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The Health Benefits of Coffee: How Your Daily Cup Can Boost Wellness...And How It Can Do The Opposite!

"What is coffee?"

 Coffee is the most popular beverage globally, with around 2 billion cups being consumed daily. It is made from steeping the roasted coffee beans – the seeds of a fruit called a coffee cherry, which grow on coffee trees (members of the botanical genus Coffea)  – in hot or boiling water. The seeds are first separated from the berries (to make unroasted, green coffee beans), before being roasted (and sometimes ground).  There are hundreds of types of coffee, but the four main types are Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa, and Liberica, all of which have unique taste profiles. Coffee is usually defined by the type of coffee bean, how it is roasted, the extent to which it is ground and how it is brewed.

"What are the acute and short-term impacts of coffee?"

Coffee holds a special place in the lives of many, whether that be for a pre-workout stimulant or pre-work pick-me-up. It has been extensively researched for a plethora of health benefits, including its ability to increase energy, promote focus, foster weight management, enhance athletic performance and protect against chronic disease. However, coffee is most commonly consumed  for its ability to relieve mental and physical fatigue and to increase mental alertness – mainly due to its caffeine content, a compound which stimulates the central nervous system, heart, and muscles, and increases levels of neurotransmitters in your brain that regulate energy, focus and motivation.

"Are there any health benefits to drinking coffee?"

  In addition to its energizing effects, coffee contains a variety of compounds which have been linked to various health benefits. Coffee can increase digestive acid secretions and directly stimulate your bowel, so can be helpful in constipation. Scientific studies also associate regular (and moderate) coffee consumption with a lowered risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, depression, and enhanced overall performance (cognitive and athletic), weight management and longevity. It may also reduce the risk of neurocognitive decline, and play a beneficial role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.


"How many cups a day is recommended for these potential health benefits?"

One standard cup of coffee contains around 95mg of caffeine, and consumption of up to 400mg daily is advised for most healthy adults. That's roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee, but you can still garner the benefits by having much less.

'How much coffee is too much? "

You may want to cut back if you're drinking more than 4 cups of caffeinated coffee daily (or the equivalent to 400mg + of caffeine) – and you might want to reconsider your choice of beverage if you have health conditions such as anxiety, high blood pressure, or experience side effects such as headaches, insomnia, nervousness, irritability, frequent urination, fast heartbeat and muscle tremors. Caffeine increases your body’s natural stress response, so for those suffering intense acute or chronic stress, it may further sensitise your stress response and reduce your resilience further – instead consider green tea, which contains caffeine alongside nervous system-calming L-Theanine. Caffeine can also impact your hormones, the chemical substances that control and regulate various body functions, by causing more or less secretion of a certain hormone. These include sex hormones like testosterone and oestrogen - so if you have PMS, suffer from menopause (or andropause), have thyroid dysfunction, or suffer from other hormone-related conditions, caffeine could worsen the issue. This also applies for those struggling to conceive – minimising hormone disruption is key. Likewise with insulin, the main hormone which helps to manage blood glucose – whilst coffee in moderate amounts can be preventative against Type 2 Diabetes, excessive intake can worsen current blood sugar dysregulation and further impair insulin insensitivity. If you suffer from gastric problems such as IBS or food sensitivities, coffee may not be for you as caffeine can stimulate gut motility and promote loose stools and diarrhoea.  It has also been found that coffee can increase inflammatory markers in the body – indicators of inflammation, a prime factor in many chronic degenerative diseases - not least arthritis. 

"Can you get the same health benefits from decaffeinated coffee?"

For some people, caffeine can cause problems, so for those individuals, “decaf”  (where in most of the caffeine has been removed), can be a great way of enjoying the same beverage without the unwanted side-effects. Decaffeinated coffee does still contain a very small amount of caffeine (around 3 percent compared to regular coffee, so around 3mg vs. 95mg per cup) for the standard brew. However, the jury is out on decaf and its potential health benefits (or lack thereof). The process of decaffeination involves various options,  but most commonly, beans are soaked in a chemical solvent (usually methylene chloride or ethyl acetate) to remove the caffeine. Whilst this might be music to the ears of those sensitive to the side effects of caffeine, the same process removes a majority of the natural, bioactive compounds such as antioxidants in coffee which would usually confer health benefits. The chemicals used are also under scrutiny, as Methylene Chloride has been identified as a potential carcinogen. There are a few brands using a more natural process of de-caffeination using carbon dioxide and water, but these are few and far between. One brand paving the way is Clipper Tea. 

"Why are some people so sensitive to coffee, and are there any groups who are particularly sensitive?"

Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than are others. If you're susceptible to the effects of caffeine, even small amounts may prompt unwanted effects, such as restlessness, loose stools and sleep problems. How you react to caffeine may be determined in part by how much caffeine you're used to drinking - people who don't regularly drink caffeine tend to be more sensitive to its effects. Genetic variations can also mean we metabolise (process) caffeine differently – fast metabolisers may experience the effects for short-periods, but for slow metabolisers, it can linger in the system for lengthier periods and cause problems such as sleep disruption. Even for majority of people, caffeine in the afternoon can interfere with your sleep, so it’s best to keep caffeine consumption to the morning, and ideally pair it with a fat source (e.g. bullet proof coffee containing MCT or coconut oil) to help moderate its effects. If you have problems sleeping you should also be careful with your coffee consumption. Using caffeine to mask sleep deprivation can create a vicious cycle of stimulant dependence during the day-time to stay awake, and further sleep disruption in the evening. Given caffeine is a nervous system stimulant, it also promotes our stress (“fight or flight”) response; for those suffering from stress, this can render us even more reactive and less resilient to the impact of stress. Similarly, its impact on our neurotransmitters and muscles mean its effects often mimic anxiety – for those prone to anxiety, its best to avoid caffeinated beverages altogether. Given its role in fostering contraction of muscles, including the heart, those suffering from heart conditions or anxiety may be particularly sensitive. 

"How do you know when you're addicted to coffee?"

 If you struggle to get through the day without your “fix”, you’re not alone. The caffeine in coffee, like other psychoactive drugs, make it incredibly addictive – and fast.  People can quickly develop a dependence on coffee and other caffeinated beverages, primarily due to the sustained chemical changes it causes in the brain, not in the least the release of feel-good endorphins which make it even more addictive. Like with alcohol and other addictive substances, it’s also easy to develop a tolerance – and before you know it, you’re drinking way over the advised four-cup daily maximum.  A tell-tale sign of caffeine dependency is an inability to perform daily activities without caffeine. So, if you're unable to function without your daily cup of joe, spend a lot of time thinking about your “next fix”, and find yourself overtly irritable without - you may be dependent on caffeine.  The good news is that, compared to other drug addictions, the effects are relatively short-term. Whilst side effects of not drinking coffee (headaches, lethargy, bad mood, irritability, anxiety, circular repetitive thinking (of coffee) etc.) are likely to kick-in within 12-24 hours post caffeine elimination, symptoms only tend to last 7-12 days – much less than other addictions.

"What should you be looking for when purchasing coffee for a filter machine or cafetière? Similarly, what's the best coffee to order from a barista?"

I always advise on ordering a straight, black coffee such as an Americano, standard filter or even espresso (although, take note, espresso is higher in caffeine) when you’re out and about, to which you can add a splash of milk.  Many lattes, cappuccinos and especially “fancy” coffees such as frappuccinos contain hidden nasties, including high amounts of sugar, making it easy to lose track of your intake over the course of a day. 

 If you’re looking to purchase coffee for a filter machine or caffetiere, you can either choose to buy the beans which you can grind yourself with a coffee grinder, or you can buy pre-ground coffee beans. The grind size of coffee beans not only impacts the flavour, but also the nutritional components, as the size of the grind affects how much water passes through them – and how long it takes to brew, impacting the strength of your coffee. 

In short, water moves quickly between coarse ground (larger coffee pieces), extracting only some of the flavour and properties – these grinds are often used in French presses / caffetieres, and is why they require a longer time to soak to get the deep flavour (and extract the health benefits).  Fine ground beans are exactly what they sound like – more finely ground, and are often used when making espressos (but can also be used for longer coffees). Because water passes through the tightly packed grains more slowly, a lot more flavour (and potentially health benefits)  can be extracted. . For example, research has found higher amounts of various nutrients such as B vitamins, zinc and also antioxidants in espressos using fine beans vs. presses. That said, some research suggests filter coffees filter out some of the more harmful chemicals in coffee like diterpenes, which have been associated with less healthful conditions such as increases LDL (bad) cholesterol. -so it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Whilst the differences in nutrition are subtle, the prime key factor is again caffeine content:  thing to be aware of is the amount of caffeine you’re consuming -  an espresso has an average of 63 mg of caffeine in 1 ounce (the amount in one shot), whilst a regular coffee has approximately 12 to 16 mg of caffeine in every ounce. Consuming over 400mg of caffeine daily can be deleterious for the health.

When it comes to decaf, the jury is out. As mentioned, the solvents used in the process may potentially be harmful to your health, and may eradicate the health benefits; there are few brands offering “clean’ options, but searching for a brand (such as Clipper, in the field of tea) that offers carbon dioxide (CO2) processing is likely the most health-promoting option here. 

"If you can't drink coffee, or don't enjoy it, what would you recommend? "

For a natural alternative to coffee, I always suggest green tea. Green tea contains caffeine, but also the nervous system calming amino acid L-Theanine, which promotes focus and attention but in a calming manner – without the jitters.  Apoptogenic mushrooms are also a great substitute – over 2,000 scientific articles have been written on cordyceps alone, which is known for its (caffeine-free) energy-enhancing and endurance increasing effects, and healthful impact on the kidneys, liver, genito-urinary and immune systems. Cordyceps received especial attention after Chinese athletes broke world records without showing any symptoms of fatigue, thought to be due, in part,  go the incorporation of cordyceps into their diet. Several scientific studies have also confirmed that cordyceps increases the use of oxygen in the body, improving power, reducing recovery time and speeding up the removal of lactic acid. Considering supplements such as Micro-Cord by mushroom specialists Hifas da Terra, which contains a high concentration of Cordyceps active ingredients, could be helpful. If your daily cup has formed part of your morning ritual, Hifas da Terra also do a cordyceps powder, which is great stirred into hot water alongside Your Super’s Super Brew coffee alternative, to replace your standard brew. Daily sluggishness can also be a sign of other health conditions and nutrient deficiencies, so aside from seeing a registered practitioner, it’s also advisable to take a good quality multi-vitamin  like Evity multivitamins  which includes essential nutrients that other multivitamins miss out like boron, vitamin K2 and selenium, plus herbs, amino acids, phytosterols and mushrooms. It also includes nutrients like iron, Vitamin B6 and B12 to maintain energy levels.   

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