The media is full of articles citing studies that claim coffee is good for you. Even nutritionists and healthy lifestyle editors have jumped on the bandwagon to let everyone know that they can drink as much coffee as they want without any negative health effects. But is this true?

It is certainly the goal of public relations campaigns by the coffee industry to have you believe that unlimited coffee drinking will make you healthier. Look at all the health studies about coffee’s largest competitor, tea, and you can imagine that the coffee industry has been experiencing envy.

The real truth however, is that coffee affects all of us differently. If you really want to know if coffee is good for you, you need to consider your age, gender, health condition, and even your genes. Some people can drink all the coffee they want, others are fine if they limit coffee to mornings only. Then there are the people who need to refrain from coffee altogether. This article will help you decide which type you are.

Scientific Studies Show Associations, Not Causation

The majority of the ‘”coffee is good for you” claims are based on epidemiological studies where patterns of health and illness are analyzed for large population groups. This data is then compared to certain lifestyle habits and environmental exposures to see if there is a correlation. The problem with these types of studies is that nothing has been proven other than an association, which doesn’t necessarily equate with causation. Additionally, segments of the population that may have sensitivities due to genes, gender, age, and different states of health are often not considered or are drowned out in these types of mass studies.

Take for example Parkinson’s disease. Epidemiological studies have found an association between a lower incidence of Parkinson’s disease in people who drink 3-5 cups of coffee a day. However, if you look at women alone, you find a much smaller association than you do with men. Then if you look at postmenopausal women who take estrogen, you discover that women consuming six or more cups of coffee a day have a fourfold increase in Parkinson’s disease than women who never drink coffee.

Heart disease provides another example:  A large scale epidemiological study of 120,000 people found no effect of drinking multiple cups of coffee a day on heart disease. However, a closer look is not so reassuring. It turns out that a significant part of the population more slowly metabolizes caffeine than the rest and those slow metabolizers have a much higher incidence of sudden heart attack.

Your Genes Affect How Good Coffee Is For You

A groundbreaking study was published analyzing coffee drinking in people who had suffered from sudden heart attack in comparison to matched controls of healthy people. Everyone in the study was classified according to their variation of the gene in the liver that detoxifies caffeine. This gene comes in a slow or fast version.

For people with the slow metabolizing variation of the gene, the risk of heart attack for 2-3 cups of coffee a day was increased 36% and for 4 or more cups of coffee a day, the risk went up to 64%. These numbers may seem quite significant themselves, but when the researchers looked at younger people where heart disease is less prevalent, they found that coffee drinking increased the risk for heart attack in slow metabolizers exponentially. For people under the age of 59, the risk went up 24% for just 1 cup of coffee a day, 67% for 2-3 cups a day, and 133% for 4 or more cups a day. Under the age of 50, the risk increased 4 fold.

Now here’s the kicker: 54% of the people in the study of over 4,000 participants were found to be slow metabolizers. That is a significant subset of the population, not an insignificant small group. Unfortunately, the only way to know if you are a fast or slow metabolizer is through a gene test. Symptoms of caffeine sensitivity, like getting the jitters or insomnia after coffee drinking, is not associated with either the fast or slow version of the gene.

High Blood Pressure Can Signal Caffeine Sensitivity

Caffeine is proven to increase blood pressure. Recent studies have claimed that people get accustomed to this effect of coffee as they continue to drink coffee. Not so for the 76.5 million Americans who have hypertension. Caffeine has been shown to significantly raise blood pressure in both pre-hypertensive and hypertensive people, but if they abstain from coffee, they can achieve a significant drop in blood pressure.

2% of the population has an aneurysm, but unfortunately, most people are unaware of it and thus are at risk of a rupture. A recent study found that the rise in blood pressure after drinking 1 cup of coffee nearly doubles the risk of a ruptured aneurysm.  High blood pressure has serious health consequences that lifestyle choices, like drinking coffee, can profoundly affect.

Age & Gender Make a Difference

Women have a greater sensitivity to coffee and caffeine than men and their bodies may take much longer to detoxify caffeine and recover from its effects. A woman’s hormonal system including the production of estrogen and testosterone can be affected by coffee drinking resulting in increased PMS symptoms and hot flashes. If a woman is taking birth control pills or hormone replacement, her body detoxifies caffeine much more slowly. Coffee drinking also interferes with iron absorption which can contribute to anemia, a condition that women have a higher risk for developing than men due to menstruation.

As people age, their adrenal glands begin producing more cortisol and less DHEA, the  ‘youth’ hormone for rebuilding, repairing, and regenerating the body. Under the influence of caffeine, the adrenal glands are stimulated to produce cortisol and thus production of DHEA declines. Many people notice more symptoms of caffeine sensitivity such as anxiety and insomnia as they age due to increasingly elevated cortisol levels.

Decaf Is Not The Solution

Coffee drinkers when they want to reduce caffeine often turn to decaf. Decaf however, is not a healthy alternative to coffee for a number of reasons. First, it still contains caffeine. Depending on how a cup of coffee is brewed and also how big the ‘cup’ is, you can consume 10-28 mgs of caffeine. Additionally, the antioxidants in coffee that are water soluble are reduced during the decaffeination process making it a degraded product that could also have chemical residues depending on how it was processed.

Decaf coffee is made from highly acidic coffee beans so some flavor will be left after decaffeination. This makes decaf even harder to tolerate for those people who need to reduce acidity in their diet. Like regular coffee, decaf coffee increases the production of gastrin, which raises stomach acid and increases the pressure on the esophageal sphincter, aggravating acid reflux and GERD.

Decaf coffee has the same stimulating effect on the intestinal tract that regular coffee has; it should be avoided by people with IBS and Crohns. Any health conditions where the body’s tissues are overly sensitive to acidity could be aggravated by decaf coffee even more than regular coffee.

The Best time To Drink Coffee

Caffeine provides alertness and coffee contains the highest amount of caffeine of any plants commonly consumed, making it a great choice for when you need to be alert, like driving late at night or getting up after too little sleep.

Many people drink coffee in the morning only. The body naturally produces cortisol to wake up in the morning and coffee will increase that cortisol spike, making this the perfect time of day to drink coffee. However, if you indulge in coffee in the afternoon or evening, you’ll interfere with your body’s natural rhythm of reducing cortisol in favor of melatonin production to prepare you to relax and go to sleep. The result? Not enough sleep, or deep stage four sleep, that allows your body to recover and get adequate rest. You wake up tired, reach for a cup of coffee, and the cycle continues.

When You Need A Break From Coffee, Drink A Coffee Alternative

Occasional rather than habitual coffee drinking can be very enjoyable and satisfying. Since caffeine is a drug, it should be treated like one and only taken when needed. If you’ve been a habitual coffee drinker, experiment with drinking a coffee alternative like herbal coffee. Herbal coffee is to coffee drinkers what herbal tea is to tea drinkers.  You can enjoy it in the afternoon and evening to get a full-bodied, coffee-like flavor with the health benefits of naturally caffeine-free herbs. Herbal coffee is non-acidic and contains the alkaline mineral, potassium, which helps correct metabolic acidity, making it the perfect alternative for people who need to avoid coffee’s acidity. You can find organic herbal coffee in both all-purpose grind for coffee makers and convenient, single serve tea bags in your natural food store.

If you decide to reduce your coffee drinking, beware of the caffeine withdrawal symptoms that can drive you back to coffee like headaches, brain fog, depression, and fatigue. Caffeine withdrawal can be painful, but by gradually weaning off of coffee, you can adjust to lower amounts of caffeine.

The most pleasant way to do this is to blend your regular coffee with herbal coffee. Begin with ¾ coffee to ¼ herbal coffee. Over a two week period, slowly reduce the amount of coffee and increase the amount of herbal coffee.  This weaning process also gives your taste buds a chance to adapt to the flavor of herbal coffee, which is smoother than coffee with its own distinctive flavor notes.  You’ll be able to enjoy a roasted, full-bodied cup of ‘coffee’ all day long by enjoying herbal coffee whenever you need to take a break from coffee.

© Caroline MacDougall, May 2011

Avoid Coffee With These Health Conditions:

Pregnancy is definitely a time of life when you want to modify your caffeine intake. A baby’s liver is not mature enough to process caffeine until 9 months of age. Caffeine, which crosses the placental barrier, can cause lower birth weight babies, who can be born with caffeine withdrawal symptoms if the mother has consumed multiple cups of coffee during her pregnancy. Coffee drinking interferes with the absorption of minerals including calcium and iron which are needed in even higher quantities for a healthy pregnancy to prevent depletion of minerals from the mother’s teeth and bones.

Infertility studies show that women who drink more than 1 cup of coffee a day have a higher incidence of miscarriage. Caffeine has also been shown to interfere with the ability of the egg to implant in the uterus.

Acid reflux, GERD or heartburn affects approximately 60 million people. Coffee is highly acidic to the intestines and urinary tract. If you get heartburn, avoid coffee to help relieve your symptoms rather than masking them with antacid drugs. This is a serious condition because exposure of the esophagus to chronic acidity can lead to cancer.

Irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and other inflammatory bowel conditions require the avoidance of both the stimulating effect and the acidity of coffee to help reduce symptoms.

Interstitial cystitis and enlarged prostates are two conditions that demonstrate how coffee’s acidity affects the urinary tract. Approximately 1 million people suffer from inflammatory bladder conditions and they need to avoid coffee to reduce the burning sensation coffee drinking can cause in sensitive people. Urologists recommend that men with enlarged prostates avoid coffee to help relieve the symptoms of this condition.

Breast and bone health are two of women’s major health concerns that can be affected by coffee. Fibrocystic breast pain can be relieved by eliminating caffeine from the diet. Combatting osteoporosis requires a more alkaline diet so the body doesn’t rely on minerals from the bones to correct metabolic acidity. Coffee drinking not only increases acidity, but it also stimulates the loss of minerals like calcium via the urine.

Stress is heightened by caffeine. Caffeine consumption stimulates the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that can heighten anxiety and irritability. Drinking multiple cups of coffee all day long can chronically elevate cortisol, the stress hormone, which can lead to a number of health consequences. Elevated stress hormones suppress the immune system, interfere with sleep, and stimulate the appetite for sweets and fats that results in weight gain in the abdomen. The overproduction of cortisol reduces the production of DHEA, the body’s rebuild and repair hormone, and ultimately can cause adrenal exhaustion.

Cholesterol can be raised by drinking decaf coffee and unfiltered regular coffee suggesting that it is another ingredient in coffee besides caffeine that affects cholesterol levels.

Homocysteine and other inflammatory markers that increase the risk of heart disease have been shown to be raised by drinking both regular and decaf coffee.

Glaucoma, a condition that affects approximately 4 million Americans, is another example of how coffee increases pressure. Both decaf coffee and regular coffee increase the pressure in the eye so people with glaucoma need to avoid drinking coffee.

Rheumatoid arthritis has been associated with a greater incidence in female decaf coffee drinkers.