I have decided to do a little research on this question. In this blog post I will dive into this very controversial issue of coffee—when it comes to our health, is coffee a friend, or foe? I will also share what I have learned about it through my Ayurveda studies. Questions like, "How do different bodies react to coffee based on their constitution or dosha?" will be explored as well.
- Recent findings show that if you drink one cup of coffee a day, you can reduce your risk of diabetes by 13% (1), but if you drank twelve cups a day, you could reduce the risk of diabetes by 67% (2). Twelve cups! Ha.
- Six cups of coffee a day had an 18% reduction on prostate cancer and a 40% reduction of aggressive lethal cancer (3).
- Four cups of coffee a day could reduce your risk of liver cirrhosis by 84% (4)!
- Five cups a day for five weeks began to reverse Alzheimer’s damage in the brain by reducing levels of amyloid-beta, both in the blood and the brain (5).
- High blood pressure—once the holy grail of anti-coffee publicity—is now being questioned. Studies have shown for years that coffee will raise blood pressure, but new studies show that while the blood pressure will go up initially, if you continue to drink it daily for 8 weeks, the blood pressure will normalize... interesting right?
There are about 1000 active constituents in the coffee bean and only a few of them are understood. We do know that the coffee bean, the seed of the fruit, is loaded with antioxidants. The most powerful known antioxidant in the coffee bean is called chlorogenic acid, a compound that is most concentrated in the green, un-roasted coffee bean but dissipates somewhat in the roasting process. The weakening of this compound in the coffee bean’s journey from bean to beverage may be why we need such high amounts of coffee to reap its many benefits. Today, green coffee extracts are available (here) to deliver the benefits of chlorogenic acid without actually having to drink the dark roasted brew.
The Bad :(
Most of the negative research on coffee can be linked to its impact on the nervous system. Coffee is a stimulant and increases the release of stress hormones, which are usually reserved for life or death, fight or flight situations. The elevation of these hormones is detectable hours after consumption. Interestingly, the release of the same hormones occurs with decaffeinated coffee. Coffee also tends to squeeze out the adrenals, hence the "crash" typically experienced after drinking coffee.
Coffee consumption (including decaffeinated coffee) releases an addictive neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is a pleasure hormone and when the brain is bathed in dopamine, it never forgets the source. After the coffee rush wears off, the brain starts thinking about its next cup, so that when a coffee drinker drives by a coffee shop, they may be compelled to stop even if they were not previously thinking about coffee. This is the effect of dopamine on the brain—it’s the addictive “I’ve gotta have it” hormone... sound familiar anyone?
Dopamine may only be one mechanism for the addictive nature of coffee, however. Withdrawal symptoms such as painful headaches, nausea, vomiting, loose stools, depression, anxiety, and fatigue are common when a coffee drinker tries to stop... I know I have experienced at least one of those symptoms before.
In addition, coffee:
• Raises homocysteine levels – a major risk factor for heart disease
• Raises blood pressure
• Raises cholesterol
• Is associated with heart irregularities
• Increases inflammation
• Damages the nervous system
• Increases risk of kidney stones
• Lowers bone density
• Interferes with sleep
The Ayurvedic Perspective
Using coffee as a stimulant to get energy, that in itself creates an imbalance. Using a stimulant to create energy (energy drinks, soda, drugs, coffee, etc) you do not have can potentially push you into debt, sometimes referred to as adrenal exhaustion. Also, coffee, via its dopamine activation, is a very addictive substance that creates highs and lows in energy. In turn, these highs and lows can affect mood and physiological function. Hence, the guilty feeling that tends to follow my morning cup of coffee.
In Ayurveda, it is also recognized that coffee has an effect on the quality of mind, stimulating it into a rajasic, or overly active, state. This goes against the volumes and volumes of teachings that expound on the health benefits of stilling the mind, as in meditation or yoga. Our world is already over-stimulated to the point that many of us cannot keep up. Taking a stimulant on top of that will quite possibly drive us to exhaustion.
Food or Medicine?
That said, I am a believer that all plants have a purpose and we must try to understand them rather than pass judgment on them. Some plants are meant to be used as a food and are safe to eat regularly, others are more like medicines.
We also have to consider that the way we process coffee may seriously alter its properties.
There is a long process from bean to brew, and many factors along the way that can change the effects of the original plant as nature intended it. Until more studies are done on the raw green bean, the research we have to work with is based on the coffee drink, and it’s clear from this research that coffee has medicinal properties. But is it safe for regular long-term use? Is it free of chemicals? Is the next organic cup coffee you buy a free trade product? These are other questions to ponder when purchasing your next cup of coffee.
Being very acidic, coffee may stimulate the digestive process and act as a digestif. There is also research that suggests that coffee may help control after-meal blood sugar spikes. However, even using coffee in this way can have undesirable effects in the long-run:
1. It is an intestinal irritant that can inflame the digestive tract.
2. It is overly acidic, which can congest the lymph and detox pathways.
3. It can desensitize the mucosa of the gut, causing chronic constipation.
4. It is extremely dehydrating and can dry out the skin, gut, and respiratory tract.
For these reasons, I wouldn’t suggest an espresso with every meal, but in moderation and for the right body types, coffee may be supportive for digestion. However, that same cup of coffee on an empty stomach in the morning will stimulate the adrenals to make excess energy and stress hormones that may deplete the body’s reserves. As I mentioned, the boost one feels from coffee is in fact stimulating the body to prepare for an emergency.
It is possible that coffee has the capacity to create a higher state of health for a short period of time, so as to help the body best cope with the “emergency state” of an illness such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, to name a few that I mentioned earlier (see “The Good” section, above).
My concern is the long-term effect of stimulating the body in this way. Given the facts, it seems more logical to recognize coffee as a drug or medicine: it boosts dopamine and drives degenerative hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine, and inhibits calming GABA. These changes may be helpful in an emergency state or illness, but whether you would want your nervous system affected in this way in the long-term is questionable.
As for the reported health benefits, I attribute them to:
- Stimulating the body into a medicinal/emergency response to deal with a potential health threat, and
- The wealth of antioxidants present in coffee, which certainly can’t be ignored. But has the roasting process altered the natural blueprint of coffee’s delicate balance of caffeine and antioxidants?
A Constitutional Approach
Ayurvedically speaking, certain constitutions will tolerate coffee better than others:
• Vata types: The hyper-metabolic vata types will be easily over-stimulated by coffee and quickly become depleted by the over-stimulation.
• Pitta Types: The already over-competitive pitta types will be driven even further by the coffee boost. Coffee is also very acidic and heating. This can be too much for the already hot pitta body type.
• Kapha types: The hypo-metabolic kapha types are easygoing and heavy by nature. Coffee may in some instances offer a medicinal boost to stimulate or enhance metabolic function of the body.
*What’s your body type? Take this quiz to find out.
Coffee as a drug or medicine may have its place. But how long will the benefits last?
If you find yourself depending on coffee for boosting energy, mental clarity, keeping a headache at bay, or keeping your bowels regular, this may be a problem as the benefits may be short-lived.
Soon, more coffee may be needed to create these “benefits,” eventually leading to over-stimulation, adrenal exhaustion, negative side effects and even addiction. And, as with any addiction, it will ultimately leave us and our health at a disadvantage.
The green coffee extracts on the market may show some promise as preventative and healing agents, and I look forward to more studies about their efficacy. If we could harness the amazing benefits of this plant without risking the negative side effects, that would of course be ideal.
Not only does cardamom coffee taste delicious but also the cardamom is reputed to neutralise the over- stimulating effects of caffeine, thus making it a drink more conducive to the health of your nerves than ordinary coffee. You can buy cardamom coffee or make your own by heating, almost simmering, 4 split cardamom pods and 4 heaped teaspoons of ground coffee in a pint of water for about 15 minutes.
Not only can cardamoms protect against the harmful effects of caffeine but also they can be positively beneficial for the nervous system. In Ayurvedic medicine they have long been esteemed for their ability to lift the spirits, reduce pain, restore vitality and induce a calm, meditative state of mind. Originally from the rainforests of India they have been prized for centuries for their beautifully fragrant flavour and aroma as well as for their therapeutic effects. They were carried from the East to Europe along caravan roots from classical times, first to Greece and later to Northern Europe where their tonic and energising properties were apparently put to good use in love potions and aphrodisiac preparations. Today in the West they are still highly valued for their ability to relieve tension and anxiety, to dispel lethargy and nervous exhaustion, to lift the spirits and to improve memory and concentration. While there is not a massive amount of scientific data on cardamom, it is known that up to 8% of cardamom seed consists of volatile oil that includes limonene, cineol, terpineol and terpinene. (1) Studies from Saudi Arabia have demonstrated that the essential oil has anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties. (2) Over years in practice I have observed that cardamom is highly effective as an antispasmodic, relieving muscle pain and spasm throughout the body.
One of my favourite recipes using cardamom pods is a deliciously warming tea which I drink regularly in the winter to keep me warm and ward off colds, coughs and flu. Take:
4 cardamom pods
4 black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
a few slices of fresh ginger
Place all ingredients in 1 pint of water, heat to nearly boiling, covered, for 20-30 minutes. Strain. Add a little almond milk or honey. Drink a cupful hot twice a day.
The next time you need a pick-me-up, don't automatically reach for that dietary crutch. Instead, try a natural stimulant, like a quick walk in the sunshine, some deep breaths of fresh air, or your favorite yoga pose (my favorite is handstand or downward dog. These are parasympathetic poses and will wake you up fast.
Your favorite breath technique (pranayama) can also help oxygenate—and wake up—your body and mind. Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath, lies at the heart of yoga. It has a mysterious power to soothe and revitalize a tired body, a flagging spirit, or a wild mind. The ancient sages taught that prana, the vital force circulating through us, can be cultivated and channeled through a panoply of breathing exercises. In the process, the mind is calmed, rejuvenated, and uplifted. Pranayama serves as an important bridge between the outward, active practices of yoga--like asana--and the internal, surrendering practices that lead us into deeper states of meditation. Click on the above links for popular practices.
~~~ Partly borrowed with love from www.elephantjournal.com