The Hidden Dangers of Coffee
By Sarah Axtell, ND • December 22, 2014
For many people, coffee is a part of life. Perhaps you drink your morning cup of joe for a morning pick-me up, an afternoon treat or simply out of habit as a morning ritual. More than half of all Americans drink a cup or more of coffee on a daily basis. Despite its popularity, there are some hidden health dangers of this beverage.
While coffee may make you feel energized in the short term, it can contribute to chronic fatigue and adrenal burn-out in the long-run. I am sure you have experienced that lovely “coffee high” or “caffeine buzz,” where you feel like you can conquer the world. You feel focused, can multi-task and have good energy… but then a couple hours later, you crash. This roller-coaster ride of highs and lows is an added stressor on your already taxed adrenal glands.
Coffee’s Deleterious Effects on the Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands are the small glands that sit above your kidneys. Though they are small in size, their effect on our overall health and well-being is quite powerful. Their function is to release hormones in response to stress. Cortisol is the main hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. When your cortisol levels are high over an extended period of time, your adrenal glands start to get depleted. This results in chronic fatigue, weight loss resistance, brain fog, hormonal imbalance, insomnia, anxiety, and sugar and/or salt cravings.
So here’s the problem. Every time you drink a cup of coffee, your adrenal glands are stimulated. Coffee activates the “fight or flight” mechanism in your body, thus promoting more cortisol output. It is normal to pump out this stress hormone, cortisol, when under acute stress. Think back in the day when we were running from the saber tooth tiger or when we we are front and center at war- we would have produced cortisol in high amounts to be alert and to essentially survive. The effect of caffeine is similar- you may initially feel alert from it, but it is then followed by feelings of agitation and fatigue. It puts us into a constant state of “fight or flight,” as if we were in the war zone or constantly confronted by a predator.
In addition to cortisol, coffee also stimulates the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine- stress hormones that have direct effects on the brain and nervous system. These hormones increase your heat rate and blood pressure…again, making you feel as if you are in danger. No wonder why so many people have insomnia, anxiety and high blood pressure! Sometimes, simple lifestyle modifications such as eliminating caffeine can make all the difference.
After prolonged periods of drinking coffee and thus stimulating cortisol, our bodies become weakened, depleted and exhausted to the point where your adrenal glands can no longer make cortisol. This is fatigue- a low cortisol state. So of course when you are tired, you grab a cup of coffee to bring you back up again. Caffeine forces your adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol when they are already exhausted. And for many people, they no longer feel the effects after just one cup. You may find that you continually have to reach for more to get the same effect.
Addiction and Withdrawal
Coffee affects your body just like any other drug. You can create a tolerance to it, thus driving you to reach for more and more to get the same desired effect. If you have been drinking coffee for awhile, you may have noticed that if you go without it, you get withdrawal symptoms. This is addiction!
I lead group detoxification workshops and in addition to dietary modifications during the 21 days, I have the participants eliminate coffee. This is by far the most dreaded part of the cleanse. The first 3-7 days of avoiding coffee can be rough if you are in fact addicted, causing withdrawal symptoms such as headache, fatigue, agitation or anger. But after that initial week, most people tell me how surprisingly more energized and even-keeled they feel. They are no longer experiencing this roller-coaster ride of highs and lows that can be exhausting.
If you are wanting to eliminate coffee, I recommend you drink a lot of water. Aim for 1/2 your body weight in ounces of water. For example, if you weight 150 lbs, I recommend you drink 75 ounces per day. This will help reduce withdrawal symptoms. Liver support is also a must. this includes castor oil packs, detox teas and liver supportive herbs, such as dandelion and milk thistle. Also, it is essential to keep your blood sugar stead during this time. To do so, eat protein at every meal and snack and avoid simple, refined carbs and sugar. A good B complex can also help with the process of quitting.
The Acidic Nature of Coffee
Our bodies thrive in a state of alkalinity (as opposed to acidity). Coffee and then combined with dairy and sugar is an extremely acidic beverage. Regular consumption of coffee causes an acidic state, which forces your body to leach calcium from your bones to maintain a proper pH. This increases your risk for osteoporosis and other degenerative diseases, such as fibromylagia, arthritis, cancer and diabetes.
The acidic nature of coffee can also contribute to acid reflux and other gastrointestinal issues, such as gastritis and leaky gut. If you experience GI issues, try eliminating coffee to allow your irritated mucus membranes lining your gut to heal.
What about Decaf?
The process to decaffeinate coffee uses cancer-causing chemicals, such as methylene chloride. This chemical has been found to cause cancer when inhaled. If you prefer decaf, look for one that has been decaffeinated through hot water extraction (as opposed to the chemical process).
Best Alternatives to Coffee
I understand the allure of a warm beverage in the morning. I am a big fan of green tea. Yes, it does contain caffeine. But I believe the benefits of green tea far outweigh the risks of the small amount of caffeine in a cup of green tea. One cup of green tea contains 25 mg caffeine (as opposed to 100-200 mg per cup of coffee). Green tea also contains L-theanine, a building block of GABA, which is our anti-anxiety neurotransmitter. So it provides you with a little bit of caffeine to help you focus but also a calming effect. Unlike coffee, there are not side effects like insomnia, high blood pressure or anxiety with green tea! And not to mention the antioxidants and thus the anti-cancer effects of green tea!
For some of you, green tea just doesn’t cut it in the morning. You crave that bitterness, that depth of flavor that coffee provides. You can try Rooibos chai tea for loads of flavor. Rooibos tea is naturally caffeine free. And it contains more antioxidants than green tea! Try the Rooibos chai tea with a splash of almond or coconut milk and raw honey.
For a hot beverage that tastes like coffee, try herbal coffee, such as Teeccino. Coffee-lovers are often attracted to herbal coffee for its full-bodied flavor. It is a combination of bitter herbs, such as chicory and dandelion root, nuts and grains. It brews just like coffee and is available at most health food stores in the coffee section.
If you just can’t give up your morning cup of java- keep it to one cup a day and no later than 12 pm.
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.