Thank goodness coffee exists, am I right? I know I’m not alone in my gratitude, because when I first start working with clients, one of their first questions is – “are you going to take away my coffee?”
My answer is a resounding No! I was a barista for 7 years, and a coffee drinker for many years before that. My life would not be the same without that delicious dark beverage!
But it is true that not all coffee is created equal. Sometimes coffee and caffeine can help boost your health. But depending on how you take your coffee and when you drink it, you might be doing more harm than good.
Here are three things you need to know about coffee/caffeine that will help you consume it in a way that boosts your health and gives you a beneficial buzz.
Fact 1: Coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the US diet
Big surprise right? You’d think fruits and vegetables would be the highest source, but actually no! Coffee is our number one source of antioxidants in our diet.
This is the case partly because most people have a pretty bad diet here in the United States. We eat so few fruits and vegetables, that our morning (and midmorning, and midafternoon) cup of joe actually adds up to a lot of antioxidants.
But the other thing that this is telling us is that there are a lot of good things in coffee too. The polyphenols in coffee are ultimately has that anti-inflammatory effect.
Why do we need antioxidants and how do they work?
Whenever you metabolize food, breathe in air that has some pollution in it, or exercise, oxidation reactions happen in your body. This oxidation causes free radicals to form. Free radicals are simply electrons bouncing around in our bloodstream. And those little electrons that are bouncing around can ultimately cause damage to our cells, tissues, and DNA, which is not good for us.
Antioxidants clean up all those electrons. They collect all of the free electrons, so they don’t damage our tissues and our body systems stay clean and healthy.
The antioxidants in coffee are why coffee intake is associated with lower risks of type 2 diabetes, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, liver disease and even mortality.
So it’s not just about the caffeine – coffee also gives you beneficial antioxidants!
One important thing to note: most of the studies finding an association between coffee intake and lower risk of these chronic diseases tend to be when you consume filtered coffee, rather than espresso or Turkish coffee. This is potentially because cafestrol, a chemical which potentially raises LDL cholesterol, is filtered out through the paper.
Makes you want to reach for another cup, right?
Fact Number 2: Coffee & caffeine impact our blood sugar.
When you have caffeine, your metabolism speeds up and everything starts processing a little bit faster. This is one of the reasons why coffee is associated with better mental focus and better mental function. That metabolism boost helps you focus and sustain your attention.
But the negative side of this metabolism boost is that you start processing your sugar faster as well.
Many of you know that when you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar increases, and as a result, your pancreas releases insulin. Insulin acts to clear glucose out of your blood stream and shepard it into your body’s cells. This is necessary and important, but if you releases a lot of insulin (which happens after you eat a donut, pastry, or other high carbohydrate food), it often leads to a “refractory period”, meaning that your blood sugar dips below normal.
If you’re like most people, and you consume your coffee with a sugary syrup, a pastry, or a bowl of cereal, you’re causing a fast increase in blood sugar, followed by a big surge of insulin.
Caffeine acts to make this blood sugar rise happen faster, increasing your insulin response and leading to a faster crash of your blood sugar soon after.
That’s why a lot of people feel pretty tired or low about 60 to 90 minutes after after consuming their morning coffee: they’ve processed through all of their sugar and now are needing some more to keep their bodies on track!
Thus, we start a continuous cycle of drinking coffee, getting jazzed up, feeling our energy tank, and then getting another cup of coffee. This cycle continues over and over, and our blood sugar and insulin levels are jumping around the entire time.
The impact on our blood sugar ultimately acts to negate the beneficial effects of coffee: improved focus and sustained energy.
Now if you serve your coffee with a nice fried egg and a bunch of greens and some vegetables, you don’t have to worry in the same way about that blood sugar rising and falling. You’re eating some high protein, high fat foods that then help you have a slower increase in blood sugar and you have a more sustained balance in your blood. You feel better as your blood sugar stays more constant.
So watch out for what you combine your coffee with, and try to make it a more low-carb accompaniment.
Fact 3: If you have adrenal fatigue, PCOS, thyroid issues, or endocrine disturbances, caffeine is not best for you.
Your endocrine system is the system of hormones within your body, and it’s a very delicate one. Minor chemical disturbances, like those you get from caffeine, can hurt this delicate balance, slowing or stalling your healing process.
Adrenal fatigue is a syndrome that affects people with a lot of stress. Your body gets so accustomed to having the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline flowing through your body that it stops responding to them appropriately. You can feel burnt out, tired, and not all that happy. Caffeine acts to increase your stress response, exacerbating your feelings of adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue is common for individuals with hypothyroidism, PCOS, endometriosis, and other endocrine disturbances, so even if you don’t have a specific diagnosis of adrenal fatigue, you may want to stay away from the caffeinated beverages.
The other reason why caffeine can be bad for PCOS and endometriosis is because your body has to spend time metabolizing caffeine, and you stop metabolizing estrogen, which your liver needs to break down and get out of your body.
If your body’s always busy metabolizing caffeine and your stress hormones, that estrogen hangs out in your body for a longer amount of time, leading to an excess amount of estrogen that you definitely don’t want.
The good thing is that decaf is still healthy for you!! Decaf coffee is just as delicious, and it still has the same antioxidants as regular coffee. I find that even when I drink decaf, I feel a little bit more energized and more awake and alert so even if I haven’t had caffeine.
Some other Coffee FAQs:
How are decaf beans processed?
There are a few different ways. After soaking the beans in water, you can either use a chemical solvent, water, or carbon dioxide to remove the caffeine. Though there was a previous research study to show that methylene chloride, one of the chemical solvents used, may cause cancer, there is no evidence that coffee decaffeinated using this chemical actually has any of the chemical on it.
If you want to be sure your beans have been water processed, you’re going to need to buy higher quality beans – Starbucks grade or better. Traditional ground coffee canisters may still be chemically processed.
Should I serve my coffee with butter and MCT oil?
This is a popular way of serving coffee for people on Paleo and ketogenic diets.
MCT oils help provide fast energy for people on super low carb diets. If you’re in Ketosis, meaning that you are burning fat for energy instead of glucose, sipping on coffee with butter/MCT oils helps provide you with energy while keeping your body in a ketotic state.
What about flavored coffees?
I don’t like flavored coffees, because it requires a lot of chemicals and flavorings to make that happen. It’s a highly processed product. A better choice would be to add some spices or a small amount of naturally flavored sweeteners to give you that flavor you crave.
Also, try out a higher quality coffee. They have a delightful range of flavors, and you won’t miss the taste of those flavored coffees.
What Coffee Do I Recommend?
I recommend going to a local café to purchase beans rather than going to a grocery or convenience store. The coffee beans at your café tend to be fresther and have a lighter roast. This means that they’ll be more flavorful and not as bitter (reducing your need for sugar!)
Some of my favorite coffee companies are:
Now, I’d love to hear from you – what’s your coffee routine, and will you change anything about it after reading this article? Share in the comments below, and be sure to forward this article to your favorite caffeine fiend in your life!
Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful day,
Samantha Attard, PhD, is the founder of Happy Healthy Human. Sam is a performance coach and yoga instructor who helps people eat, move, and live with intention. Learn more here.
Note: This article was edited 3/19/16 to update information on the decaffeination process.