Those following my “What about…?” series know that the last post asked a very important question:
What about coffee?
In particular, I covered coffee drinking’s impact on the neuro-endocrine-immune system and wider body-mind ecology.
In that post, I made you suffer through a science-y exploration of what we know—and don’t know—about coffee’s complex, still uncertain implications for: neurotransmitter synthesis and function, endocrine system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function, immune system regulation and function, metabolism and insulin regulation, gastrointestinal health and systemic inflammation.
It was a lot. I know. But as I said there, you can just ignore it anyway.
Because the bigger problem with all those general considerations (and with study findings) is that they are, by their very nature, not individual specific.
They give us some solid things to think about, but don’t address individual-specific tolerances and sensitivities (which, by their nature, are highly variable and all-important).
Then I left you with some homework. Missed it? Don’t worry—I’ll review in a moment.
If you managed to wade through the mostly “general” stuff in Part 1, you probably noticed a few individual-specific variables in there too. Here are a few examples (see the post itself for details):
- Metabolism of caffeinated coffee tends to be slower in women on birth control pills or hormonal replacement therapy.
- In autoimmune conditions characterized by innate-system dominance, coffee drinking may have a therapeutic effect.
- Conversely, in autoimmune conditions characterized by adaptive-system dominance, coffee drinking may make them worse.
- Many people sensitive to gluten have cross-sensitivity to other proteins, including that found in coffee (caffeinated as well as decaf).
- Coffee has been shown to irritate the gut in some cases—particularly in people already suffering from gut problems and inflammation.
Dazed and confused yet? Don’t be. Because the bigger message is that whether coffee’s “okay” is all about you. (As are the questions of how much and when.)
A core principle of Chinese Medicine is that we treat each individual as an individual.
This goes for herbal prescriptions, acupuncture and diet. True, certain ways of eating align with health and wellness more-or-less universally: Eating real, whole food supports health. So does avoiding grains, processed foods, excess sugar, and chemically altered fats and oils.
But each person is different, and factors such as age, lifestyle and surrounds come into play. So do individual or familial tendencies and variations, acute or chronic health conditions, and even personal preferences.
In other words, within health-supporting primal parameters, it’s ultimately an “n=1 experiment.” This is why self-exploration is a core component of Alchemist Eating.
That in mind, let’s revisit your homework:
Get curious about your coffee-drinking habits and experience. How much are you drinking? When are you drinking it? How does it make you feel in body-mind? Immediately? In a few hours? That night? The next day?
Do some objective reporting—track all the details you can without getting lost in opinion. See what you notice.
Done this yet? Good. Keep at it—ideally for at least a week.
And, for extra-credit, ask yourself a few targeted questions (some of which come from the science-y stuff in Part 1):
1. Are you sensitive to gluten? Or to grains generally? Do you suffer from another autoimmune condition?
You may not even know this if you haven’t stopped gluten/grains for an extended period. Sometimes we take unpleasant signs and symptoms as “normal” simply because we’ve never omitted the triggering variable.
If you are sensitive to gluten and/or other, similar proteins in grains and pseudo-cereals such as corn, the protein in coffee may be problematic for you too.
As with sensitivity to grains and pseudo-cereals generally, this can lead to a host of signs and symptoms, depending on the individual. Sensitivity reactions may, for example, be as “mild” as bloating, skin disorders, achy joints, chronic nasal congestion and “allergies.” Or as severe as a full-blown autoimmune disorder.
If you do suffer from an autoimmune disorder, it’s also worth reviewing that bit about coffee drinking’s potential to make things better or worse, depending on which part of your immune system—innate or adaptive—is dominant.
2. Does coffee give you “heart burn” or indigestion?
It does for some, and this is a pretty good indication it’s causing gut inflammation…or making existing gut inflammation worse.
3. Are you getting enough sleep?
If not, coffee may take a toll on your endocrine system, including your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function—possibly contributing to what mass-media medicine calls “adrenal fatigue.”
Incidentally, Chinese Medicine views excessive coffee drinking as drawing on our “deep reserves” and taxing the Kidneys.
4. Are you over-exercising (especially engaging in “chronic cardio”)?
Again, in this situation, coffee may further stress your endocrine system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
5. Are you frequently stressed out, even on a low-but-chronic level?
Once more, coffee may make things way worse, sending the nervous and endocrine systems increasingly out of whack (plus weakening your immune and digestive systems in the process).
Same too if you suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental-emotional disorders. Remember how coffee messes with neurotransmitter synthesis and function? That’s a key consideration in such cases.
6. Are you using coffee instead of addressing places of imbalance in your eating, sleeping, exercise and lifestyle routines?
If so, you’re definitely not alone. I know this one.
But, as time passes, using coffee as a replacement for what you really need is all but certain to make underlying problems worse.
Sure, it might work for a while…until it doesn’t. At some point, places of imbalance create discomfort and disease, forcing us to make changes. Way wiser to do a course correction early on—before disease arises.
Thing is, what we eat and drink is just part of the picture. In other words, it’s not just a question of coffee.
Chinese Medicine lifestyle principles (as well as primal principles) encompass far more than a “diet” or set of “food rules.”
I always ask: What else is going on here?
Eating and drinking the “right things” is an important part. (Indeed, Chinese Medicine views healthy digestion as pivotal to health overall and sees food and diet as important tools.) But so is adopting other habits and patterns that help us thrive.
The right balance of exercise and rest. Minimizing stress. Interacting with others. Living in synch with nature. All are important. (Likely more so than whether or not you drink coffee.)
With my patients, the answer to several (or all) of the above questions is an unfortunate Yes.
Regular coffee consumption, particularly to excess, is not in their best interests…leading to unwanted side effects in some aspect of their neuro-endocrine-immune system.
And, because of the complex, interconnected nature of this system, affecting one part will undoubtedly affect the others. Not only that, but it will affect the rest of the body-mind ecology (including the digestive system and metabolism), which leads us to another pivotal point…
It’s a system, Stupid. (No, not you.)
I’m talking to the myopic mainstream medical industry.
You know, the folks who send you to one specialist for one part and another specialist for another and another for another. Don’t get me wrong. Specialists and specializations can be a valuable component of medical practice.
Just not when medical compartmentalization results in missing the bigger, interconnected, complicated picture.
Remember how I said one principle of Chinese Medicine is treating individuals as individuals?
Well, another is taking a holistic approach to diagnosis and treatment. That word “holistic” gets thrown around a lot.
But, by holistic, I mean we treat the whole body, mind and spirit—and see them as interconnected aspects of a whole system. Within this body-mind system, finding and maintaining balance is a process, not an endpoint.
In looking at this system, Chinese Medicine focuses on underlying patterns and the roots of disease rather than isolated parts and symptoms. This allows us to not only treat diseases that have arisen; but also prevent illness from happening in the first place.
So, when patients ask me, “What about coffee?” my answer will vary, depending on the person—and pattern—before me.
I for sure give them the above homework…and ask them those “extra-credit” questions (plus a few others). I also consider the other information I’ve gathered during medical assessments and follow-up treatments.
For some, the answer is: “No. I advise against coffee for this, this and this reason. Let’s come up with a plan to wean you off it.”
For others, the answer is: “Hmm. Well, it’d be good for you to limit coffee to a cup or two a day. How does that sound?”
For others, the answer is: “Hmm. I’m not yet sure. Let’s do an experiment and see how you do without coffee for one full week. Up for that?”
So, I’m afraid I’m leaving you with another “it depends.”
To get your answer to “What about coffee?” you’ll have to do the homework.
Engage in some careful self-reporting and definitely consider those six questions above.
Because regardless of what any and all studies say, there’s simply no one answer.
Curious about my homework answers?
Basically, when I reduce or go off my beloved bulletproof for a spell, I feel less tired and more focused and mentally “clear.” My skin looks better, I’m less bloated, and I’m more likely to sleep soundly at night.
I (regrettably) suspect some cross-sensitivity is at play in my case, seeing as I’m fairly sensitive to gluten and other grain/pseudo-grain proteins.
I’m also super-aware that coffee drinking heightens my level of stress and agitation. If things are chill and low-key, this reaction isn’t so noticeable. If things are racy and rushed, coffee amps up my nervous system’s stress response ten-fold—complete with jitters, heart palpitations and sweaty pits.
Would I do better just saying No? Probably.
But I inevitably smell those beans roasting in some cute cafe and get back on the coffee train.
In making this choice, I try to be extra-conscious of the consequences and very careful so far as timing and quantity. An espresso shot or two to start the day? Not so bad (so long as it’s really just two shots). An afternoon “pick-me-up” amid a packed schedule? Not so helpful.
Okay, okay. So personal story aside and all-important, individual-specific considerations taken into account, what’s my take on coffee, in short form?
1. Err on the side of not drinking it (and if you haven’t started, don’t).
Sure, coffee may have health benefits. But for anyone who’s overstressed, overworked, overexercising and/or under-sleeping, coffee is likely to further tax your neuro-endocrine-immune system (particularly if you use coffee rather than addressing problematic habits and patterns).
From a Chinese Medicine perspective, you’ll be further draining precious, deep reserves for the sake of a very temporary energy boost.
This situation applies to so many of us, in mainstream American society at least, that I feel quite okay taking this “err on the side of not drinking” stand.
2. If you’re drinking coffee already, it’s not necessarily a problem. But take close note of how it affects you. And play around with timing and quantity. Also consider those targeted questions:
Are you sensitive to gluten/grains? Does coffee give you indigestion? Are you getting enough sleep? Over-exercising? Frequently stressed out?
Most important, are you using coffee instead of addressing places of imbalance in your eating, sleeping, exercise and lifestyle routines?