Coffee: Friend or Foe?
Coffee is one of the most popular breakfast items on the most popular diet (a Paleo Diet) menu. Indeed, I’ve read reports claiming that coffee has antioxidants that may prevent heart disease, and other compounds that may help to prevent certain cancers.
At the other end of the argument, many natural health newsletters treat coffee like it’s worse than cocaine–blaming coffee for everything from “burning out” our adrenal glands and harming our kidneys, to mood swings, fatigue, and depression.
So is starting you day with coffee really going to make you “Bulletproof”?
Moderation is the key.
Those who know me will tell you I’m not a big believer in “everything” in moderation. In this case, however, I think that advice is not too far off.
What I suggest. If you like coffee (as I do), enjoy a cup or two per day with plenty of organic, whole milk or cream. If you don’t like dairy in your coffee, have some other source of protein and saturated fat along side of it. The protein and fat help moderate caffeine’s affect on your brain, preventing the over-stimulation which leads to fatigue.
My favorite coffee:
Coffee, Chemicals and Nervous System Stimulation.
If you’re used to four cups a day, cutting down to one cup may seem a pretty tall order. That’s because of the particularly addictive drugs coffee contains.
What are the chemicals in coffee?
They include caffeine, theobromine, theophylline, methylxanthine, and a host of others. These chemicals are also present in tea, chocolate, and nearly 60 other commonly consumed seeds, herbs, and vegetables–though typically in much lower concentration. No matter the source, these chemicals tend to appear together in foods, so to simplify, I’ll refer to the whole mixture as the “caffeine family.”
Central nervous system. The caffeine family molecules exert their stimulating effect via the nervous system, and each chemical has an affinity for slightly different types of nerves:
- Theobromine, affects nerves in the gastric system most strongly.
- Theophylline, stimulates nerves in the lungs and heart.
- Methylxanthines (which include caffeine), impact the brain.
The effects that coffee has on us.
Herein is the key to understanding coffee’s mass appeal. Methylxanthines affect brain cells that release adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. Each of those influences arousal, vigilance, coordination, fatigue, and mood in varying and interdependent ways. The net effect can instill a person with more of a “can-do” attitude than they might otherwise enjoy-and jump start the day’s work.
There is no evidence for “tolerance” to caffeine. In other words, if we start our day with a single cup of coffee in the morning, as the months and years go by, we won’t need to up the dosage to get the same effect. Alcohol consumption, in contrast, does lead to tolerance.
A closer look at caffeine and our brain.
The caffeine family of chemicals interferes with an enzyme in nerve cells (cyclic AMP) that breaks down a signaling chemical. As a result, any stimulation that a nerve cell receives will last a little longer. That’s true whether that nerve cell is in our brain, our gut, or our heart. Thus, in the same way seritonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants allows seritonin to exert it’s affect for a longer time, caffeine keeps cyclic AMP from being broken down as quickly.
Caffeine doesn’t damage the enzyme; it slows down its function temporarily by a mechanism called “competitive inhibition.” Caffeine “competes” with other factors to inhibit the enzyme. Thus, caffeine’s effects on our bodies are both completely reversibly and highly variable, dependent not only on the dose, but also on what other factors might be modulating the enzyme’s activity. These factors include blood sugar level, time of day, fatigue, how tired we are and why we’re tired (sleep loss versus emotional versus physical), as well as the kinds of foods we consume.
Some effects are also genetic, most notably the fact that a minority of women will develop painful breast cysts from drinking caffeine. All these affects can be exaggerated or eliminated depending on the circumstances surrounding our caffeine consumption.
Sleep, exercise, good food, drinking plenty of water, and one cup of coffee is a lifestyle “house blend” we can all live with.
In part two, I’ll cover (among other things):
- Combining caffeine with sugar or sweets is the worst thing we can do.
- Avoiding sugar substitutes like Splenda or Nutrasweet, and why.
- Dangers of consuming one sweetened caffeinated beverage after another all day long.
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