Natural health

The Coffee Dilemma: to drink or not to drink?

Coffee good or bad healthUntil recently I worked night shifts in a hospital from 7PM to 8AM.  Staying awake at 4AM was only possible thanks to basically two things: my amazing coworkers (always thank your nurses!) and coffee.  Then I moved to Italy, where those deceptive, tiny shots of espresso are not only a morning ritual, but provide the perfect excuse to take a little break from work 2, 3, or 4 other times a day… trust me, if you aren’t used to it, be ready to look like a panicked squirrel the first few days.

Before I get into the complexities of coffee, I must admit I only quit it as an experiment on myself.  You see, I detest waking up early more than I can express here in words. In trying to improve my acceptance of mornings, my logic was that since coffee gives energy peaks and lows, then maybe the pre-coffee morning lows are making it even more excruciating for me to wake up early.

So, I went cold turkey and just didn’t drink my cup of coffee one morning…  On day one, I already felt foggy and had that annoying little headache, day two I felt the same, and by day three I had a constant, nagging headache. A miserable feeling. I had expected all of that, but what was interesting to me was that towards the end of that first week I had developed flu-like symptoms, such as body and muscle aches, which apparently are pretty common.  And I was irritable, like, grumbling to my poor husband who irritated me by not hanging the bathroom towels perfectly or not stacking groceries in the fridge in a way that was pleasing to me.  In other words, I was a cranky mess.

Anyway, long story short, I went through some textbook withdrawal symptoms, and no, I did not magically start to embrace mornings. Bummer. In fact, I will admit that initially I noticed no difference in the tortuous task of waking up early, but at some point about 5-6 months in, all of a sudden I noticed it was no longer that painful.  Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer to sleep in any day, I just notice now that I get out of bed the way I picture normal people do.

At this point it has been close to a year since I regularly drank coffee and not only do I not miss it, I generally function better without it, feel more evenly energized throughout the day, and actually feel lousy when I do drink it.

Is quitting coffee the best choice for everyone? Well, it’s complicated

 A quick internet search will provide you with just enough expert opinions, both for and against drinking that little potion, to make you even more confused than when you started looking into it.  The latest research though, is finding that coffee is broken down, or metabolized, differently depending on our genes, and this may play a key role in how caffeine affects your health.

About half of the population has a variation of the specific gene that metabolizes caffeine. One variation causes the caffeine to be metabolized quickly, labeling people with this trait “fast” metabolizers, and then there are the “slow” metabolizers.   Without getting too technical, caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, or ‘fight or flight’ response, and can consequently put stress on the heart and other organs.  Though there are many healthful benefits of coffee, such as antioxidants and polyphenols, absorbed by all varieties of coffee drinkers, the harmful side effects are experienced only by slow metabolizers. This is because they are the ones that have difficulty eliminating that body-stressing caffeine, which stimulates their sympathetic nervous system for longer periods, causing stress to organs.

Interestingly enough, a National Institute of Health study found that increased risk of heart attacks increases by 36% for those who consume 4 or more cups of coffee a day. But, when separating the fast from the slow metabolizers in that group, they found that heart risk was only present in the slow metabolizers!  Here in Italy a similar study was done, demonstrating that heart attack risk fell in fast metabolizers as their coffee consumption rose, and the opposite occurred for the slow metabolizers.

However, my dear slow metabolizing coffee drinkers, its not all bad news. If you don’t think eliminating coffee is right for you, there are still benefits to keeping the habit, like the antioxidants and polyphenols, as well as providing neuroprotective effects. On the flip side, to even out the playing field at least a bit, one of the downsides for fast metabolizers is that there are studies showing increased risk of bone density loss (AKA weaker bones) with increased coffee consumption.

To informally find out what kind of caffeine metabolizer you are, I suggest these two steps

 1. Commit one month to weaning yourself safely off of coffee… I know, I know, it may sound like crazy talk at first, but it is an interesting experiment. I will be posting an article soon about how to wean yourself off safely and not cold turkey like I did, unless of course you are into making yourself feel miserable.

2. Once you have committed to and completed 30 days without coffee, drink a cup one morning and write down how it makes you feel, both physically and energetically. Do you feel uncomfortably jittery? Pleasantly energized? tired? etc.. Alternatively, try drinking a coffee only after a big meal, or only on an empty stomach and record your experiences.  It is important to note that coffee addiction can kick in after only a couple consecutive days of consuming coffee, so beware if you are planning on remaining coffee-free.

  • If you find that you just have what you perceive to be positive effects and you feel only normal or great after a cup, then you are most likely a fast metabolizer. Go ahead and enjoy that coffee you lucky, lucky coffee drinker!
  • If you instead find yourself with side effects like the jitters, headache, nausea, or even unexpected ones, like feeling sluggish or foggy, then maybe, my dear friend, you are in that slow metabolizer pool along with half of your fellow human beings.

My personal experience with this resulted in my noticing a couple major things: if I drink coffee in the morning I do get pleasantly energized, but I also get viciously hungry much quicker than I generally do. And, if I drink it  after a large meal I get a very foggy feeling that I just can’t shake the rest of the day. Those things combined with my newfound, unexpected lack of interest in drinking coffee have lead me to believe that I am most likely a slow metabolizer and that I am more than happy to have kicked the habit.

There is still a lot of scientific research to be done on this topic, and there are countless biological, lifestyle, environmental and other factors at play in all this as well. Most importantly, none of this is meant to be diagnostic or substitute a conversation with your healthcare provider. The point is, that determining the health effects of coffee are complex and not the same for everyone. So, it is important to be self-aware and to always listen to your body.

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