There's nothing like a warm cup of Joe to get us up in the morning..., but is coffee actually good for you? We break it down.
Historically, coffee has played an integral part in the lives and rituals of people of many nations over many centuries, prized for its stimulant effects and sheer enjoyment. After water, the aqueous extract of Coffea arabica is the most regularly consumed beverage in the world. First brewed around 900 AD in Kaffa, Ethiopia, coffee was adopted 600 years later for religious rituals in the Arabic culture of Aden and Mecca as a substitute for alcohol.
Eventually coffee became the stylish drink of European café society after Venetian traders introduced the bean to Italy around 1615. In the following century, coffee was highly fashionable, spreading to France and The Netherlands, becoming a plant of much academic interest, with coffee-related literature being then widely published.
Apparently, coffee arrived in Australia with the first fleet in 1788, yet it was not as popular a beverage as tea until Italian immigrants in the 1930s brought espresso coffee and their own brand of café culture to our cities. Because of this heritage, Australia now offers some of the best brews and coffee-drinking experiences in the world.
Today caffeine is the most widely consumed stimulant substance. Its main mode of action on the central nervous system is to increase energy metabolism in the brain, promoting dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline release, hormones that enhance mood. Memory, learning, physical coordination and mental performance are improved by the action of methylxanthine compounds, which increase arousal while reducing fatigue (1), however, these capacities are diminished with higher intakes of caffeine. Prevention of cognitive decline, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and also stroke have been linked to lifetime coffee (caffeine) consumption (2).
Methylxanthine compounds, including caffeine, theobromine and theophylline (also found in cocoa and tea), may interfere with oestrogen metabolism and lead to the development of benign breast disease. These natural chemicals, if ingested in large quantities, inhibit phosphodiesterase enzymes in breast tissue, which can result in fibrocystic (tender, lumpy or fluid-filled) changes in the breast (3).
After drinking a cup of coffee (containing between 50mg and 200mg of caffeine), the phytochemicals are rapidly absorbed via the gastrointestinal system into the blood circulation. Caffeine levels reach their peak typically within 30-60 minutes, while this absorption may be delayed by another hour in some individuals, depending upon the rate of stomach emptying. It is then distributed to the liver for processing via a cytochrome - P450 1A2 enzyme, which clears 95% of the caffeine. Caffeine can remain in the human body for anytime between 2-12 hours, during which time it impacts other organs and tissues, most importantly the brain.
While caffeine is present in the blood, it reduces microcirculation, which can lead to elevation of blood pressure and reduced peripheral blood flow; it also impacts digestive function, by reducing normal parasympathetic (your relaxation nervous system) tone in the gut which affects the secretion of digestive secretions (stomach acid, bile and pancreatic enzymes).
Coffee's bitter taste stimulates stomach acid secretion, so it's important that individuals with stomach ulcers or gastritis avoid it. It also relaxes the lower oesophageal sphincter and allows stomach contents and acid to reflux back into the oesophagus which is why some people experience heartburn or acid reflux when they consume coffee.
Caffeine affects hormone metabolism, especially in women who are either premenstrual or postmenopausal, and it may interfere with the metabolism of oral contraception (5). If you're experiencing heavy, painful periods or an irregular cycle you may need to reduce or eliminate your intake of caffeine to lighten the load on your liver and support hormonal balance.
Many women wonder whether they should be drinking coffee during gestation or post-birth. Coffee crosses the placental membrane of pregnant women and can affect the foetus, potentially causing spontaneous abortion or risk of foetal growth retardation (6). Caffeine can also be traced into breast milk so it is recommended that pregnant and breastfeeding women limit their intake of caffeine to 200mg per day — that is 1 espresso or 2 instant coffees.
Believe it or not, coffee crosses the blood-testis barrier where it has been found to cause strand breaks in sperm DNA, reducing male fertility, while also delaying time to conception in men with a regular high intake of caffeine. (7). Fortunately, there has been no definitive research to date linking regular caffeine intake in humans to causing birth defects (8).
Coffea arabica contains up to 219 phytochemicals (e.g. chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, hydroxyhydroquinone and the alkaloid, caffeine) (9). Terpenoids give the characteristic aroma of coffee and nutrient minerals (potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, iron, copper, manganese and zinc) and some vitamins (B, C) can be found in most species of coffee.
The antioxidant effects of coffee are well-documented and considered to offer protection against cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer (10). Coffee consumption has also been shown to be protective against liver damage by increasing glutathione (11), particularly in heavy drinkers, reducing their risk for developing cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma (11). Roasted and brewed coffee have even been found to provide more liver support than an equivalent green brew (12).
Your coffee habit becomes an issue when it is impacting your health adversely, or if you find it hard to stop the bean.
Some of the health concerns that a high or regular caffeine habit could cause are:
· Insomnia – difficulty falling asleep or poor quality, shallow sleep
· Anxiety, nervousness, feeling “highly-strung” or “buzzy”
· Feeling stressed or overwhelmed by everyday challenges
· Mental fatigue, brain fog, difficulty focussing or keeping mentally on track
· Adrenal exhaustion – feeling completely drained, “flat battery” effect, emotionally depleted
· Low stamina, low libido
· Elevated blood pressure
· Abnormal heart rhythms, especially paroxysmal atrial tachycardia (PAT)
· Poor digestion, bloating, alternating constipation/diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
· Addiction to caffeine, can’t function without it
It takes an average of 7 hours to clear caffeine from your system, so if you are needing a caffeine hit after this period of time you may have a caffeine dependence. Similarly, if it is hard to function mentally in the morning, and to switch on, without caffeine, this is classic caffeine addiction. Ironically, the more you drink coffee the less effective it becomes as a stimulant, as it dumbs down your neural caffeine receptors.
Caffeine withdrawal can cause excruciating headaches, which is why many people choose to continue drinking coffee rather than suffer. However, these all over headaches can be managed by slowly reducing your daily caffeine dose while drinking plenty of water to flush it out via your kidneys. Dilute your coffee, drink half a cup, or move to black tea, then green tea and eventually herbal tisanes, which do not contain caffeine. Caffeine also affects adenosine receptors creating muscle fatigue when you remove it from your system (5), so relaxation and therapeutic massage are beneficial ways to ease this symptom of withdrawal.
Usually, a heavy intake of caffeine can be reduced to zero within 4-5 days using this method. If you only have a couple of cups of coffee each day you may be through the process in 24 hours. You can expect some post-withdrawal fatigue to occur (both mental and physical), but this improves effectively with good hydration and undertaking some gentle then more strenuous exercise. No caffeine, plus the endorphins released in your brain after exercising, improve your sleep quality, restoring and refreshing you the following day.
Some yummy coffee substitutes are available from your health food store. A common Naturopathic recipe uses a blend of dried and milled dandelion and chicory roots (equal parts), with powdered cinnamon to taste. This spice makes a bitter brew more aromatic and this Dandy Chai, as it's called is delicious with soy (or your preferred) milk.
Ginseng tea can be a good substitute for individuals with adrenal exhaustion, as it supports and protects adrenal function whilst gently boosting energy, which improves with a regular intake.
If you are still feeling fatigued after plenty of good (7-9 hour) nights of sleep, check your daily food and nutritional intake - make sure you are eating fresh, nourishing meals and avoid eating reheated leftover or frozen meals. Taking additional vitamin and mineral supplements will support your biochemical replenishment, particularly the B-group of vitamins and magnesium, which support the adrenal gland and neurotransmitter recovery. Probiotics also help to replenish GABA serotonin and dopamine levels after clearing caffeine from your system, which will elevate your mood and help you to stay clear and calm.
Perhaps the answer may be to reduce your intake of coffee initially, to see if you feel better in some way, and not necessarily quit it completely. As coffee offers some health benefits, you might find that a modest intake suits your metabolism and improves your mental functioning, or maybe choose to drink only “essential coffee”, as I call it – one that you enjoy and slowly savour during a catch-up conversation with a friend (which could be decaffeinated). It is the way you drink your coffee that matters. When in doubt - do as the Italians do - in a ceramic cup and never on the run!
Having said that there are some health conditions that would benefit from you avoiding caffeine altogether if they affect you:
· Gastro-oesophageal reflux disorder (GORD)
· Chronic insomnia
· Anxiety Disorders
· Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
· Chronic tension headaches
· Interaction with medications, e.g. antihypertensive drugs, or other stimulants
· Tremor or movement disorders
· Cardiac arrhythmias – atrial fibrillation, PAT
*Caffeine can relieve a migraine in the first hour of onset (during the aura phase), but after that, it will intensify the headache and, in compromising liver detoxification, may lead to further migraine episodes
Vitable offers subscription vitamins where you can mix and match nutrients to address your health needs and goals. Another great thing about Vitable is its vitamin delivery service that ensures you receive your personalised vitamins on time. If you need custom vitamin packs in Australia, consider Vitable.
*Always read the label and follow directions for use. If you experience any symptoms or if symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.
1. Nehlig A, Daval JL, Debry G. Caffeine and the central nervous system: mechanisms of action, biochemical, metabolic and psychostimulant effects. Brain Res Brain Res Rev. 1992;17(2):139-70.
2. Nehlig A. Effects of coffee/caffeine on brain health and disease: What should I tell my patients? Pract Neurol. 2016;16(2):89-95.
3. Bullough B, Hindi-Alexander M, Fetouh S. Methylxanthines and fibrocystic breast disease: a study of correlations. Nurse Pract. 1990;15(3):36-8, 43-4.
4. Khare CP. Indian medicinal plants: an illustrated dictionary: Springer Science & Business Media; 2008.
5. Butt MS, Sultan MT. Coffee and its consumption: benefits and risks. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2011;51(4):363-73.
6. Fenster L, Eskenazi B, Windham GC, Swan SH. Caffeine consumption during pregnancy and fetal growth. Am J Public Health. 1991;81(4):458-61.
7. Ricci E, Viganò P, Cipriani S, Somigliana E, Chiaffarino F, Bulfoni A, et al. Coffee and caffeine intake and male infertility: a systematic review. Nutr J. 2017;16(1):37.
8. Christian MS, Brent RL. Teratogen update: evaluation of the reproductive and developmental risks of caffeine. Teratology. 2001;64(1):51-78.
9. Nemzer B, Abshiru N, Al-Taher F. Identification of Phytochemical Compounds in Coffea arabica Whole Coffee Cherries and Their Extracts by LC-MS/MS. J Agric Food Chem. 2021;69(11):3430-8.
10. Patay ÉB, Bencsik T, Papp N. Phytochemical overview and medicinal importance of Coffea species from the past until now. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine. 2016;9(12):1127-35.
11. Morisco F, Lembo V, Mazzone G, Camera S, Caporaso N. Coffee and liver health. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2014;48 Suppl 1:S87-90.
12. Lima AR, Pereira RG, Abrahão SA, Zangeronimo MG, Paula FB, Duarte SM. Effect of decaffeination of green and roasted coffees on the in vivoantioxidant activity and prevention of liver injury in rats. Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia. 2013;23(3):506-12.