Coffee – the good guy or the bad guy?
Coffee the toxin. Coffee the superfood.
By Reece Carter, Reece Carter Naturopathy
Very few foods divide the health community quite like coffee. Some will say that it does no good and not a single drop should pass your lips, while others will tout its antioxidant- and metabolism-boosting properties. So, which is it? Navigating the ever-changing whirlpool of information that is Google can be difficult, and contradictory information is everywhere. The truth is that coffee can be both beneficial and detrimental to health, depending on how, when and why it is consumed.
I’ll start out by admitting that I love my one morning coffee. A nice long black is a beautiful thing, especially in Melbourne. I think a lot of my clients feel guilty when answering the question ‘do you drink coffee?’ and feel like maybe there will be judgement, but the truth is that a little coffee can actually be good for you. Not only does it boost your energy, brainpower and metabolism in the short term, but studies have also shown that regular caffeine consumption may actually prevent cognitive decline, meaning that you can help ward off age-related brain fog and memory loss.
Note that I said regular coffee consumption, not excessive consumption. Like with most things, there is another side to this story and unfortunately it’s not uncommon to see people relying too heavily on caffeine to get through their day. But using coffee for energy is like shopping on credit; at some point you will have to pay it back.
Caffeine works by ‘amping up’ sympathetic nervous system activity. That’s our fight or flight response, which helped us to run away from sabre-toothed tigers and grizzly bears that wandered in to our cave. But there is a decided lack of these ferocious carnivores in the average workplace, so why do so many of us rely on our fight or flight nervous system to get through the day? Because it helps us get stuff done. It sends blood shooting towards the brain and the limbs so that we can think and act quickly. But with the half-life of caffeine being about six hours, and the average coffee in Melbourne being a double shot, that means that if you have a coffee at 3pm to get you through that mid-afternoon slump, you still have a shot of coffee in your system at 9pm!
Caffeine also interferes with the effects of adenosine, one of our ‘sleepy hormones’, in the brain. In doing so, it messes around with serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. This is probably why it’s so addictive and feels good to drink, but it’s just another way to mess up our circadian rhythm, disrupt our sleep and leave us still feeling tired the next morning. That’s OK though, we can just have a coffee to wake us up, right?
So this is the cycle we end up in, using coffee to mask our fatigue (but not actually fix it) so that we can get through our day. But how can we break the cycle?
1. Limit your coffee to one a day, and have it before lunch time.
2. Exercise first thing in the morning. This will boost your adrenaline and cortisol naturally at a time of the day that it is supposed to be high.
3. Eat regularly and include good quality carbohydrates and protein. This will lead to steady blood sugar and less crashing throughout the work day.
4. Stay hydrated.
5. Get out of the office at lunch time. Go for a walk, get some sunshine. Both will help to wake you up so that you can keep going through the afternoon.
6. Replace your coffee with green tea. It’s got about a quarter of the caffeine and lots of beneficial antioxidants and immune-stimulating catechins.
7. Try alternative brain boosters and natural energy tonics. Peppermint essential oil is used by students to clear the mind and Chinese grocery stores often sell single-serve shots of Korean Ginseng that you can keep in your desk for a herbal pick-me-up. Other products that contain rosemary, gingko, brahmi and gotu kola may also help boost circulation to the brain and enhance cognition.
It takes a while to crack the habit and long-term coffee drinkers may feel headaches and increased fatigue for a few days, but once you’ve crushed the habit and have restored your natural rhythm, you’ll find that ‘wired but tired’ sensation dissolve, anxiety decrease and restful sleep return, meaning that you will function at your best the next day. And your naturopath will be happy with you.
Reece Carter is a naturopath practising from the Naturopathic Collective of Australia (NCA) in Prahran and specialises in digestive health, fatigue and mood disorders, weight management, and allergy treatment. He is also the co-creator of SUM T, a herbal therapeutics brand that delivers a range of naturopath-strength herbal teas, which includes the energy and cognition-boosting GSD Blend.
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