Coffee: Friend or Frenemy?

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

I was talking with some work mates today about coffee.  There aren’t too many in my line of work who don’t have a caffeine addiction – even if they don’t like to admit it!  It got me thinking about how caffeine actually works in our bodies and whether I need to kick my coffee drinking habit. Before we chat about some of the pros and cons to consuming caffeine – let’s get our science geek on and learn about why that delicious brew first thing in the morning is used to kick start our day. In our brains we have a hormone called Adenosine.  Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter.  This means that it depresses our central nervous system, promotes sleep and supresses arousal. Every hour that we are awake, adenosine builds up in our brain.  There are receptors in our brain that measure how much adenosine is floating around and when levels get high, it tells our body that we should be feeling sleepy.  Caffeine is sneaky because it looks very similar to an adenosine molecule.  Caffeine binds to adenosine receptor sites in the brain but doesn’t activate them.  This means that when caffeine is binding to the receptor in place of the adenosine, your brain thinks that the level of adenosine is low and that your brain and body should stay alert.  Your brain stays alert by increasing the number of excitatory neurotransmitters released. These are hormones like dopamine and serotonin which are involved in our pleasure and reward system. The pituitary gland also notices this increased activity and releases hormones that tell the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and adrenaline hormones.

In a normal healthy adult, caffeine peaks 45 minutes after consumption and has a half life of about 4-6 hours.  Interestingly, for all you pregnant mamas out there it may take you an additional 15 hours to metabolise that same cup of coffee!  Scientists haven’t been able to work out exactly why this is but it is the main reason why pregnant women are recommended to significantly reduce their caffeine consumption.   So how much caffeine is in a cup of coffee? Well, that’s a really good question!  We know that a teaspoon of instant coffee contains about 30-90mg but when it comes to espresso shots there appears to be HUGE variation between coffee beans and how your coffee is made.  A single shot of espresso coffee contains on average 63mg of caffeine – however when tests were done on shots from various coffee houses results varied from 50 – 300mg.  That’s a 6 cup difference in a single shot!! The amount of caffeine that is considered safe per day varies massively from country to country.  In Australia the recommendation is to avoid exceeding 600mg/day, in the US it’s 250mg/day and in Canada it’s 400mg/day.  It is generally accepted in science texts that a healthy adult can consume up to 400mg/day without long term negative affect. To make me feel better about my 3 cup a day Nespresso habit let’s have a quick look at some of the health benefits associated with regular caffeine intake.  Aside from the improved alertness and cognitive function that most of us drink coffee to achieve, moderate caffeine consumption has been linked in multiple studies to reduce risk of stroke, alzheimers, type 2 diabetes and Parkinsons disease in men.  Caffeine consumption may assist in weightloss and improve athletic performance.    But it isn’t all great news for us coffee drinkers.  Too many double shots in a day and we may experience temporary increases in heart rate, abnormal heart rhythms and blood pressure; headaches, excessive urination causing dehydration, nausea and vomiting, muscle tremors and insomnia.  Caffeine consumption has been linked to poor outcomes with IVF attempts, low fetal birth weights and an increased risk of pregnancy complications.  Breastfeeding mamas should also be aware that caffeine is passed through breastmilk (at approx. 1.5% of maternal consumption) and some infants may be sensitive to this.  Some longer term health issues associated with regular caffeine consumption may include adrenal fatigue, osteoporosis, anxiety and sleeping disorders.  And, if you already have type 2 diabetes then caffeine may impair your glucose tolerance.   DO YOU NEED TO DO A CAFFEINE DETOX?

You may want to consider a caffeine detox if your usual brew no longer has the same effect it once had, your daily caffeine consumption amounts are out of control, your habit is leading to health problems or your doctor orders it.    There are 2 ways you can do a caffeine detox. The first and preferred method is to wean yourself off caffeine gradually.  This may involve reducing your usual cup of coffee by ¼ cup every 2 to 3 days.  The pros are that any withdrawal symptoms are likely to be mild and you may even avoid the dreaded headache that usually comes with reducing caffeine.  The cons are that it will take you longer to detox.  The most common and harshest way to detox is to go cold turkey.  This is when you simply stop consuming caffeine. You will certainly have an appreciation of the degree of your caffeine addiction by the severity of your withdrawal symptoms.  Most people experience a killer headache along with any or all of the following: lethargy, brain fog, muscular aches and cramping, sinus congestion, nausea, vomiting, irritability, moodiness, loss of appetite, flu like symptoms, constipation, depression, low blood pressure and palpitations.  Withdrawal symptoms generally start within 12 hours and may last up to 9 days. Caffeine withdrawal has now been recognised as a legitimate mental health disorder and is listed in the DSM-5 !  If you are planning on a cold turkey detox it may be best to involve your family and workmates so they can be prepared to help you the difficult days.


* Drink lots of water.  Although a detox headache isn’t caused by dehydration, you will do yourself a favour by staying well hydrated and allowing your kidneys and liver to do their job. * Eat lots of fruit and veg. Foods that are high in B & C vitamins, magnesium, calcium, zinc and potassium are particularly helpful in supporting detox.  These include dark green leafy veg, dairy and most fruits. * Essential oils can assist with reducing feelings of tension and anxiety, uplifting mood and settling the stomach.  Lavender, peppermint and frankincense are particularly supportive of these symptoms.  Lemon, grapefruit, ginger, juniper berry and fennel essential oils have been extensively researched for their support of the digestive, lymphatic and elimination systems. * Find a substitute beverage that you enjoy.  This can lessen the psychological effect of caffeine detoxification and aid in maintaining good hydration.  Peppermint tea is a great choice as it is a natural stimulant, helps maintain a positive mood and is considered a digestive aid. All areas that are likely to need support during a caffeine detox. * Get plenty of rest to combat the brain fog and fatigue.

* Go for a morning run to get a good endorphin boost to help you with extra energy throughout the day.

If you decide to resort to using pharmaceutical medications to help you through the detox headache, make sure you choose one that does not contain caffeine.  Many migraine medications contain caffeine. So friends... is coffee friend or frenemy for you? If you are interested in learning more about essential oils and how you can incorporate them into your life to support your health and wellbeing then I would love to hear from you.  Please feel free to reach out using any of the links at the bottom of this page.  Sandra x

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