The Good and Dark Side of Coffee

Coffee lovers rejoice: there’s a surmounting body of research saying that your favourite caffeine kick is loaded with health benefits, ranging from an increase in brain function to a longer lifespan. (This will come as a relief if you, like me, know the best part of the morning is curling up with a hot cup of jo’.)

But what about the dark side of the dark roast? It may come as no surprise to you, but too much of a good thing might not be so great after all. Let’s take a look at the good and the bad of your favourite hot beverage, and also what you can do to level up and reap the most reward.

THE GOOD: The Benefit Of Coffee

It Increases Your Energy And Metabolism

Let’s start with the obvious, since this is why most of us drink coffee upon waking. Coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant, which gives the body an energy boost by impacting the nervous system. Drinking coffee has been shown to improve performance and alertness throughout the day (1)

It’s also been found to improve reaction time, while sustaining performance. (2) Not only does it improve cognitive performance, which we’ll talk about in a minute, but it also helps to improve physical performance. A meta-analysis found that caffeine was able to improve athletic performance by up to 12%, in comparison to a placebo (3). This may be due to caffeine’s ability to mobilize fatty acids from fat storage in order to convert it into energy. (4)

Because of caffeine’s ergogenic effect, this means that coffee may be able to provide us with an extra bout of energy in times of exhaustion and sleep deprivation (although we’ll talk about why depending on caffeine alone is a bad idea).

Finally, maybe you’ve heard this before, but coffee can also help to improve metabolism. Not only can it break down fat from the body and use it as energy, but it can also increase resting metabolic rate (RMR), which is how many calories your body burns at rest. (5) This effect seems to be more pronounced in lean people, although it can be seen across the board. (6)

It Can Improve Brain Function

Again, this might not be a surprise, given coffee’s impact on boosting energy levels and alertness.

To start, coffee may help to protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases. Research shows that coffee drinkers may have a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s and that those that drank more coffee saw a lower risk. (7) Similar effects were seen in research looking at coffee consumption and Parkinson’s disease. (8)

But it’s not just your future brain that benefits from drinking coffee: coffee can also improve mood, brain function, memory and vigilance. (9) It does this by stimulating the release of neurotransmitters like adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. (10) And lastly, there is some research that points to coffee being able to improve short-term memory (although the research is mixed here). (11)

It’s High In Antioxidants

Part of the reason coffee may be so healthful to the brain is due to its high antioxidant content. Coffee is loaded with antioxidants, such as polyphenols. (12) Polyphenols have been well-studied for their ability to prevent degenerative diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Antioxidants work by neutralizing free radicals and preventing oxidative stress. These free radicals are created from things like smoking, alcohol, pollution, fried foods and pesticides, and they can damage cell DNA. (13) For populations across the globe, coffee may be the single highest source of antioxidants (14, 15, 16)

It Can Help You Live Longer

Last but not least, coffee may help you to live longer. This is likely due to its high antioxidant content. One large observational study found that coffee reduced the risk of all-cause mortality. (17)

But if that weren’t enough, individual studies have found that coffee drinkers, in comparison to non-coffee drinkers, have been linked to a lower risk of:

  • type 2 diabetes (18)
  • liver cancer (19)
  • cirrhosis (20)
  • colon cancer (21)
  • heart disease (22)
  • stroke (23)

THE BAD: Too Much Of A Good Thing

Now that we’ve talked about the health benefits of coffee, let’s take a look at some of its downfalls.

It Can Disrupt Your Sleep Cycle

Coffee’s ability to give you energy comes from its main active ingredient, and stimulant, caffeine. The caffeine molecule looks very similar to another molecule in the body, adenosine. 

Adenosine is a brain chemical that influences the body’s sleep-wake cycle. It’s actually a by-product of the body using up energy, and as we use up energy throughout the day, we produce more adenosine. The more adenosine there is, the more tired we are, as adenosine slows down brain activity. (24)

Caffeine works by blocking adenosine: because they look similar in shape, caffeine takes the place of adenosine at receptor sites, so the brain doesn’t get the message to slow down and therefore it doesn’t get sleepy. With low-to-moderate coffee consumption this doesn’t appear to be an issue. (25) But high levels of caffeine may make it harder to fall asleep, and even reduce total sleep time, especially in older populations. (26)

When you drink coffee also makes a difference, as coffee can stay in your system for up to 5 hours, sometimes longer, depending on how quickly caffeine is metabolized in the individual. (27) This means that the later in the day you drink coffee, the harder it will be to fall asleep.

It Can Cause Anxiety

Another negative consequence of too much caffeine is its impact on anxiety.  This is because coffee makes you more alert by blocking adenosine, but also by triggering the release of adrenaline. (28) Adrenaline is a stress hormone responsible for keeping you alert (in that “fight-or-flight” state) and too much can lead to anxiety.

But how much is too much? One study found that even moderate amounts (around 300mg) is enough to increase stress and anxiety. (29) So someone with high anxiety, or even someone going through a more stressful event, may do well to limit their caffeine intake.

It Can Lead To Digestive Upset

Lastly, too much coffee can upset your digestive system, and in fact, is often used by people to get things going in the morning. 

Coffee can improve gut motility by stimulating the release of a hormone called gastrin, which increases peristalsis, the contractions that move food throughout the digestive tract. Too much coffee can have a laxative affect, and may lead to loose stools. (30)

This can be a bigger issue if you’re someone who already struggles with digestive issues.

HOW TO BALANCE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH COFFEE

If you love coffee, but don’t want to overdo it, here are some tips that can help:

  • Know your tolerance. Everyone metabolizes caffeine differently, so it's important to know how it affects you personally.  Up to 400mg of caffeine (about four cups of coffee) is safe for most healthy adults, but if you find yourself getting jittery, anxious or having difficulty falling asleep, you may need to cut back. 
  • Don’t drink it in the afternoon. To avoid disrupting your sleep cycle, keep coffee as part of your morning routine and avoid drinking past 2pm. 
  • Eat food beforehand. If coffee makes you jittery but you still want to reap the benefits, try drinking after having breakfast.

HOW TO SUPERCHARGE YOUR COFFEE

If you love your morning coffee, but are looking to get a little more out of it, try adding one of the following!

  • Ashwagandha. This powdered adaptogen is a great addition because it can offset some of the jitteriness caused by caffeine. Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. (31) One of the easiest ways to use it is to stir some into your coffee on days where you know stress may be high (for example you have a work presentation or are moving).
  • Collagen. We’ve talked about collagen in the past, but to recap collagen is what gives skin its elasticity, and is needed for joint health. Collagen peptides are a great addition to coffee—it dissolves quickly and you can’t taste it. This can also be a beneficial daily practice if you struggle to eat enough protein throughout the day.
  • MCT. MCT, which stands for medium chain triglycerides is essential brain food. Due to their structure, MCTs are more easily digested and can be used as an instant source of energy. (32)

Coffee lovers rejoice: there’s a surmounting body of research saying that your favourite caffeine kick is loaded with health benefits, ranging from an increase in brain function to a longer lifespan. (This will come as a relief if you, like me, know the best part of the morning is curling up with a hot cup of jo’.)

But what about the dark side of the dark roast? It may come as no surprise to you, but too much of a good thing might not be so great after all. Let’s take a look at the good and the bad of your favourite hot beverage, and also what you can do to level up and reap the most reward.

THE GOOD: The Benefit Of Coffee

It Increases Your Energy And Metabolism

Let’s start with the obvious, since this is why most of us drink coffee upon waking. Coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant, which gives the body an energy boost by impacting the nervous system. Drinking coffee has been shown to improve performance and alertness throughout the day (1)

It’s also been found to improve reaction time, while sustaining performance. (2) Not only does it improve cognitive performance, which we’ll talk about in a minute, but it also helps to improve physical performance. A meta-analysis found that caffeine was able to improve athletic performance by up to 12%, in comparison to a placebo (3). This may be due to caffeine’s ability to mobilize fatty acids from fat storage in order to convert it into energy. (4)

Because of caffeine’s ergogenic effect, this means that coffee may be able to provide us with an extra bout of energy in times of exhaustion and sleep deprivation (although we’ll talk about why depending on caffeine alone is a bad idea).

Finally, maybe you’ve heard this before, but coffee can also help to improve metabolism. Not only can it break down fat from the body and use it as energy, but it can also increase resting metabolic rate (RMR), which is how many calories your body burns at rest. (5) This effect seems to be more pronounced in lean people, although it can be seen across the board. (6)

It Can Improve Brain Function

Again, this might not be a surprise, given coffee’s impact on boosting energy levels and alertness.

To start, coffee may help to protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases. Research shows that coffee drinkers may have a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s and that those that drank more coffee saw a lower risk. (7) Similar effects were seen in research looking at coffee consumption and Parkinson’s disease. (8)

But it’s not just your future brain that benefits from drinking coffee: coffee can also improve mood, brain function, memory and vigilance. (9) It does this by stimulating the release of neurotransmitters like adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. (10) And lastly, there is some research that points to coffee being able to improve short-term memory (although the research is mixed here). (11)

It’s High In Antioxidants

Part of the reason coffee may be so healthful to the brain is due to its high antioxidant content. Coffee is loaded with antioxidants, such as polyphenols. (12) Polyphenols have been well-studied for their ability to prevent degenerative diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Antioxidants work by neutralizing free radicals and preventing oxidative stress. These free radicals are created from things like smoking, alcohol, pollution, fried foods and pesticides, and they can damage cell DNA. (13) For populations across the globe, coffee may be the single highest source of antioxidants (14, 15, 16)

It Can Help You Live Longer

Last but not least, coffee may help you to live longer. This is likely due to its high antioxidant content. One large observational study found that coffee reduced the risk of all-cause mortality. (17)

But if that weren’t enough, individual studies have found that coffee drinkers, in comparison to non-coffee drinkers, have been linked to a lower risk of:

  • type 2 diabetes (18)
  • liver cancer (19)
  • cirrhosis (20)
  • colon cancer (21)
  • heart disease (22)
  • stroke (23)

THE BAD: Too Much Of A Good Thing

Now that we’ve talked about the health benefits of coffee, let’s take a look at some of its downfalls.

It Can Disrupt Your Sleep Cycle

Coffee’s ability to give you energy comes from its main active ingredient, and stimulant, caffeine. The caffeine molecule looks very similar to another molecule in the body, adenosine. 

Adenosine is a brain chemical that influences the body’s sleep-wake cycle. It’s actually a by-product of the body using up energy, and as we use up energy throughout the day, we produce more adenosine. The more adenosine there is, the more tired we are, as adenosine slows down brain activity. (24)

Caffeine works by blocking adenosine: because they look similar in shape, caffeine takes the place of adenosine at receptor sites, so the brain doesn’t get the message to slow down and therefore it doesn’t get sleepy. With low-to-moderate coffee consumption this doesn’t appear to be an issue. (25) But high levels of caffeine may make it harder to fall asleep, and even reduce total sleep time, especially in older populations. (26)

When you drink coffee also makes a difference, as coffee can stay in your system for up to 5 hours, sometimes longer, depending on how quickly caffeine is metabolized in the individual. (27) This means that the later in the day you drink coffee, the harder it will be to fall asleep.

It Can Cause Anxiety

Another negative consequence of too much caffeine is its impact on anxiety.  This is because coffee makes you more alert by blocking adenosine, but also by triggering the release of adrenaline. (28) Adrenaline is a stress hormone responsible for keeping you alert (in that “fight-or-flight” state) and too much can lead to anxiety.

But how much is too much? One study found that even moderate amounts (around 300mg) is enough to increase stress and anxiety. (29) So someone with high anxiety, or even someone going through a more stressful event, may do well to limit their caffeine intake.

It Can Lead To Digestive Upset

Lastly, too much coffee can upset your digestive system, and in fact, is often used by people to get things going in the morning. 

Coffee can improve gut motility by stimulating the release of a hormone called gastrin, which increases peristalsis, the contractions that move food throughout the digestive tract. Too much coffee can have a laxative affect, and may lead to loose stools. (30)

This can be a bigger issue if you’re someone who already struggles with digestive issues.

HOW TO BALANCE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH COFFEE

If you love coffee, but don’t want to overdo it, here are some tips that can help:

  • Know your tolerance. Everyone metabolizes caffeine differently, so it’s important to know how it affects you personally.  Up to 400mg of caffeine (about four cups of coffee) is safe for most healthy adults, but if you find yourself getting jittery, anxious or having difficulty falling asleep, you may need to cut back. 
  • Don’t drink it in the afternoon. To avoid disrupting your sleep cycle, keep coffee as part of your morning routine and avoid drinking past 2pm. 
  • Eat food beforehand. If coffee makes you jittery but you still want to reap the benefits, try drinking after having breakfast.

HOW TO SUPERCHARGE YOUR COFFEE

If you love your morning coffee, but are looking to get a little more out of it, try adding one of the following!

  • Ashwagandha. This powdered adaptogen is a great addition because it can offset some of the jitteriness caused by caffeine. Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. (31) One of the easiest ways to use it is to stir some into your coffee on days where you know stress may be high (for example you have a work presentation or are moving).
  • Collagen. We’ve talked about collagen in the past, but to recap collagen is what gives skin its elasticity, and is needed for joint health. Collagen peptides are a great addition to coffee—it dissolves quickly and you can’t taste it. This can also be a beneficial daily practice if you struggle to eat enough protein throughout the day.
  • MCT. MCT, which stands for medium chain triglycerides is essential brain food. Due to their structure, MCTs are more easily digested and can be used as an instant source of energy. (32)