The Dark Side Of Coffee And Healthier Alternatives

Via: Aleshyn_Andrei | Shutterstock


by Damon Orion

on September 8, 2015

If you were alive in the ’80s, you were almost undoubtedly exposed to the National Coffee Association’s “Coffee Achievers” TV commercials. As a peppy narrator informed the youth, “You are the new American society — the movers and the shakers,” the music of the Electric Light Orchestra impelled viewers of these ads to hold on tight to their dreams, and images of luminaries like David Bowie, football hero Ken Anderson, and author Kurt Vonnegut provided examples of coffee drinkers who had “made it to the top.” The message was simple and direct: with a little help from the world’s most popular liquid stimulant, you too can make your dreams happen.


In the traditional Hindu system of medicine known as Ayurveda, this “mover and shaker” attitude is known as the rajasic mindset. According to Manish Chandra of Santa Cruz Ayurveda, people of the rajasic temperament are go-getter types who will stop at nothing to succeed. “You will basically do anything to achieve your goals in life,” Chandra tells Reset. “The path to that achievement may not be so pretty, but you’ll do it anyway, because you want it.”

Chandra, who holds an MA in Ayurvedic medicine, says that as opposed to the rajasic state promoted by stimulants such as coffee, practitioners of Ayurveda strive to cultivate a sattvic state of stillness and purity. “The world as we know it is stimulating enough, and if we’re constantly putting more stimulants in our body, then we’re operating from that fight-or-flight mode, if you will,” he offers. “Those hormones which are stored in our body for fight-or-flight mode are depleted, which does a lot of different things [to] cell production or repair.”

If we’re to believe the warnings that various physicians and scientists have issued over the years, cell production and repair are just the start of it. Among other things, the use of coffee has been linked to high blood pressure and cholesterol, heart irregularities, and increased risk of heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, unsafe insulin levels, blood vessel damage, stomach ulcers, nervous system damage, premature aging due to dehydration, cysts in women’s breasts, prostate problems, increased risk of kidney stones, decreased bone density, dental cavities, erectile dysfunction, thyroid damage, muscle tremors, insomnia, headache, fatigue, depression, nervousness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, mood and energy swings, malnutrition, and gastrointestinal disorders such as chronic constipation and irritable bowel syndrome.

Such warnings can be confusing in light of the copious data about the health benefits of coffee consumption that we’ve seen in recent times. According to various studies and claims, drinking coffee may improve cognitive function, reverse Alzheimer’s damage, and/or reduce the risk of liver cirrhosis, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, prostate cancer, obesity, degenerative brain functioning, melanoma, depression, and/or death by cardiovascular disease.

Interestingly, many of these findings directly contradict the results of prior research. For example, in 2005, scientists at the Innsbruck Medical University conducted a study which concluded that caffeine had a positive effect on short-term memory, whereas a study conducted the previous year at Italy’s International School for Advanced Studies found that caffeine impaired short-term memory. As an explanation for the dramatic shift in the medical community’s collective stance on the health risks and benefits of coffee and caffeine, The Mayo Clinic’s Donald D. Hensrud, M.D. has stated that some earlier studies hadn’t accounted for smoking, drinking, and other such unhealthy behaviors in which many heavy coffee drinkers indulged at that time.

Via: Brian A Jackson | Shutterstock

Via: Brian A Jackson | Shutterstock

Adrenal Fatigue, Addiction, And Nutrient Depletion 

Whatever the benefits of coffee drinking might be, there is little dispute that its active ingredient, caffeine, increases heart rate and blood pressure and cues the body to pump out stress hormones like adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. As the Portland, Oregon-based naturopathic doctor Kate Smith has written, “Because coffee stimulates an excess release of stress hormones and interferes with our brain chemistry, it contributes to states of anxiety, panic, depression, and insomnia. Coffee inhibits adenosine, which is one of our calming neurotransmitters, thus blocking our body’s ability for natural stress reduction and relaxation.” Smith has also noted that elevated levels of cortisol due to coffee intake lead to constriction of blood vessels and can contribute to hypertension.

Holistic nutrition coach Nancy Desjardins, R.N.C.P. has written of routine caffeine use, “What happens over time is that your adrenal glands start to burn out from overuse, which can lead to adrenal fatigue. Once the effects of the caffeine have worn off, you’ll actually feel more tired than you did before you drank it.”

The use of caffeine to combat fatigue can create a cycle of dependency, with adrenal fatigue sufferers requiring increasingly large doses of caffeine to reach a state of alertness. To compound this cycle of dependency, because coffee stimulates the brain to produce dopamine, the coffee user can become a candidate for addiction by this mechanism also. “Dopamine is a pleasure hormone, and when the brain is bathed in dopamine, it never forgets the source,” Manish Chandra points out. “But after the coffee rush wears off, the brain starts thinking about the next cup. So that’s why whenever the coffee drinker drives by a coffee shop and smells coffee, they may be compelled to stop, even if they previously didn’t think about it.”

As with other physically addictive drugs, the discontinuance of caffeine use often sends the user into withdrawal. A Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine study, whose results were published in 2004, led to the recognition of caffeine withdrawal as a disorder. In reviewing 57 studies culled from 170 years of caffeine research, doctors determined that even just one standard-sized cup of coffee per day could produce caffeine addiction and its accompanying withdrawal symptoms. The Hopkins researchers identified the major symptoms of caffeine withdrawal as headache, fatigue, drowsiness, depression, irritability, difficulty concentrating, nausea, vomiting, and muscle pain or stiffness.

Via: mekCar | Shutterstock

Via: mekCar | Shutterstock

Addictive properties aside, coffee has been found to deplete the body of key nutrients. In the words of the aforementioned Dr. Kate Smith, “Because of coffee’s irritant effect on the gastrointestinal tract, it decreases the absorption of many essential vitamins and minerals.” She adds that coffee’s diuretic properties contribute to the depletion of such important nutrients and electrolytes as calcium, potassium, and magnesium.

According to Smith, coffee has been shown to decrease the absorption of both calcium and vitamin D, both of which are necessary for optimal bone health. (Decreased vitamin D absorption has also been linked to mood disorders and depression.) “Coffee actually leaches calcium from our bones, contributing to loss of bone density and osteoporosis,” Smith writes. Columbia University Health Services’ site Go Ask Alice makes a similar claim: “For every 150 milligrams of caffeine (approximately one 8-ounce cup of coffee or two to three 12-ounce cans of caffeinated soda), approximately two to three milligrams of calcium is excreted out in the urine. This loss can add up and could be detrimental for your bones, particularly if your diet is already insufficient in calcium.”

A study published in the September 2008 issue of the journal Clinical Chemistry found that coffee consumption depleted test subjects’ bodies of the B vitamins needed for proper brain and nervous system function and for the conversion of food to energy. This aligns with the findings of a 2002 study conducted in the Netherlands, in which participants showed a 21 percent decrease in levels of vitamin B6 (a necessary component for the production of serotonin) after drinking six cups of strong, unfiltered coffee per day for two weeks. (Low levels of serotonin are associated with anxiety and depression.) According to a study conducted in Japan, whose results were published in 2010, insufficient levels of vitamin B6 may increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease.

The Colorado State University Extension has reported that coffee consumption can reduce the body’s absorption of iron by as much as 50 percent. As physicians like Chicago, IL’s Stephanie Draus, ND have written, iron deficiency is the leading cause of anemia, a major cause of fatigue.

Participants in the above-mentioned 2002 Netherlands study also found unusually high blood levels of the naturally occurring substance homocysteine, elevated levels of which can contribute to coronary artery disease. The study concluded that 48 ounces of unfiltered coffee per day may carry a 10 percent increase in risk for heart attack or stroke.

Phot: Yerba maté and green tea could be healthier alternatives to coffee. Via: Andrii Gorulko | Shutterstock.

Photo: Yerba maté and green tea could be healthier alternatives to coffee. Via: Andrii Gorulko | Shutterstock.

Alternative Energy

Should you choose to quit coffee until there’s more conclusive data about its safety or lack thereof, be advised that numerous physicians have recommended tapering off slowly rather than going cold turkey — to avoid the nasty withdrawal symptoms mentioned previously. One means of tapering off is to begin drinking a caffeinated beverage that contains less caffeine per cup than coffee, such as guayusa, kola nut, or black tea. While there is much controversy and myth surrounding the fermented drink kombucha, it also deserves a mention here as a popular energy tonic.

One of the healthiest of the caffeinated stimulants is green tea, whose caffeine content is far lower than coffee’s. Along with being used as an antidote to overall fogginess, green tea is high in antioxidants and has been shown to help prevent a number of ailments. On the other hand, it may reduce the body’s ability to absorb iron supplements, and when consumed in excessive amounts (more than 300 mg on a given day), it can lead to the same kind of calcium loss as coffee, thus contributing to the risk of osteoporosis. An assessment of the health benefits and risks associated with green tea can be found here.

A coffee alternative with a considerably stronger kick than green tea is yerba maté, a tea made from the leaves of the Central and South American shrub Ilex paraguariensis. As opposed to the 25 mg in an eight-ounce cup of green tea, maté contains approximately 85 mg of caffeine per eight-ounce cup. (A cup of coffee contains about 95 mg of caffeine.) There is, however, some dispute as to whether the active ingredient in maté is caffeine or mateine, a stereoisomer of caffeine that supposedly has none of that compound’s negative effects.

In 1964, researchers from the Pasteur Institute and the Paris Scientific Society stated that yerba maté contains virtually all of the vitamins necessary to sustain life, noting, “It is difficult to find a plant in any area of the world equal to maté in nutritional value.” The claims of this antioxidant-rich tea’s health benefits are many and varied: Dr. Andrew Weil has stated that it may lower the risk of colon cancer, while Daniel Mowrey, Ph.D. has written at length on its reported benefits to the digestive, cardiovascular, nervous, and immune systems. Mowrey also claims that the tea is non-addictive and promotes better sleep.

That being said, there is some apprehension that habitual yerba maté consumption may cause cancer of the mouth, prostate, bladder, lungs, and esophagus. As Timothy Boyer, Ph.D. has written, “The concern… is that if the tea is prepared and consumed the traditional way with copious amounts of tea that has been infused multiple times using the same tea leaves, that the resulting high levels of PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] may then put a person at risk of developing cancer.”

Andrew Weil has claimed that drinking the occasional cup of yerba maté is unlikely to cause cancer. “The few studies that have found links between cancer and yerba maté show the highest risk is among users who also smoke and are heavy drinkers of alcohol,” he has written. “However, at least one study found that the risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus was greater in people who drink yerba maté regularly but do not smoke or consume alcohol. Clearly, more investigation is needed. I’ve seen no research suggesting that drinking the tea occasionally is in any way dangerous… If you enjoy maté, I see no risk in drinking it in moderation. But bear in mind that it contains xanthines, a class of chemical compounds that includes caffeine, as well as theophylline and theobromine, the stimulants in tea and chocolate. Too much can trigger the same jitteriness and other problems associated with excessive intake of caffeine.”

Rhodiola is a delicious way to kick caffeine altogether! Via: kostrez | Shutterstock.

Rhodiola is a delicious way to kick caffeine altogether! Via: kostrez | Shutterstock.

Those who are interested in kicking the caffeine habit altogether might want to check out the non-caffeinated energy supplement rhodiola, a flowering plant that grows in cold climates like the Arctic and Siberia. The internationally recognized integrative medicine expert Tieraona Low Dog, MD has recommended rhodiola as a jitter-free herbal remedy for fatigue, low energy, mental fog, and difficulty concentrating (a claim backed up by multiple studies). This medicine may also help improve memory and/or relieve depression and stress.

One word of caution: mixing rhodiola with large amounts of caffeine is contraindicated, and proper dosage is key, as excessive amounts of this supplement are said to sometimes make anxiety worse. Its users are advised to start small — for example, take only half the recommended amount the first day. Dr. Low Dog’s recommendations for rhodiola dosage can be found here, and has provided a list of recommended dosages here.

Got your own favorite energy supplement? Please share your experiences in the comment section below.