Is it ok to drink coffee

The debate on whether coffee is toxic or beneficial is controversial to say the least and to be honest I’m confused myself by all the contradictory messages in the media.

We would think it’s a simple question – is coffee healthy or not but there are lots of arguments for and against so it’s worth taking a look before reaching for your cappuccino. I’ve summarized the main arguments below:

Reasons to drink coffee

  • Antioxidants – where coffee really shines is it’s high antioxidant status. Worryingly studies have shown that people eating a typical Western diet get more antioxidants from coffee than from fruit and veg combined!
  • Weight management – drinking coffee can boost metabolism and increase exercise performance.
  • Brain function – caffeine can lead to a short-term boost in brain function and studies show that regular coffee drinkers have a much lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Lowered risk of Diabetes – there are several studies that found coffee drinkers to have a significantly reduced risk of developing diabetes. But these studies looked at people with normal blood sugar levels. Further studies show that in people with diabetes, coffee intake was associated with insulin spikes and increased blood sugar. Clearly higher insulin and glucose levels are not desired in anyone trying to reverse insulin resistance.

There seem to be other protective mechanisms too such as lower risk of liver disease and certain cancers (including colon, skin and prostate). In general, studies show that coffee drinkers live longer with the strongest effect seen for 4-5 cups a day.

All the above would make it perfectly sensible to grab a latte on the way to work. But there are some important negatives to take into consideration.

Reasons to avoid coffee

  • Stress – too much caffeine stimulates the release of stress hormones including adrenalin and cortisol. This can lead to jitteriness, anxiety, heart palpitations, disrupted sleep and panic attacks, especially in those that are sensitive to caffeine.
  • Addiction – caffeine can be addictive for many people and if regularly consumed a tolerance is built up meaning you need more to get the same effects. When trying to stop drinking coffee, people get withdrawal effects like headaches, irritability and brain fog.
  • Adrenal exhaustion – excess stress can burden the adrenal glands leading to what is known as adrenal fatigue where your body doesn’t have the energy to deal with the chronic stress. You feel tired but wired and are generally exhausted. Your body craves caffeine and sugar but you are actually craving energy. People with compromised adrenal glands can’t tolerate more stress, even in the form of coffee. If you push yourself with coffee when what you really need is rest and recovery you put yourself at risk for burning out and health issues such as hormonal imbalances, lowered immunity, diabetes and heart disease.
  • Acidity – coffee is acidic and can harm the fragile lining of the gut, causing discomfort, indigestion, heartburn, diarrhea and imbalances in gut flora.


What it all means

The coffee debate won’t be resolved anytime soon. The reality is coffee contains a complex mix of chemicals that can have both good and bad effects on our health.

It’s really about working out whether you are sensitive to caffeine and how it affects you as an individual. Our detoxification pathways are shaped by our genes. Some can tolerate caffeine better than others because they’re clearing caffeine at different rates. This is why one person can drink a cup of coffee and not sleep for days and another can have a double shot in the evening and go straight to bed.

‘Slow’ metabolisers don’t process caffeine effectively – these are the types who are adversely affected by caffeine, get anxious and are wired for hours after drinking. For a ‘slow’ metabolizer, drinking occasionally is fine but it’s better not to overdo it as they’re more susceptible to the negative effects of caffeine.

There are some people who would definitely want to avoid or severely limit coffee especially pregnant women, but also people with anxiety issues, high blood pressure or insomnia.

Despite the negatives, there is ample evidence to suggest that for the average person, coffee can have positive effects on health if drunk in moderation. The general advice is that four or five cups a day is safe which would provide about 400mg of caffeine (although I would recommend half this amount). But, not all coffee is created equal. The caffeine content per cup can range from 30-300mg with the average being around 100mg. But, some can contain way over that – a Starbuck’s Venti brewed coffee contains a whopping 415mg of caffeine in one hit.

Tips for healthier coffee drinking

  • Don’t add anything unhealthy to it – sugar, artificial sweeteners, syrups or chemical-laden creamer.
  • Coffee beans are among the most heavily sprayed crops so try to drink organic where possible.
  • Use freshly ground organic coffee beans to preserve the antioxidants that rapidly diminish once the beans are ground.
  • The darker the roast the better as they have higher levels of antioxidants.
  • Decaf coffee is often made by rinsing coffee beans with chemicals but it still does contain some caffeine and not all the health benefits of regular coffee apply to decaf. This is probably due to the fact that the antioxidants are largely lost in the processing. So opt for ‘regular’ if you are drinking coffee.

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