Our look at International Coffee Day recognizes coffee as a social drink enjoyed by many.
But is coffee good for our physical health?
Coffee—like green tea and chocolate—contains caffeine.
And the bottom line is that caffeine is a ‘mixed bag’.
Let’s examine the pros and cons of caffeine together so you can decide whether or not you should actually be pouring that next cup.
Is Caffeine Addictive?
At the end of the day, caffeine is a drug.
Regular use causes mild physical dependence; long-term users will frequently experience classic withdrawal symptoms like headaches, irritability or sleeplessness.
However relatively speaking, caffeine’s addictive qualities are mild. Unlike highly addictive psychoactive drugs, caffeine doesn’t threaten physical, social or economic health.
How Does Caffeine Affect You Physically?
Here are some of the classic ways caffeine can affect you physically.
- Prevents sleep. Well-known for its abilities to keep people awake, caffeine blocks adenosine, the brain chemical that helps you sleep.
- Boosts concentration and the ‘feel good’ factor. Caffeine alters mood and increases concentration by altering your dopamine activity.
- Increases heart rate. Caffeine increases adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone that increases your heartbeat and may increase your blood pressure.
- May worsen anxiety and panic attacks. On the negative side of the ledger however, caffeine may exacerbate anxiety and panic disorders because of the spiral of sensations triggered by adrenaline.
Does Caffeine Contain Any Health-Boosting Properties?
Caffeine is the most studied ingredient in coffee and it is known to increase concentration and memory. Nonetheless, studies have shown health benefits linked to both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee. That suggests other substances in coffee are involved and coffee may be a healthful beverage despite, rather than
because of, caffeine.
Coffee’s health promoting properties go beyond the brain and are likely linked toits high phytochemical content. Specifically, coffee is rich in antioxidant flavonoids which repair cell damage caused by pollutants,
smoke and UV rays and protect against heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and premature aging.
However there is one big caveat about the positive qualities of coffee.
Different people metabolize caffeine differently than others. Roughly 50% of the population are slow caffeine metabolizers. When caffeine is metabolized slower, it remains in our system longer, causing undesired side effects like headaches, insomnia, restlessness, nausea and increased heart rate. (If you drink coffee and recognize any of these symptoms, chances are you are a slow metabolizer.)
What this ultimately means is that these negative symptoms cancel out most (if not all) of the positive health promoting qualities linked to coffee’s high phytochemical content. Simply put, for the slow metabolizer, it’s unclear if there are ultimately any positive effects to coffee drinking.
On the other hand, about 50% of the population are fast caffeine metabolizers. That means they get all the health-promoting benefits of phytochemicals without the negative ones.
What About ‘Pure Caffeine’ Powder?
Some people tout the health benefits of pure caffeine powder.
But as we have repeatedly seen with other subjects, too much of a good thing is NOT a good thing.
Unlike your morning cup of java, caffeine powders are incredibly potent, often 100% caffeine. A single teaspoon can contain the same amount of caffeine as 25 cups of coffee. Can you imagine drinking 25 cups of coffee in one go?
And while pure caffeine powder can be incredibly dangerous for adults, it is even more potent for the young. Young people, particularly if they are already slow metabolizers of caffeine, put themselves at an increased risk of heart attack when consuming concentrated forms of caffeine.
For that reason, the FDA states unequivocally that caffeine powders should be avoided.
Are There Any Good Coffee Substitutes?
Interested in limiting your caffeine intake while still enjoying the “taste” of coffee?
Try decaffeinated coffees (containing low levels of caffeine) and slowly graduate to caffeine-free beverages. One alternative is Teeccino, a tasty blend of grains, herbs, fruits and nuts that are roasted, ground and brewed justlike coffee – but without the caffeine.
In the end, caffeine in its natural form can provide some benefits to the brain and a little pick-me-up particularly for those who are in the fast metabolizer group. However, for those who metabolize caffeine slowly, the positive qualities of caffeine may very well be cancelled out so it might be better to avoid it.
In any event, caffeine is not essential to good health particularly if you are already eating a whole food, plant-based diet which provides the health-promoting benefits of phytochemicals along with TONS of energy to last the entire day – caffeine-free!