Author: Michael Traub, ND
America’s favorite drug is grown right here on the Kona coast. In fact, this is the only place in the U.S. where it is grown. So it’s not pakalolo, alcohol or tobacco. You may have guessed it by now. That’s right. Kona coffee. Over half the population of the U.S. drinks at least two cups of coffee a day. 25% of coffee drinkers consume about five cups daily, and another 25% drink ten or more cups a day.
Coffee is not just a beverage, it’s a drug. Hundreds of thousands of law abiding citizens are physically addicted to coffee. But relax. This article is not out to persuade you to give up coffee. It is intended to help you become aware of how coffee affects you, how it can damage your health. After reading this, some of you may continue your coffee drinking habits. Others, however, may decide to make changes and move from addiction to conscious choice in determining your coffee consumption.
If you’re a coffee addict, I understand how you feel. It smells so good, it tastes so good and it gives you such a boost, at least for a while. I know that it is hard to give up, and that you may not want to. But maybe you will. Or maybe you’ll prefer to moderate your use and at least not drink it habitually.
It is the caffeine in coffee which makes it addictive, and which accounts for most of the known adverse effects of coffee. However, there are hundreds of other chemicals in coffee. Caffeine is a carcinogen, but coffee contains numerous other ones, created by the high heat of roasting, such as creosote, pymdine, tars and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The darker the roast, the greater the potential hazard. Studies linking coffee consumption with cancer are conflicting and inconclusive at this point, but there is a suggestion of a higher incidence of cancers of the pancreas, ovaries, bladder, and kidneys in coffee drinkers.
Caffeine raises adrenaline levels and heavy coffee consumption can lead to a state of adrenal gland exhaustion, where the adrenal glands are no longer able to adequately respond to stress by releasing enough adrenaline. Adrenal insufficiency can then lead to a host of other problems, including a weakened immune response, anxiety and panic attacks. Caffeine also interferes with adenosine, a brain chemical that normally has a calming effect, and raises the level of lactate, an biochemical known to produce panic attacks.
Caffeine also raises the production of the adrenal hormone cortisol, another stress hormone. Cortisol causes the blood vessels to constrict and the heart to pump harder, which leads to high blood pressure. Studies have shown that coffee seems to worsen the symptoms of persons with high blood pressure, and can nullify the effect of high blood pressure medications, making expensive drugs useless.
Some cold and sinus medicines contain phenylpropanolamine and ephedrine, which can increase blood pressure, to the point of causing strokes in research animals. Drinking coffee after using these medications can increase blood pressure even more, and significantly increase the risk of stroke.
Coffee should absolutely be avoided during pregnancy and breast feeding. Fetuses and newborns cannot metabolize caffeine in their livers, so it remains in their bodies for up to four days, stimulating their nervous system the entire time, causing irritability and sleeping difficulty. Animal studies have linked high blood levels of caffeine to premature birth, delivery complications, low birth weight and birth defects. Human studies have found an increase in the rate of miscarriages, stillbirths, breech births and low birth weight. Pregnant women are also three times slower to metabolize caffeine than nonpregnant women.
Research also indicates that women who drank more than one cup of coffee a day reduced their likelihood of conceiving by 50%, and men who drank two to three cups of coffee a day had an increased incidence of abnormally formed sperm. Having five cups a day appears to make sperm sluggish as well.
Several studies have linked caffeine consumption to a higher incidence of PMS symptoms including tension, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, sleep disturbance and breast tenderness. Research into whether cutting out coffee reduces or eliminates the lumps and pain of fibrocystic breasts has usually found that it does. Some of coffee’s components have a mild estrogen-like effect on the body. Since estrogen is responsible for premenstrual syndrome and breast tenderness, this may be one reason why coffee aggravates these conditions.
The caffeine, oils and acids in coffee irritate the stomach lining, which can cause excessive production of stomach acid and lead to a variety of digestive disorders. Decaf will also bring on a similar increase in stomach acid. Research has shown a definite link between coffee drinking and ulcers. Some anti-ulcer drugs, like cimetidine (Tagament), slow down the rate at which the body metabolizes caffeine. So not only does coffee increase the acid, but the drugs extend caffeine’s effects by keeping it circulating longer. Coffee affects the lower esophageal sphincter and thus contributes to the reflux of stomach acid into the throat (heartburn). Research has also shown that drinking coffee causes a significant loss of several vitamins and minerals, including vitamins B and C, calcium, iron, and zinc. Coffee, including decaf, contains significant amounts of Vitamin K which is an important factor for blood coagulation. People at high risk for blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks should avoid coffee and decaf for this reason.
It almost goes without saying that coffee decreases the quality of sleep and is one of the leading causes of sleep disturbance. Coffee drinkers are sleepier and groggier than non-coffee drinkers when they get up in the morning, causing them to depend on coffee to get them going. This grogginess may be the result of their entering caffeine withdrawal during the night, or that drinking coffee kept them from sleeping well in the first place, or both! A homeopathic dose of coffee, known as Coffea, is an effective remedy for insomnia.
Excessive coffee intake will also exacerbate the withdrawal symptoms when quitting smoking and make it all the more likely to fail to stay off cigarettes. Quitting coffee “cold turkey” can cause mild to severe headaches as well as nausea, anxiety, fatigue and depression, lasting for several days. One method to avoid this is to gradually decrease the amount of coffee you drink by 50% each day. Another way is to keep to your usual number of cups and gradually increase the amount of decaf until it reaches 100%. Eventually you’ll feel more awake and have a more even energy level throughout the day than when you were drinking coffee. A few weeks or months after quitting, most people come to realize that they feel much better without the coffee habit. Then most people can enjoy a cup of coffee on occasion when a boost is really needed, without triggering a recurrence of the craving that one feels when it is consumed regularly.
Dr Traub is a past president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and the author of the book Essentials of Dermatological Diagnosis and Natural Therapeutics. He has his own web site, www.balancerestored.com. Since 1986, Dr. Traub has been director of an integrated health care center (Ho‘o Lokahi) in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. He is currently an adjunct faculty member at Bastyr University, National College of Natural Medicine, Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, University of Bridgeport and the University of Minnesota.