Coffee – Friend or Foe?

I’ll be the first to tell you I love coffee.

And I get a little sparkle in my eye when I admit it. My lips will curl up slightly and my voice deepens, betraying my deep appreciation (or addiction, if you insist upon labeling it that way).

Coffee, however, does not do well in my system. I began drinking espresso when I was 15. Mom always used to tell me it would stunt my growth, but I had largely stopped growing a few years beforehand so I didn’t hold much credence to it. Coffee was the media through which I connected with friends in high school and my father when he would come and pick me up from school. It was a warm creamy beverage that took the Alaskan chill out of my bones. My mother ordered fancy flavored coffees through the mail and had that creepy artificial creamer that came in fancy flavors as well.

By time I hit college, I peaked with 32 ounces of drip coffee in the morning to get me through the double whammy of biology and chemistry back to back beginning at 7:30 or 8am. Then I rotated between 24 ounces of drip and a double shot in the afternoon. Or a quadshot if I was working back-to-back shifts and studying. My body began complaining a lot. I had PMS, random panic attacks, and any additional stressors would cause me to hit stationary objects with my vehicle. (not intentionally!) I began having stomach problems; it was receiving so much acid it realized it didn’t need to make its own anymore!

I did not connect these incidences to coffee. I suspected the PMS was caused by my overconsumption of tofu (I was an ardent vegetarian at the time). Everything else was chalked up to a failing marriage and college stresses.  When student Naturopaths informed me it was my beloved bitter brew, I had almost wished they had confirmed my soy suspicion.

In an effort to cease the discomfort, I cut coffee out cold turkey. Fortunately, I was not crippled with headaches; however, I could not concentrate on lectures or studies, stay attentive enough to maintain a conversation, or even stay awake for that matter! I began cat-napping in my car between classes and struggled for about 10 days until it became time to study for midterms.  Then, I headed to Starbucks.

Yet in just ten days of abstinence I had cleared my body enough that my premenstrual symptoms were gone. It was AMAZING. I was convinced of this beverage’s power to cause both beneficial and prohibitive effects on the body and began experimenting with how much or little I could “get away with”. As years went on, I discovered my body’s unique response to coffee, what stimuli induced a java-response and observed my body change in its reaction to receiving coffee. I’ve also been able to utilize my experience to work with clients in discovering how coffee affects them.

This is not to say coffee is without its benefits. Anyone pushing a deadline will attest to its ability to speeding up thought processes and increasing the ability to focus. Exercisers often use a jolt to boost their workout. What caffeine does is allow you to work at a higher intensity without really feeling like you are pushing yourself that much harder. These benefits are the fight-or-flight response in action. Caffeine causes the fight-or-flight hormones to be released into the bloodstream, causing the body to respond as it would in a high-intensity emergency situation. Blood is pumped more rapidly through the body as heart rate quickens and the body is ready to go-go-go! We think more quickly, move faster, feel less pain and discomfort, and time itself seems to go by a little quicker. This happens regardless of whether you are running a race or sitting at your desk.

As can be expected, chronic emergencies over long periods of time wear the body down. It is important to realize that your body cannot physiologically distinguish the difference between nearly getting in a car accident and having a latte.

Over several years, stress-related illnesses begin to arise and we see such symptoms as high blood pressure, blood sugar and digestive disturbances, heart disease, poor moods, difficulty losing weight, decreased performance and tolerance to higher and higher doses of caffeine to function (or finding that non-functioning occurs if it is not consumed). While studies are in conflict regarding coffee’s direct role in heart disease, cancer and other health problems, there is no doubt that stress is a contributor to these diseases and that coffee stimulates the stress response in the body.

If some of these symptoms are present in your life, you may need to address the role that caffeine and other stimulants play in your day.  Begin by observing your habits and making efforts to decrease the amount of caffeine you are consuming. I find that coffee is the gasoline that brightens my flame when oxygen (Primary Food) is a little low. I reach for it when I am feeling lonely or disconnected from others because of its strong ties to old memories and its psychological boost. I also crave it when I am not taking care of myself in other ways – like getting enough sleep or incorporating enough play into my life.

These days, I remain largely symptom-free because of my understanding of how caffeine affects me. I now engage in what I refer to as “medicinal doses” of coffee as needed. When I am pushing a deadline, have a short stint of busyness or am feeling a little homesick I’ve been known to have some coffee for a time to get me through. I recognize this as a short-term solution that needs a more creative long-term response and act appropriately.

How does coffee affect you – boost positively and negatively?

Have you struggled to cut back or quit coffee, sodas, or energy drinks?

For those of who who successfully abstain, what have you noticed?

5 Replies to “Coffee – Friend or Foe?”

  1. Aimee,

    Excellent article. I hardly ever drink coffee except when I need to stay awake while driving. I’m not sure how much is the placebo effect and how much is the reality. In any event, it seems to help.

    I usually go to Starbucks 1-2 times per week and when I do, I get a chai tea latte. I understand it has some caffeine, so I guess I do drink on average two cups per week. In any event, I’ve read enough about coffee that I can certainly see the drawbacks in drinking it.

  2. Hi Aimee! this article explains so much about my own things or “issues” related to caffeine…but I am having a miserable time giving it up. I know I should, but I get those nasty headaches, which I am too wimpy to live through more than a day.
    Thank you so much for this insightful information. I know you are right, but I feel like a little mourning ritual would help me give up my daily morning ritual! My Chinese herbalist told me, “just have apples in the morning, it will give you that ‘zip’ you need!” Well, just how many apples does he mean because 2 large fujis aren’t doing it for me! Thanks for writing this!

  3. Celeste;

    Have you considered slowly downgrading by doing half-caf? Also, drink 24 ounces of water after each cup of coffee to help it metabolize more effectively and reduce the potential for headaches.

    Try Granny Smith instead of Fuji. I had a friend of mine swear by them to get him through college. It amuses me to hear of that idea again!

  4. Great information. I am a middle road person. Sometimes a little caffeine can be good for the body, just the little pick-me-up it needs in the morning. But too much, and the shakes and anxiety set in. If you’re addicted to the taste of coffee, decaf or half-calf can do the trick… and if you’re addicted to the caffeine, try substituting green tea, black tea, or yerba mate (still some caffeine, but not as concentrated). If it’s both, try weaning! First have your cup of full or half-caff coffee, then any subsequent cups, try a substitute. It’s a process, just like any change. Whenever you cut something from your diet, fill the void with something else, something that excites you! I like hearing about the emotional connections to coffee too. Even the word makes me feel warm inside.

  5. Laura,

    Thank you so much for your input and suggestions! These are very helpful.
    You are absolutely correct that it is so important to replace the coffee – or whatever habit you are seeking to eliminate – with something that is exciting and motivating. Bottom line – one is not going to get as jazzed to have a glass of tap water every time the urge for a mocha pops up! So the question becomes — what special something can I treat myself with instead? Saving all my latte money means a pedicure weekly or an extra massage, or perhaps you can stockpile the cash in a jar and use the extra money for your vacation (someone told me this great idea – she paid herself when she craved a smoothie or latte and used the money to splurge on weekend getaway trips once a year).

    What is motivating for the readers out there?

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