Coffee: Friend or Foe, The Ayurvedic Perspective

Article by Dr. John Douillard

In recent years, we have seen an astonishing amount of research being published touting the health benefits of coffee. The question is, do these studies negate the health risks reported in studies past?

We know that caffeine consumption is highly prevalent in our culture; studies between 2001 and 2010 reported that 89% of the adult US population consumed caffeine, with 64% of that caffeine intake being from coffee. (1)

In this newsletter, I will dive into this very controversial issue. When it comes to our health, is coffee a friend or foe? I will also discuss how different body types may react to coffee differently based on their constitution, and take a look at coffee through the Ayurvedic lens.

A Shift in Scientific Findings

Experts from the 23rd International Conference on Coffee attempted to explain why there is such a dramatic shift in the research on coffee from so negative, for so long, to mostly positive. They posited that in the past, researchers were actively searching for proof that coffee was detrimental to health while, today, researchers are actively searching for the possible benefits. (2)

Regardless of how the research about coffee shifted, we know that the plethora of contradictory facts has left many of us confused. Let’s take a look at some of the research on both sides.

The Good

lifespa-image-coffee-love-affair-longevity-ayurvedaIn the largest study to date funded by what to appears to be a reliable source without conflicts of interest, the cup is tipping in the direction of suggested coffee consumption benefits.

The ongoing, multinational European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study collected data over a 16-year period from more than half a million men and women from 10 different countries. The ethnically diverse study explored the effect of coffee consumption on risk of mortality.

After 16 years of follow-up, almost 42,000 of the subjects had passed away from a range of conditions. With careful statistical adjustments for lifestyle factors such as diet and smoking, the researchers found that the group that drank the highest amount of coffee—the top 25%—had a lower risk for all-cause mortality (death by any cause), compared to those who did not drink coffee. (36)

Those in the top 25% of coffee drinkers had significantly less risk of dying from digestive, circulatory and cerebrovascular diseases.

The researchers also saw noteworthy positive changes in bloodwork that included lower C-reactive protein levels (a measure for inflammation), lower liver enzymes, lower Hemoglobin A1C levels (a measure for average blood sugar over a 3-month period), lower bad cholesterol and stronger immunity. (36)

Further findings show that if younger and middle-aged women drink one cup of coffee a day, they can reduce their risk of diabetes by 13%. (3,4,12) Then, a study was done on men and women aged 45-74 years of age who drank twelve cups a day and were found to reduce their risk of diabetes by 67%. (4,5,12) Twelve cups!

While there are many studies purporting the benefits of coffee consumption for healthy blood sugar levels, there are also studies that show the opposite effect. (42, 43) So, as we will see, the final answer to whether coffee does the body well is quite complex.

More Coffee Benefits

Men who consumed 6 or more cups of coffee a day saw an 18% reduction in prostate cancer risk and a 40% reduction of aggressive lethal prostate cancer. (6). Four cups of coffee a day may reduce your risk of liver cirrhosis by 84%. (7)

The equivalent of five cups a day for five weeks began to reverse the damage from Alzheimer’s disease in the brains of mice by reducing levels of the abnormal protein amyloid-beta. (8)

One to four cups reduced the risk of Parkinson’s by 47%, and five cups a day reduced it by 60%. (9) In this study, the greater number of cups of coffee per day, the lower the risk of Parkinson’s disease.

And while there are many more studies citing the cardiovascular risks posed by coffee consumption, a recent study showed that women who drank 1-3 cups of coffee a day had a 24% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. (10) Similarly, drinking 4 cups a day yielded the highest risk reduction for mortality in general, while drinking 3 cups a day was linked with the highest risk reduction for mortality from cardiovascular-related diseases. (11) Not only is consumption of coffee linked to decreased risk of cardiovascular issues, but it’s also associated with decreased risk of obesity and degenerative brain functioning. (12)

High blood pressure, once the holy grail of anti-coffee publicity, is now being questioned. Studies have shown for years that coffee will raise blood pressure, (13) but new studies show that while the blood pressure will go up initially, if you continue to drink it daily for 8 weeks, the blood pressure will normalize. (14)

And let’s not forget the powerful effect coffee can have on our alertness and cognitive functions. Continually administered throughout the day, caffeine has been shown to sustain both our mental and psycho-motor performance. (15) Cuppa joe, anyone?

Note: Interestingly, most of the studies on coffee show the same benefits with or without the caffeine. So, if you are sensitive to caffeine but love the taste of coffee, consider a natural, water process, organic, decaf coffee.

What’s the Secret Ingredient?

If you take the caffeine out of coffee, the benefits cited above remain relatively the same. So, if it isn’t the caffeine that’s responsible for these benefits, then what is it?

There are about 1000 active constituents in the coffee bean, and only a few of them are understood. We do know that the coffee bean, the seed of the fruit, is loaded with antioxidants.

Perhaps the most powerful known antioxidant in the coffee bean is called chlorogenic acid, a compound that is most concentrated in the green, unroasted coffee bean, but dissipates somewhat in the roasting process. The weakening of this compound in the coffee bean’s journey from bean to beverage may be why we need such high amounts of coffee to reap its many benefits. Today, green coffee extracts and chlorogenic-rich slow roasts are available to deliver the benefits of chlorogenic acid without actually having to drink the dark roasted brew.

The Bad

Most of the negative research on coffee can be linked to its impact on the nervous system. Coffee is a stimulant and increases the release of stress-fighting hormones, which are usually reserved for life or death, fight-or-flight situations. (16) The elevation of these hormones is detectable hours after consumption. Interestingly, studies show that similar effects on mood and autonomic response were measured in the body regardless of coffee’s caffeine level. (17)

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a steroid hormone that can decrease with the consumption of coffee. DHEA is responsible for cellular and tissue repair. It also enhances memory and cognitive function, protects against stress, and supports numerous physiological processes. (18)

Coffee consumption (including decaffeinated coffee) releases an addictive neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is a pleasure hormone and when the brain is bathed in dopamine, it never forgets the source. After the coffee rush wears off, the brain starts thinking about its next cup, so that when a coffee drinker drives by a coffee shop, they may be compelled to stop even if they were not previously thinking about coffee. This is the effect of dopamine on the brain – it’s the addictive, “I’ve-gotta-have-it” hormone. (19)

Dopamine may only be one mechanism for the addictive nature of coffee. Withdrawal symptoms such as painful headaches, nausea, vomiting, loose stools, depression, anxiety, and fatigue are common when a coffee drinker tries to stop. (20)

Other studies have found that coffee consumption may shorten lifespan, raise cholesterol and triglycerides, increase inflammation markers and, if you are a genetically-slow caffeine metabolizer, it may increase the risk of non-fatal heart attacks. (37)

Other studies show it may cause insomnia, fatigue, cerebral infarction, as well as cardiovascular complications and caffeine withdrawals. In women, it may interfere with contraceptives and postmenopausal hormone balance. (38)

Coffee has been accused of depleting the body of minerals like calcium, zinc, copper, and iron, but these studies were effectively disproven, as the amount of minerals that may be mal-absorbed with coffee is too small to cause any type of mineral deficiency. (40,41) Magnesium depletion has also been purported, but I have not been able to find any science to back this up.

To summarize, coffee:

  • Raises homocysteine levels – a major risk factor for heart disease. (21)
  • Raises blood pressure. (22)
  • Raises cholesterol. (23)
  • Is associated with heart irregularities. (24)
  • Increases inflammation. (25)
  • Can damage the nervous system. (26)
  • Interferes with neurotransmitters in the brain. (27)
  • Alters DNA repair. (28)
  • Increases risk of kidney stones. (29)
  • Lowers bone density in women. (30)
  • Interferes with sleep. (31)
  • Is linked to erectile dysfunction. (32)
  • Is linked to increased symptoms of gastric reflex and heartburn. (33)

The Ayurvedic Perspective

Once again, when we see conflicting science, as we do here with studies on coffee, I look to the ancient medical wisdom of Ayurveda to see if we can come to a consensus.

It seems that most of the negative research on coffee stems from the damaging effects of the increased production of degenerative stress hormones. Because these effects seem to be true for both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, it would be logical to assume there must be other stimulating elements in coffee.

If you are using coffee as a stimulant to get energy, that in itself creates an imbalance. Using a stimulant to create energy you do not naturally have can potentially push you into debt, sometimes referred to as adrenal exhaustion.

Also, coffee, via its dopamine activation, is a very addictive substance that creates highs and lows in energy. In turn, these highs and lows can affect mood and physiological function. Over time, as with any drug, the need for more caffeine is required to experience the same mental boost or high. If you notice your coffee requirements steadily rising, there is a good possibility you are becoming desensitized to the caffeine, and you will continue to crave more and more. A headache after giving it up is a sign that you have become dependent.

That said, small amounts in the morning with food can boost cortisol and suppress melatonin, which is what sunlight is designed to do for us. (34)

Ayurveda recognizes that coffee has an effect on the quality of mind, stimulating it into a rajasic or overly active state. This goes against the volumes of teachings that expound on the health benefits of stilling the mind, using techniques like meditation. Our world is already over-stimulated to the point that many of us cannot keep up. Taking a stimulant on top of that will quite possibly drive us into exhaustion. One way to avoid these side effects is to drink natural, water process, organic, decaf coffee.

Food or Medicine?

I am a believer that all plants have a purpose and we must try to understand them rather than pass judgment on them. Some plants are meant to be used as foods and are safe to eat regularly, others are more like medicines.

We also have to consider that the way we process coffee may seriously alter its properties. There is a long process from bean to brew, and many factors along the way that can change the effects of the original plant as nature intended it. Until more studies are done on the raw green bean, the research we have to work with is based on the coffee drink, and it’s clear from this research that coffee has medicinal properties. But is it safe for regular long-term use?

Sometimes the best way to understand a controversial substance is to look at how it was traditionally used. Before coffee became widely grown in so many parts of the world, it was considered an elite drink. In Europe, as early as the mid-1600s, coffee was only used in very small quantities after a large meal in the middle of the day.

Being very acidic, coffee may stimulate the digestive process and act as a digestive stimulator. There is also research that suggests that coffee may help control after-meal blood sugar spikes. Nonetheless, using coffee, even in this way, can have undesirable effects in the long-run.

  1. It is an intestinal irritant that can inflame the digestive tract.
  2. It is overly acidic, which can congest the lymph and detox pathways.
  3. It can desensitize the mucosa of the gut, causing chronic constipation.
  4. It is extremely dehydrating and can dry out the skin, gut, and respiratory tract.

For these reasons, I wouldn’t suggest an espresso with every meal, but in moderation and for the right body types, coffee may be supportive for digestion. However, that same cup of coffee on an empty stomach in the morning will stimulate the adrenals to make excess energy and stress hormones that may deplete the body’s reserves. As I mentioned, the boost one feels from coffee is, in fact, stimulating the body to prepare for an emergency.

It is possible that coffee has the capacity to create a greater state of health for a short period of time, so as to help the body cope with an emergency state of an illness such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s.

My concern is the long-term effect of stimulating the body in this way. Given the facts, it seems more logical to recognize coffee as a drug or a medicine. It boosts dopamine and drives degenerative hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine, and inhibits calming GABA. These changes may be helpful in an emergency state or illness, but whether you would want your nervous system affected in this way in the long-term is questionable.

As for the reported health benefits, I attribute them to:

  • Stimulating the body into a medicinal/emergency response to deal with a potential health threat.
  • The wealth of antioxidants present in coffee, which certainly can’t be ignored. But has the roasting process altered the natural blueprint of coffee’s delicate balance of caffeine and antioxidants?

Slow the Absorption

One popular way to slow the delivery of caffeine into the bloodstream is to take it with coconut oil, ghee, or butter. Ghee has been used for thousands of years to slow the absorption of herbs to, in a sense, naturally time-release them. Adding fats to meals has long been an Ayurvedic strategy to blunt nutrient surges with sugar, caffeine, and herbs, such as turmeric.

Particularly plant-based fats, like avocados and nuts, can dramatically slow absorption. (35) This can explain why drinking a cup of coffee with coconut oil blended in seems to deliver hours of caffeinated energy without a surge or crash.

A Constitutional Ayurvedic Approach

Ayurvedically speaking, certain constitutions will tolerate coffee better than others:

  • Vata types: The hyper-metabolic vata types will be easily over-stimulated by coffee and quickly become depleted by the over-stimulation.
  • Pitta types: The already over-competitive pitta types will be driven even further by the coffee boost. Coffee is also very acidic and heating. This can be too much for the already hot pitta body type.
  • Kapha types: The hypo-metabolic kapha types are easygoing and heavy by nature. Coffee may in some instances offer a medicinal boost to stimulate or enhance metabolic function of the body.

When you Drink it Matters

Drinking any caffeinated beverage on an empty stomach will force the body to drive the adrenals to make excessive stress emergency hormones. And yes, while they may make you more focused or have better bowel movements, it doesn’t come without a cost.

Long-term over-stimulation of the nervous system can imbalance the nervous system (vata), leading to additional underlying chronic concerns. With overuse, the boosted mental energy and improved clarity can turn into anxiety, and better bowel movements can require more cups of coffee to have the same kind of complete elimination, and eventually result in constipation or even loose stools.  In other words, we can become dependent on it, exhausted from it, or even have an opposite of the desired effect when we overdo it.

That said, a cup of coffee with a meal may actually have some beneficial effects on digestion. In the morning (the kapha time of day) with a bigger breakfast, a bit of cortisol stimulation could help zero our nighttime melatonin production and jump-start the body for better daytime energy.

Coffee has been found to boost the production of stomach acids, increase gallbladder contraction, and boost colon contractions (called peristalsis) for better bowel movements. (39) However, in the same study, coffee was linked to increased bouts of heartburn and acid reflux, and a slowing down of stomach emptying. Other studies did not find this.

We all know coffee is very acidic. It makes sense that it would increase stomach digestive acid and gallbladder contractions to secrete bile in order to buffer the acids. If the upper digestive system is out of balance, we may see more of the unwanted production of stomach acids, delayed emptying of the stomach and resultant reflux.

Conclusion

Coffee as a drug or medicine may have its place. But how long will the benefits last? If you find yourself depending on coffee for boosting energy, mental clarity or keeping your bowels regular, this may be a problem, as the benefits may be short-lived. Soon, more coffee may be needed to create these benefits, eventually leading to over-stimulation, adrenal exhaustion, negative side effects, and even addiction. And, as with any addiction, it will ultimately leave us and our health at a disadvantage.

The green coffee extracts on the market may show some promise as preventative healing agents. I look forward to more studies about their efficacy. If we could harness the amazing benefits of this plant without risking the negative side effects that would, of course, be ideal.

References

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