Should we drink coffee?

Coffee and I have had a distant, distrustful relationship until recently. Because I got interested in health food during high school, I was warned early of the “evils” of coffee. I also saw how addictive coffee is to many people. It seems a shame to not be able to “wake up” in the morning without coffee, or to desperately need it to keep going during the day. I reasoned that it was better not to start.

However, I do live in Portland where coffee is an important part of the culture and, quite frankly, has some of the best coffee in the country. I had a few mochas during high school and found them delicious, but for the most part remained uninterested in coffee.

The year my second daughter was born changed that. One day I was out doing errands with my dad and two daughters and my dad had a cup of coffee (it wasn’t even good coffee), but I drank half of it. I was so tired from lack of sleep and I thought it would help. It certainly did! I was up until the wee hours of the morning wide-awake! I stayed away from coffee for a couple of months after that experience. But then I allowed myself some coffee when my baby had a cold and was restless during the night, making me feel like a zombie. I found if I had it early enough in the day, I could still sleep fine and it did help me cope with how tired I felt. While I have to admit that it was a deep tiredness that first drew me to coffee, I found that I have fallen in love with the taste and even have become something of a coffee snob.

I like coffee. But since I have started to get more sleep, I have tried to make sure that I am not dependent on coffee (because of some of the possible ramifications of drinking coffee on a regular basis). The last few months I have been going back and forth from just forgetting about it and not drinking it for a couple of weeks, to rediscovering it and enjoying it (both regular and a water processed decaffeinated version). I am not really committed to being either a coffee drinker long term, or a coffee teetotaler. So, I thought I would look into some of the research on coffee, and also what some of the voices in the health community I admire have to say about the topic.

Recent Studies on Coffee and Health

Coffee and Cancer

There are so many studies on coffee and health, I am sure I am not going to touch on all of them. Overall, coffee drinkers are found to have lower rates of certain cancers, including skin cancer, colon cancer , endometrial cancer, and prostate cancer. There is some discussion on whether coffee promotes estrogen dominant breast cancers or not, but this 22-year follow-up paper found that there was no link to estrogen dominant breast cancer in premenopausal woman with either caffeinated or decaf teas and coffee consumption. However there was a slight correlation between breast cancer and postmenopausal women.

Coffee is thought to prevent cancer from a wide variety of antioxidants found in coffee. For further proof, one study showed that coffee consumption was linked to a decrease in colon cancer among Chinese who smoke.

Coffee and Diabetes

Another benefit to coffee drinkers (at least those who drink 4 cups or more per day) is a significant decrease in risk of developing diabetes. Preliminary research seems to point to three proponents of coffee for this effect, caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid and caffeine.

Coffee and Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Coffee also shows promise in decreasing risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. One study found a decrease in risk of Alzheimer’s disease with long-term caffeine exposure. Another study found that consumption of coffee and tea were linked to lower risks of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.  And, in case you were wondering, roasted coffee beans have the best brain protecting elements.

Coffee and Parkinson’s Disease

There has also been a link to decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease among coffee drinkers. However, recent research cautions women taking replacement hormones against drinking coffee, as the two combined could increase your risk. There may be an explanation on why some people are protected from Parkinson’s disease when drinking coffee. 25 percent of the population has a gene, GRIN2A, that appears to protect them from developing Parkinson’s disease if they drink coffee. If you don’t have that gene, you may not have benefit from drinking coffee for preventing Parkinson’s disease.

Coffee and Depression and MRSA

And, if that wasn’t enough, some studies also show a link to less depression in coffee drinkers as well as showing coffee drinkers to be less likely to be carriers of the superbug, MRSA.

I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to go out and get an espresso. So what’s the hold up? Why do some doctors, health experts, and nutritionists caution against drinking coffee? Here are a couple of reasons.

Pregnant women shouldn’t drink coffee, especially early in their pregnancy

Dr. Mercola has long warned against drinking coffee, but he especially warns against pregnant women drinking. One 2008 study found that just one “dose” of caffeine could damage the heart of offspring for a “lifetime”. This study was done with rodents but is “plausible” in humans. There has also been linkage from coffee consumption to stillbirths and miscarriages. Basically, the problem is that caffeine does cross over the placenta barrier into the baby, and such a small baby does not have the capabilities to process caffeine well.

However, last year Mercola did do an interview with Ori Hofmekler who described the health benefits of drinking coffee. One should note that in the end, his recommendations boil down to drinking just one cup of coffee in the morning right before a work out. No more.

I have long admired and been influenced by Sally Fallon Morell’s work (Nourishing Traditions and Wise Traditions Journal) and she recommends you stay away from all foods and drink containing caffeine because of the stimulating and addicting qualities it has.

Coffee and Adrenal Stress

Within the health community, there is a lot of talk and personal experience of heavy coffee drinking leading to “adrenal insuffiency”. Basically, coffee stimulates your adrenals to release adrenaline, which is why it gives us energy. But if we are constantly drinking coffee, it requires our adrenals to constantly be releasing adrenaline, which puts unnatural stress on them. This can lead to what many people experience as “the crash.”  This is when coffee no longer works and you are just more tired then ever. Your adrenals are simply worn out. You can read more about this idea and some interesting quotes from the health community here.

Coffee drinking can lead to nutritional deficiencies

Coffee does actually block you from absorbing certain minerals, including iron. This can obviously be a problem. But more then that, it is a powerful appetite suppressor for many. If you drink coffee instead of eating a well-balanced meal, you can end up with deficiencies in both the macro and the micronutrients, which can lead to a host of problems. And don’t think that this appetite suppressing effect will help you lose weight long term, as many turn down their metabolism rate when they don’t eat enough.

Drinking coffee can lead to sleeping issues, irritability, and anxiety

If you are stimulating your body for a fight-or-flight response with coffee, sleeping isn’t the first response of your body, hence why many people suffer from sleep issues while drinking coffee. Caffeine can also make you shaky from over stimulation, irritable, or anxious.

Caffeine can also interfere with GABA metabolism

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain and nervous system and GI tract. It helps you with stress management and exerts a calming influence. I’ve taken it as a supplement to help me sleep before. Caffeine can prevent the binding of GABA to GABA receptors, which is another reason why caffeine can make some people feel more anxious.

Plus, coffee can irritate the gut, bother those who suffer from heartburn and make you more prone to ulcers (read more about this here).

All in all, with some of the above concerns with coffee, you can see why many find improvement with leaving coffee behind them. I have known more then a handful of people who have found their lives and health significantly improved without coffee. So, like I said in the introduction to this post, it can be easy to set aside coffee as bad and not good for us. However, I think that in doing so we can ignore a lot of studies that show coffee helping prevent or lower risk for a wide variety of disease. What is a person to do?

I can’t speak for you. But this is where I am at with the “coffee issue”. Coffee is a highly sprayed crop, so I almost always buy an organic brand to avoid a high pesticide residue. Coffee, in my mind, should also be bought fair-trade as workers are often abused in the coffee industry. This makes coffee much more expensive, which limits my coffee drinking naturally.

For coffee and my health, I have had a lot of issues with overwhelming tiredness in the past. While coffee could have helped me survive some hard days with more ease, I took the hard route and rebuilt my health using food and nutrition. It was worth it.

Coffee should never be a substitute for good energy caused by good health. In fact, when I was writing my salad cookbook last summer, I got such a huge increase of energy from all of those salads I was literally stuffing my face with all day, I didn’t even want to drink regular coffee for a treat because I didn’t want any more energy!

To see the benefits that coffee has to offer, it seems that you have to drink a lot of coffee. I personally would find it much too stimulating to have that much coffee right now (many studies found a positive effect from those who drank four or more cups of coffee per day). Plus, I am hoping to have more children. I don’t want to drink coffee while pregnant, and I certainly don’t want to get addicted to it beforehand.

I have found it reassuring to read about the possible benefits of drinking coffee, as I hope that all of my coffee-loving extended family will reap the benefits. For me, I am not sure my body would cope well with high amounts of coffee, and if I was drinking 4-6 cups of coffee a day, I am sure it would backfire before I could reap any benefit to it! Some studies found that decaf had some of the same benefits, but that’s not been proven across the board.

So, for now, I am enjoying coffee on a somewhat regular schedule, but not everyday, or even every week. I am definitely not drinking enough to reap the health benefits found in the above studies, but I drink it for the enjoyment. I like a water-processed decaf blend almost as well as the regular beans. I wouldn’t feel comfortable making a blanket statement against coffee because of possible benefits to it, but I also wouldn’t feel comfortable making a blanket statement for coffee, since there are certainly concerns.

I like coffee. I like good coffee. I may not be the best person to drink a lot coffee on a regular basis, but I find coffee an appealing beverage. But to answer my question, “Should we drink coffee?”, in the end, I can’t tell you what to do as there are a variety of reasons why you should or shouldn’t drink coffee. Like all decisions, I think the decision to drink or not drink coffee is a personal decision you need to make.

I know that I only briefly touched on both many of the disadvantages and advantages of coffee, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on expanding this topic. I’d also love to hear your personal experience with coffee.

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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  1. says

    I LOVE coffee. It took me years to make the switch over to tea. I’m glad I did. I have much more energy without it. I sleep much better. I still cheat and have the occasional cup but I pay for it.

  2. says

    I’ve been rethinking the whole coffee issue lately. I love a good cup of coffee with raw cream and honey. I look forward to it every morning. But I know its pretty high in phytic acid, so not so good if your trying to heal your teeth of decay or if your trying to prevent tooth decay. I’m still not sure how I feel about it :(.

    Thanks for bringing up good points on both sides of this topic 🙂

    ~ Tiffany

  3. says

    I love how balanced and open you are, Kimi! We are very similar. I go through phases with no caffeine/no coffee. With my second baby, it was hard to resist the coffee! I live in Seattle, so yeah, coffee snob type of coffee is the only joe I drink. And its darn good! It’s so easy to get addicted though. I use green tea to get out of my coffee cycles — works really well.

    As an aspiring ND, I am proud of all your research here. Coffee is still controversial, even in the ND community. There’s no clear cut answer in the research. There truly are benefits and then there are downsides. There are also certain health conditions that should avoid coffee altogether. It really comes down to a case by case basis, I think.

  4. Christie says

    I wasn’t hooked on coffee until I had my third baby, weaned myself prior and during my 4th pregnancy, and then my husband started selling coffee. Peet’s! So good! So I was getting to the point of craving it first thing, so I’ve weaned myself back down using 1/2 decaf. I still drink 2 small cups in the morning, but not until 10 AM or so. Just some heavy cream and its perfect.

    Great article, full of details pro and con!

  5. Valerie says

    I read this yesterday, Kimmi and today I had my first OB visit. He is a very naturally minded doctor, and in fact is famous for being one of the first doctors in the world to allow the mother to assist in her own c-section. He is very well known in his field and struck me as someone who knows what he is talking about.

    Interestingly, I asked him about coffee in pregnancy and he knew about the study you mentioned. He said it has since been disproven as well as the thinking that coffee leads to miscarriages. He said the most up-to-date research shows that up to 200 mg of caffeine a day is fine, bearing in mind that tea, chocolate, cocoa etc all contain caffeine. He cautioned of course against overdoing it, but said the most current research suggests a little is absolutely fine.

    I haven’t drunk any tea or coffee during this (awful) first trimester, and of course will go very cautiously, but I thought I’d mention this to you! I love all your research.

  6. says

    I love coffee.

    However, over the years I have found it to have some serious deleterious effects.

    1. If caffeinated, it compounds PMS symptoms in me and in others whom I have spoken with.

    2. It for sure helped lead to my adrenal burnout.

    3. Many who write about candida stress that coffee contains a lot of mold and should be avoided.

    4. It has a LOT of copper. From my work on metal detox, I am reading that copper toxicity appears to be an epidemic and coffee just has a lot in it.

    So now I am leaning heavily on my coffee substitute which I make almost every morning. The recipe is on my blog. It is super good for you too w/ liver supporting ingredients.

    I miss coffee a little, but I hope others are careful and think about all of the possible problems with it.

    thanks for sharing, Kimi.

  7. says

    I kicked the coffee habit in Jan/Feb after 15 years of addiction. Like you, early on I avoided coffee because I didn’t want to become addicted. But my junior year of college changed all of that. I tried it just to survive the rigors of college and it had a short-lived positive effect (just long enough to hook me).

    I made rules about drinking only until noon. That kept me from staying awake all night. But eventually the coffee ritual became an addiction and I stopped feeling the benefits of the energy. I had periods of quitting but I always went back.

    Recently, I blogged about my quitting for good (How Coconut Oil Is Helping Me Kick My Morning Coffee Habit). It happened by accident and I am quite glad that it did. There are a few mornings that I feel like I still miss it, but overall I think that my health has benefited from not drinking it. If it is high in phytic acid and blocking all those nutrients AND suppressing appetite — it can not be good for us long term.

    My homeopath even states that the remedies will not work well with caffeinated coffee. For some reason tea and chocolate are ok. There is something to that. . . . Anything can have positive benefits but if it harms us in the long run or becomes addictive I have to agree with Sally . . . .it can’t be good for us. I think we all need to check to see the effect that foods/drink have on us respectively. My personal opinion is that for most, caffeinated coffee is addictive and harmful.

    • AmyK says

      Nerdy input here: chocolate does not contain caffeine – it contains theobromide. If I remember correctly Theobromide is almost identical in molecular structure to caffeine but off by a molecule.

      • Amy says

        Thank you for pointing out the important difference between caffeine and the chemical component in chocolate. Theobromine is similar but very different from caffeine! It is amazing that doctors feed into this mis information. If caffeine is listed on your chocolate bar, its been ADDED. It does not naturally occur. Period.

  8. says

    I have landed in the same spot. If I “need” it each morning than I know I need to back off. If I “want” a couple cups in a week I am fine.

  9. says

    As a Pacific NW coffee drinker, I so appreciate all the research that went into this post, Kimi. I’ve done the coffee roller coaster ever since my first was born (over 20 years ago!), and am currently, like Christie (fellow commenter) on a 1/2 regular – 1/2 decaf mix that I’m s-l-o-w-l-y moving toward mostly decaf. Organic & water processed, of course. 🙂 As with anything having to do with our health and well-being, I believe balance is the key, so I appreciate the balance with which you’ve written this excellent post. I’m a firm believer in the truth that the “fall” took what was indeed “good” and turned in on it’s head. For me, I’ll continue to enjoy my morning cup (and even an occasional afternoon cup (l0-carb iced latte w/ a pinch of stevia this time of year). If and when my health ever dictates, it will have to go; in the meanwhile, I’ll enjoy coffee’s many, many health benefits!

    • Kelly says

      WOW – thanks Carol – this is explaining a lot about what I’m going through with regard to migraines/gluten/coffee…really appreciate it. 🙂

  10. says

    US research published in The New England Journal of Medicine recently, adds to evidence that coffee drinkers appear to enjoy better health. They found following a study of 400,000 aged between 50 and 71, the more coffee you drink, the less likely you are to die from a number of different ailments. These include heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, injuries, accidents, diabetes and infections, but not cancer.
    Makes me feel happier about my daily cup of strong black coffee:-)

  11. cirelo says

    I love coffee, the smell, the taste and the way it makes my brain feel so clear. Despite that I recently decided that I needed to completely cut out my regular 1-2 cups a day.
    In spite of missing the daily ritual I have noticed being much more even keeled emotionally which is the reason I decided to cut it, I was feeling very irritable. It didn’t seem fair to my family to be so high strung, but it took me a long time to get to a place to admit that. In the past I had very high coffee consumption and I developed a full face twitch! After that I fasted from coffee a while got back in a nice rhythm and started drinking it more moderately but then after a few years started noticing the heightened irritation and impatience I felt when drinking it–even a cup.

    One thing I have wondered about with adrenal fatigue and coffee is that coffee allows you to be active when maybe your body is giving you cues to rest and perhaps that is why you burn out. I’ve noticed I have (and am able) to sleep a lot more now I’m not drinking coffee, I nap more when my kids rest etc. When I’m drinking coffee I’m able to just go go go, but perhaps I really need is to not get as much done at this point in my life.

    I can testify too to coffee acting as a major appetite suppressant for me and attribute it to my many cavities I’ve developed since having kids since I often replaced meals while nursing with coffee.

    I read a recent study that linked any coffee consumption in pregnancy to low birth weight in newborns with results as striking as regular alcohol consumption in pregnancy, sorry no time now to hunt down that link. I wish I’d know that because while I steered clear mainly of coffee while preggers I’m sure I had a cup or so here and there.

    I’m hoping once I’m past all this having babies and nursing them phase I can go back to being a moderate coffee drinker though, because I do like it.

  12. Shannon says

    A good, organic coffee, made in a french press (to get all the oils and natural flavors without the bitterness), with a dash of cream (from pastured cows and no additives), and a little sprinkle of turbinado sugar, is the nectar of the gods. If I’m going to drink coffee, I drink it like this. Also, a cup of coffee a day helps keep my asthma under control.

  13. Megan says

    Thank you for the well written article. I became addicted to coffee after my 2nd child while we lived near Seattle, in which coffee shops are on almost every corner. I am now experiencing near exhaustion each afternoon despite coffee which if I drink to late in the actually makes me MORE tired after a short boost. I’m very frustrated with this state. I can’t accomplish anything and I feel like I can’t give my all to my family. Could you link or tell me what you did to change your tiredness? What foods did you eat and eliminate? I’m just tired of being tired.

    • Naomi Phillips says

      I know you directed your question to Kimi, but I hope you don’t mind if I jump in here and share what’s worked for me.
      I have never been dependent on coffee, but I have ‘used’ sweets in the same way as a coffee addict would, eating empty carbs for a quick pick-me-up instead of taking the time to prepare balanced meals during much of my 3 pregnancies.
      So going completely off all sugars on an anti-candida type diet for a period of cleansing has always boosted my energy and mood immensely. I have used the Body Ecology Diet (BED) as a guideline, and of course getting your adrenals/thyroid checked and even testing for candida or parasites might all be good ideas.
      I believe Kimi’s energy boost was from greatly increasing her vegetables, which is a part of what the BED focuses on also. Hope that helps!

  14. says

    This is such an interesting topic to me! With the conflicting advice and studies, I think you’re completely right that it just comes down to personal choice.
    I drink one cup each morning, and once or twice a week I have an afternoon cup. If I drink it before 2 or 3 it doesn’t affect my sleep.

    • says

      Deb, How refreshing to read a critique that is both subjective from your experience and objective from your research. A pleasant surprise from the many articles and papers I am sent by the food police [my daughters]. Your article was free of pre-disposed bias, and therefore much more acceptible for my liking. Yes, I am a coffee snob who grinds my preferred beans daily, travel with my own beans and pot, and seldom order coffee when I am out and about. I enjoy coffee immensely, I can sleep after drinking a nite cap coffee, and find it offers me a nice pick me up in the mid afternoon. Keep up the good work and thanks for yuour efforts.
      Jack London

  15. Lisa says

    A great article! While I do love the aroma and taste of good coffee, I noticed that I never felt well after drinking it, both regular and decaf. I could never describe exactly how it made me feel, the closest is “hollow” and unsettled. I felt as though eating would make me feel better but it only helped a little. Recently I asked a naturopath whom I respect what she thought of coffee. She said that in about 30% of people, coffee negatively affects insulin levels. So as long as you’re not in that 30%, it’s fine in moderation.

    One other health aspect to coffee is acrylamides. If I remember, coffee is very high in acrylamides (which are not good for us).

  16. Heather Wormsley says

    Well Kimi, how could I NOT comment on this one?! Since my husband started John’s Java, we have absolutely fallen in love with coffee. Yet I remain extremely picky– if I am going to treat myself to coffee it has to be his. All else pales in comparison to organic, fresh-roasted, fresh-brewed Joe. We have it daily. I don’t NEED it, but it does start our morning (1/2 caff) and our quiet time together– so it’s part of a sacred ritual. We do cheat by keeping the grounds from our morning french press and re-using them for a early evening brew (thus they are now decaffeinated). Farm fresh cream and stevia are icing on the cake! From a health standpoint, our ND had John switch to the 1/2 caff due to sleep disturbances, and since then it’s been great ( our decaff is ONLY water-process coffee). Thanks for the balanced article!

  17. Steve says

    Excellent article. Very comprehensive. I started coffee drinking in my 30’s and then stopped because I thought I was getting dependant on it and it was staining my teeth. I still wrestle with one aspect of coffee(caffeine) that you did not address… performance. If I drank coffee before a workout it seemed I worked harder, lifted heavier. Also, if I drank coffee before a meeting or before writing a proposal, I seemed to have moments of brilliance that I did not normally get without caffeine. Of course I was on the up and down cycle of caffeine and also had moments of dullness. You mentioned “I took the hard route and rebuilt my health using food and nutrition.” Can you give some examples? Thank you.

  18. Kazoo says

    I didn’t read all the comments but I did a search on the page for “blood pressure” and came up empty. I believe coffee (or caffeine, rather) elevates blood pressure so people with hypertension or a predisposition to hypertension may want to avoid it.

    My only source for this info is my doctor (as someone with prehypertension, he told me to watch the caffeine)… a quick search on the internet provides articles on both sides of the spectrum (coffee spikes your blood pressure… coffee lowers your blood pressure and so on) but the articles are hardly trustworthy. I really do appreciate the amount of time and effort you put in to researching academic papers and determining how the chemistry of it all really affects people.

    As they say, everything in moderation. Thank you for a well-informed and educating post!

  19. Shelley says

    I love the smell and taste of coffee and the way it makes me feel. Oh, I do love coffee! But! A cup in the morning makes me tired and crabby late morning. So, a nutrient dense breakfast is a better choice. I will drink a cup (yay!) late morning if I’m busy to hold off hunger for an hour or so for lunch.

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