Throughout my adult life, I have had a love and hate relationship with coffee. When I was in my teens, I really couldn't stand the stuff; my stepfather drank coffee every morning out of a really nice crockery pitcher and filter set that he kept warm on the stove over a burner diffuser. He liked his coffee with honey and half & half. I gave it a try and found it terribly bitter (he made his coffee really strong) and I didn't care for it at all. Later, I discovered lattes and mochas and these were much more appealing to me. What's not to like about a creamy, sweet drink topped with whipped cream? I liked these because I got the caffeine boost and didn't even taste the coffee! I still enjoy a caramel latte, but I've learned to appreciate a good cup of drip coffee (though I still can't drink it black).
While I was in Naturopathic medical school, I found that many naturopathic physicians have a poor opinion of coffee and I made it my mission to discover as many health benefits to coffee as I could. Yes, part of me wanted to justify my coffee consumption, but I also didn't like the statement "coffee is bad for you" because it went against one of the most fundamental concepts of Naturopathic medicine: everyone is unique. Sure, coffee is "bad" for some people, but most people can drink moderate amounts of coffee with no problems at all; and drinking moderate amounts of coffee can even be good for you! So let's take a look at the good and the bad of coffee.
First the Bad
Like everything, coffee in excess is not good for you. A cup of coffee (and a standard "cup" is approximately 6 ounces) contains 50-100 milligrams or so of caffeine. The amount varies depending on the beans used, how fine they are ground and what method is used to prepare them. Looking at the research, moderate consumption of caffeine means less than 300 milligrams per day—so, 18 ounces of Stumptown to 36 ounces of Folgers. Drinking more than this can contribute to dehydration because caffeine is a diuretic, making you lose water. In excess, coffee can contribute to constipation because of the diuretic effect but it can also cause diarrhea due to increasing peristalsis in the colon.
Too much caffeine can also wreak havoc on your adrenal glands and this is the primary reason that Naturopathic physicians tell their patients to stop drinking coffee. Caffeine stimulates the release adrenaline in your body—so drinking caffeinated beverages puts your body into a state of fight-or-flight. For people in good adrenal health, the body manages the surge in cortisol and epinephrine and helps you return to a "rest and digest" state. But for those with adrenal gland dysfunction—and this is probably the majority of people—caffeine can overstimulate an already overworked pair of adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and, among other things, are responsible for moderating your stress response by releasing cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. I say that a majority of people have some level of adrenal gland dysfunction because, as a culture, we live a high stress lifestyle. In the earlier stages of adrenal dysfunction, with prolonged exposure to stress, you are pumping out way too much cortisol (this causes an increase in belly fat, among other things). In later stages of adrenal dysfunction, exposure to stress creates a situation of trying to wring out a dry sponge—your body is so depleted that it can no longer respond to the stress signal (such as caffeine). So, coffee in a way is liquid stress. The difference between drinking a moderate amount of coffee and coffee in excess is like the difference between the good stress of workout and being chased by lions.
Coffee (because of its caffeine content) can also aggravate insomnia, worsen anxiety, and increase symptoms of PMS and fibrocystic breast pain. Excess caffeine consumption can contribute to high blood pressure and osteoporosis. A compound in coffee called cafestol can increase cholesterol levels (filtering your coffee removes most of the cafestol).
Coffee consumption can drastically affect fertility: women consuming more than 300 milligrams of caffeine each day are 2 1/2 times more likely to have delayed conception than women consuming less. Some research suggests that excess caffeine consumption during pregnancy can contribute to low birth weight and miscarriage, but most research shows that consumption of less than 200 milligrams of caffeine per day is safe in pregnancy. But enough about the bad stuff, what's good about coffee? Well, for that, you'll have to wait for next week!
(For more detailed information about adrenal dysfunction, please check out my colleage, Dr. Jason Barker's, blog post Adrenal Fatigue on The Natural Athlete's Clinic site.)