When people ask me if herbal medicine works, I sometimes say, “do you drink coffee?”
Coffee is actually a powerful herb and, when it’s extracted in hot water, it becomes a potent medicinal brew — one of the most widely used herbals on the planet, second only to tea.
A hot water decoction of coffee contains more than 1,000 chemical compounds, alongside caffeine which gives most people an immediate feeling of focus, clarity, and energy. Coffee can enhance athletic performance and excites the brain in a way that puts us in a more optimal learning state. Coffee contains some of B-vitamins and trace minerals, and coffee is the largest source of antioxidants in the average western person’s diet. Yikes!
And even though most studies on coffee’s health benefits are conflicting and hard to draw firm conclusions from, I believe the best evidence suggests coffee isn’t the bad guy it’s been made out to be.
The best data shows that, for most of us, coffee protects the liver from cancer and cirrhosis1Coffee Consumption and Risk of Liver Cancer: A Meta-Analysis, Larsson, Susanna C. et al. Gastroenterology, Volume 132 , Issue 5 , 1740 – 1745., reduces the risk of several other kinds of cancer, type II diabetes,2van Dam RM, Hu FB. Coffee Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review. JAMA. 2005;294(1):97-104. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=201177 Parkinson’s Disease,3Ross G, Abbott RD, Petrovitch H, et al. Association of Coffee and Caffeine Intake With the Risk of Parkinson Disease. JAMA. 2000;283(20):2674-2679. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=192731, Alzheimer’s Disease 4http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1468-1331.2002.00421.x/full, and lowers “all-cause” mortality risk.5Lopez-Garcia E, van Dam RM, Li TY, Rodriguez-Artalejo F, Hu FB. The Relationship of Coffee Consumption with Mortality. Ann Intern Med. 2008;148:904-914. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=668690How to drink coffee in a way that actually boosts your health. Click To Tweet
A Big Coffee Study Worth Drinking To
In 2012 the New England Journal of Medicine published a huge epidemiological study that looked at reports from over 400,000 people between 50 and 71 years of age.6http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1112010
For those who haven’t yet had their coffee today, I’ll get straight to it. Here’s what they found about coffee consumption and one’s risk of death:
Women who averaged 4-5 cups of coffee a day had a 16% lowered risk of death from all-causes, while men who drank as much had a 12% lower risk than non-coffee drinkers.
So what, this is just one study right? Yes, but it was pretty big, and that’s not all. Two other studies found almost exactly the same thing, with one from 2014 showing 3-4 cups had lowest risk of death7Coffee consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: a dose-response meta-analysis. 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25156996 and another from 2006 showed people who drank 4-5 cups per day had the lowest risk of death.8Consumption of coffee is associated with reduced risk of death attributed to inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/83/5/1039.full
Now before you start bouncing off the walls like a squirrel on crack, you should know a few things. First — this was just a survey study, not an actual clinical trial. Second, it also showed coffee consumption reduced the risk of death from accidents and injuries which seems to weaken the conclusion since that’s probably not really from the coffee. There are also a lot of other problems with these studies — they don’t define what makes a “cup” of coffee, they are based on people remembering how much they drank the day before, and it’s just 13 years of their life. These kinds of studies are just really hard to hang your hat on when it comes to how much coffee is right for you to drink, if any at all.
It should also be noted that not every study concluded 3-5 cups of coffee was healthy. Another large study out of the Mayo clinic showed people (specifically those under 55 years old) were at a slightly increased risk of death after more than 4 cups per day.9Consumption of coffee is associated with reduced risk of death attributed to inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. 2013. http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(13)00578-8/fulltext
So Coffee is Good for Some People, But is it Good for Me? Maybe and Maybe Not.
The fact is this is yet another situation where what’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander. Where “bio-individuality” is king — that what is good for some people may not be good for you.
Turns out that, so far, geneticists have found people fall roughly into two camps when it comes to coffee: rapid caffeine metabolizers and slow caffeine metabolizers.
In 2006, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a similar study like those above, but they did genetic testing on people for this one “caffeine gene” (there’s not really a caffeine gene, but it’s fun to say….caffeine gene).10Coffee, CYP1A2 genotype, and risk of myocardial infarction. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16522833 What they found was that people who have the “rapid caffeine gene” were ultimately healthier on more coffee and had fewer heart attacks than non-coffee drinkers. On the flip-side, those with the “slow caffeine gene” did far worse, having more heart attacks.
And it may be that, in the end, it comes down to which gene variant you have that will decide whether more coffee is good for you or if you should keep your intake pretty low. Please keep that in mind as you read on.
So how do you maximize the health benefits of coffee while lowering the risks? Here’s how, in my personal order of importance:
1. Kick the Sugar
Most people eat way too much sugar, as in, the average American consumes more than 80 pounds a year (it was about 12 pounds a year in 1900). Most Starbucks® flavored 16oz. lattes have a range of 30-61 grams of sugar, which rivals the sugar in a can of soda. Putting sugar in your coffee probably destroys an otherwise healthy drink. It’s best to keep sugar, in all its forms, out of your coffee.
If you want to add some flavors, here’s some suggestions:
- Cardamom — a very common spice added to coffee in the middle east
- Cinnamon — similar to adding cardamom and tastes great.
- Vanilla or Almond Extract
- For those feeling gutsy there’s always “Egg Coffee,” a popular way to make coffee in Scandinavian countries (sometimes called Swedish Coffee or Norwegian Coffee).
2. Avoid Artificial, Flavored, or Powdered Creamers
Most of the commercial flavored creamers, both liquids and powders, contain artificial sweeteners, fake fats like partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and a sizable list of other odd food ingredients like di-potassium phosphate reminding us of Food Rule #3: Avoid products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.
If you add some dairy cream, use not only organic, but also grass-fed pastured cream that is not ultra-pasteurized or homogenized — a few brands are available in specialty grocery stores and Whole Foods, or you can always use traditional raw milk from a trusted source. If you use “nut milks” be sure they are free of synthetic Vitamin D2, extra sweeteners, carrageenan and other fake thickeners. Better yet, make your own at home with water, a blender, and some cheesecloth to strain.
It’s currently popular to blend in a tablespoon of unsalted grass-fed butter and a tablespoon of MCT oil per cup of coffee (about 6-8 oz) — a drink popularized in the U.S. by Dave Asprey and known as “Bulletproof Coffee.” I have to admit I drink this a few times a week when I’m practicing intermittent fasting, and thoroughly enjoy the taste, the feeling of satiety well into the afternoon, and the high level of clarity, focus, and energy I feel. If you really want to try it here is Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Coffee Kit(affiliate link) or just use your own coffee, MCT oil, and unsalted grass-fed butter. I’m not a fan of drinking this everyday, but I think it’s a great way to start the day now and then, especially if you know you won’t be eating breakfast. A word of warning — if you are not accustomed to eat fat, it’s best to start slow. Consider yourself warned.
3. Know Your Limits
Remember that some of us have the “fast caffeine gene” while others have the “slow caffeine gene”?
Well, I believe that how much coffee will actually benefit your long-term health really does depend on which genetic variant you have, along with a host of other conditions such as your overall levels of stress. So it’s hard to put an exact number on what is a reasonable amount of coffee and caffeine to consume.
In general, the upper limit is considered to be around 400mg of caffeine per day because at 500mg most people will likely begin to experience unwanted side effects. (And in case you were curious, after 80-100 cups of brewed coffee, the caffeine will kill 50% of people).
Interestingly enough, 300-450mg (4-5 cups) is about what was found in the big studies above to provide a protective benefit for the people they studied, which is within that safe limit of 500mg, in my opinion.
But in general, based on the studies I’ve seen and my clinical experience, my recommendation for most people is to cap their caffeine intake at 350mg (which is around 16-24 oz of coffee depending on the strength, or 4 shots of espresso).
On the other hand, if you know you don’t do great on coffee, or you know you have the “slow caffeine gene” to keep it at 200mg per day (16 oz of coffee or 2 shots of espresso), or less, slowly consumed and probably avoid daily use.
If this amount of coffee isn’t doing it for you, it’s possible you are just really good at metabolizing caffeine, but more likely you are really fatigued and your body doesn’t have much left to give.
The fact is that caffeine doesn’t give you energy — it tricks your body into releasing its reserve energy by blocking adenosine receptors that help you feel tired when you’re body is needing rest. So if you block those receptors too long, you will eventually wear out.
Apart from that, caffeine doesn’t just keep you awake, it pushes your body to release calcium from your bones. That’s why drinking too much coffee has been linked to increased risk for osteoporosis.11http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16758142
4. Take a Coffee Break Once in a While — The kind of coffee break where you don’t drink coffee.
For you everyday coffee maniacs and caffeinators, it’s probably a good idea to taper off it every now and then. Variety is almost always a good thing when it comes to our health, so I would say almost anything you are doing every day is worth taking a break from now and again.
If you struggle from coffee withdrawal symptoms like I do, I recommend either lowering your intake or drinking green tea for a few days before stopping. You can also do a “half caff” blend to try and wean down. On your days off you could try coffee substitutes like DandyBlend or Teechino, but I prefer finding some local herbalists who often make some outstanding herbal tea blends (I have been drinking herbal teas from Fairweather Farm).
Other ways to avoid withdrawal headaches and other symptoms are lots and lots of water, take a Magnesium salt bath or use trans-dermal magnesium oil. You can also try 200mg S-acetyl gluatathione or 900 mg of N-acetyl cysteine (not both!) can be helpful for some people. But in the end it’s just best to taper down slowly.
5. Buy Certified Organic Coffee That’s Fairly Traded
This probably has more to do with the environment than your health, but the fact is what happens to the environment will eventually affect your health.
Up to 250 pounds of synthetic toxic chemicals are used per acre on non-organically grown coffee plants in Latin America12http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2010/0103/Organic-coffee-Why-Latin-America-s-farmers-are-abandoning-it, and these chemicals leech from the soil, into the water supply, and into the air. Organic coffee farms harbor a much more diverse eco-system, are more bird-friendly, and support the long-term sustainability of not only coffee crops, but every crop.
Some data I have read indicates that the roasting process reduces pesticide and herbicide residues left on the coffee itself, sometimes almost entirely.13http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23154763 So I think that even if you are drinking coffee that were treated with pesticides, your exposure levels will be low, at least for now — that is until they make their way back to you us through the soil, water, or air.
6. Drink Coffee in the morning to early afternoon
Our cortisol (a stimulating hormone that wakes us up in the morning) is supposed to be high in the morning and decline later in the day. By drinking coffee at night, we are upsetting the delicate balances in our body of wakefulness and rest.
Drinking coffee in the morning as we are waking up supports the natural rhythm of our body rather than working against it. Ideally, you’ll want to finish your coffee intake by 2pm.
7. No Keurig K-Cups®
I know well the temptation of using those convenient little plastic cups. It’s so quick, and so many flavors! However, I think there is good reason to skip them. First, they’re horribly expensive, to the point you end up paying around $60/pound for coffee.
Second, they’re horribly wasteful. According to Mother Jones, all the K-Cups sold in 2013 could wrap the earth 10.5 times.14http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2014/03/coffee-k-cups-green-mountain-polystyrene-plastic
Third, they are made from #7 Plastic which is “other” which means it is a blend of plastics. What is more, Keurig apparently won’t tell anyone what’s in their plastic cups, calling it “proprietary.” They say it is “BPA Free” but there is new information that even BPA-free plastics leech estrogen-like hormone disruptors which may be implicated in some cancers.
In the past I have used stainless steel re-fillable cups for the Keurig, but even then it’s hard to get the grind right so the water flows easily through, I still use a lot of coffee grounds, and it’s difficult to get the taste right.
8. Grind Your Own Coffee
Most people would agree that fresh ground coffee is better in all regards. Plus, you get to take a small part in the preparation of your coffee, and I think it’s important to have a hand in the things we consume, no matter how small, because preparing our own food tends to help us appreciate it more, and abuse it less. Not really a health thing here, but I think it’s a good idea.
9. Listen to Your Body
If you feel bad drinking coffee, feel progressively tired, get jittery, anxious, irritable, depressed, experience dizziness, have digestive upset even if it’s mild, or otherwise have an adverse effect, stop drinking it. I promise you won’t die.
If you’re drinking a lot of coffee (to me, that’s over 250 mg of caffeine in total per day from all sources) just to get through the day, you should probably cut back and get to the roots of your low energy issues rather than continuing to mask them with coffee.
Otherwise, enjoy this powerful medicinal brew responsibly!
To your good health & happiness,
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Coffee Consumption and Risk of Liver Cancer: A Meta-Analysis, Larsson, Susanna C. et al. Gastroenterology, Volume 132 , Issue 5 , 1740 – 1745.|
|2.||↑||van Dam RM, Hu FB. Coffee Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review. JAMA. 2005;294(1):97-104. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=201177|
|3.||↑||Ross G, Abbott RD, Petrovitch H, et al. Association of Coffee and Caffeine Intake With the Risk of Parkinson Disease. JAMA. 2000;283(20):2674-2679. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=192731|
|5.||↑||Lopez-Garcia E, van Dam RM, Li TY, Rodriguez-Artalejo F, Hu FB. The Relationship of Coffee Consumption with Mortality. Ann Intern Med. 2008;148:904-914. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=668690|
|7.||↑||Coffee consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: a dose-response meta-analysis. 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25156996|
|8.||↑||Consumption of coffee is associated with reduced risk of death attributed to inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/83/5/1039.full|
|9.||↑||Consumption of coffee is associated with reduced risk of death attributed to inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. 2013. http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(13)00578-8/fulltext|
|10.||↑||Coffee, CYP1A2 genotype, and risk of myocardial infarction. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16522833|