Firstly, full disclosure…I love coffee. I’m not alone with an estimated 70 million cups of coffee being drank every day in the UK. Coffee is well & truly entrenched in our culture.
I often get asked by clients "is coffee is bad for me?" & "will I be recommending not to have it?". I’m personally not a fan of labelling things good or bad as ultimately it is down to the individual and how you uniquely respond to it (I’ll go into this more below). I also try and adopt a realistic approach with my clients. Denying foods & drinks can easily turn into unhealthy eating patterns & further stress so agreeing together on the most appropriate plan is key.
It is important to understand why you are drinking coffee. If you are using it as a mental alarm clock it may make sense to look at your sleep first & then reassess if there is still has a place for coffee in your day. It might be that you still continue to drink it, but more for the taste or the social aspect rather than the caffeine hit.
Let’s run through some positives and a few considerations...
Some positives (note these mainly come from having good quality, organic coffee)
Can increase alertness & concentration – probably the most well known benefits of coffee due to its caffeine content. Caffeine is a psychoactive chemical. It increases alertness by decreasing the release of a neurotransmitter called GABA, as well as blocking adenosine (more of this chemical below). It also releases the stress hormone cortisol making us feel more alert in the short term.
A powerful antioxidant – an antioxidant helps to disarm free radicals that can damage cells - think oxidative stress that could be from external sources e.g pollution, toxins or can be the result of internal biological processes. In simple terms coffee can work as an antioxidant which can be beneficial for better health.
Can affect sleep – a build up of the chemical adenosine is needed across the day to make you tired at night. This is known as sleep pressure. When enough is built up it signals to the body that we are tired. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors. The half life of coffee is 4-6 hours, which is the time it takes for the body to eliminate, so having a cup late afternoon will ultimately affect your sleep. It has been reported that one cup of coffee at night can decrease by up to 20%.
Can affect digestion – coffee can activate peristalsis which is the contraction of the muscles in the GI tract making us rush to the toilet more than we usually might do, especially for those with already sensitive tummies. It can also stimulate stomach acid and act as an irritant, particularly if you suffer with IBS symptoms.
Can trigger anxiety – caffeine can stimulate the ‘flight or flight’ stress response raising cortisol and make anxiety worse in those that suffer with a feeling of nervousness, restlessness, fast heart rate. This also is likely to have an effect on digestion so you might experience both as a consequence.
The effect of coffee is very individual. We are all biochemically different, we all have different digestion systems, we have different sleep patterns. Everyone also metabolises coffee differently. Our liver is the main organ that detoxifies it and some people have a genetic SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) which an affect the rate at which it leaves the body. This is one of the reasons why some people can have a coffee after dinner and sleep fine, whilst the rest of us would be up all night.
My general rule of thumb is that if you suffer with bad digestive issues or anxiety stay away from coffee. If you don’t and enjoy the taste of coffee opt for a good quality organic brand to maximise the antioxidant content. One of my favourites is Cafe Direct.
Aim to have it in the morning to limit the effect on your sleep & stick to one a day. Having it after food, rather than on an empty stomach, can also be better if you suffer with digestive issues. Stay away from the coffees that are full of sugar too.