know in the comments below! 


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