The Upsides and Downsides of Coffee

Most of us begin our day with a hot beverage to wake up and get moving. A significant number of Americans choose coffee over tea, currently around 62% of us, making the US the leading consumer of coffee in the world. It’s the second largest traded commodity in the world next to crude oil. Over 1 billion people drink coffee daily.


Coffee is the richest natural source of caffeine. The average cup of coffee provides about 105 mg. Caffeine works in the brain by blocking an inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine which typically signals the brain that it’s time to sleep. This allows more energy to be made available. This action also triggers the pituitary gland to stimulate extra adrenaline to be produced by the adrenal glands because our body believes we are in danger. This adrenaline release is called the “fight or flight” response which speeds our metabolism allowing blood to be pumped faster so if we need to run for our lives we can survive.

One Upside

Caffeine boosts the effects of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which directly enhances memory, concentration, motivation, problem solving and mood.  Dopamine is released naturally as a reward for doing and consuming pleasurable things.  Without enough dopamine we feel a lack of motivation and pleasure, whereas high amounts of dopamine leave us feeling optimistic, motivated and feeling more enjoyment from life. This is the main reason that caffeine is highly addictive. Caffeine is the most popular psychoactive drug in the world.

One downside of this artificial stimulation is that eventually we may run out of energy and experience a “crash”.  After constant demands the adrenal glands may become exhausted, no longer able to make enough adrenaline to give us the same energizing effect. Some people increase their dosage searching for the pleasure they used to enjoy from their morning cup(s). This effect will vary depending on other factors such as stress levels and nutrition habits.

Supporting the body nutritionally to feed the adrenals is smart if you’re a regular coffee drinker who is under prolonged or chronic stress. If you notice extreme fatigue, brain fog, depression, decreased sex drive, weight gain, sleep problems, lightheadedness, cravings for sweet or salty foods, poor response to stress, or other unusual symptoms this may be the culprit.

The adrenal glands are a pair of thumb-sized organs that sit on top of each kidney. They produce over 50 hormones, many of which are essential. In order to support and help to rebuild these important glands Vitamin C, fish oil, magnesium, Vitamin D, B-Complex vitamins and making the healthiest dietary choices possible (no caffeine, sugar or junk food) will help. Going to bed on time and sleeping at least 8 hours, resting when you feel tired, going for a walk every day and asking for help in order to reduce your stress are all necessary in order to recover.

More Upsides

To give coffee its due, studies show that coffee drinkers have a significantly lower risk of  cavities, less type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, cirrhosis, liver and colorectal cancer and depression. This may be due to its high levels of antioxidants including polyphenols, more than in any food group. The same health benefits do not appear to apply to decaffeinated coffee.

A 2012 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at 402,260 individuals between 50 and 71 years of age. In this study, people who drank coffee had a much lower risk of dying over the study period. The benefits continued up to 4-5 cups/day.

More Downsides

There are some people who would definitely want to limit or avoid coffee, especially pregnant women since caffeine consumption is linked to higher rates of miscarriage. Excess caffeine can trigger anxiety, panic attacks, heart palpitations, disrupted sleep, and increased blood pressure. High caffeine consumption is also linked to greater bone loss in older women. People who experience any of these should consider limiting coffee and see if it helps.

The Cortisol Awakening Response

This phenomenon is related to our natural circadian clock. Something important this hormonal cycle controls is the release of cortisol which makes us feel awake and alert. We naturally experience an approximate 50% increase in cortisol upon awakening in response to light.

Drinking coffee first thing in the morning limits the energy-boosting effects of caffeine and may lead to increased tolerance. The times of peak cortisol levels in most people are between 8-9 am, 12-1 pm and 5:30-6:30 pm. Timing your coffee breaks between 9:30-11:30 and 1:30-3:00 takes advantage of the dips in your cortisol levels when you need a boost the most. Ideally wait for three to four hours after waking to enjoy your first cup of the day. If you must have a cup of something hot to start your day choose herbal tea or water with fresh lemon juice.

Caffeine can disrupt sleep if consumed within six hours of bedtime, so keep that in mind when reaching for your last cup of the day. Getting at least eight hours of sleep every night is more beneficial to health and lifespan than drinking coffee. It is estimated that 40% of American adults fall short of this ideal.

Contrary to popular belief, storing coffee beans in the fridge or freezer is not a good idea. They will go stale faster and begin to taste bitter. The best storage method is an airtight container at room temperature.

If you would like to learn more about how tea is different from coffee we suggest you read our recent article HERE