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Coffee: Virtue or Vice?

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan via Compfight cc

This is a coffee town. Portlanders not only consume mass quantities of the stuff, but they have also become quite the nerds about it.

There are 876 coffee shops in Portland, and you can pretty much get a cup anyway you’d like it: made with hand-roasted beans, fair-trade exotic single origin beans, it can be made French Press (old news), cold-pressed, or pour-over.

The coffee industry has thrived in part as an extension of Portland’s famous foodie culture. And who can blame you for drinking so many cups? There are few things better on a misty winter morning than a steaming cup of creamy coffee from your favorite neighborhood barista.

Is it possible that something that feels so good is actually bad for you? Of course you know that to be fact with smoking, and you know the negative effects of sugar, trans-fats and non-organic meat, but need you also be concerned about your coffee consumption?

The messages are mixed: coffee is bad for you, coffee is good for you. The “facts” seem to flip-flop annually, so what to do?

For years the health news about coffee was exclusively bad: it dehydrates you, it raises your blood pressure, increases anxiety, and it causes cancer. So do you need to give up your last true vice? The one thing that gets you going in the morning?

The answer is a firm maybe.

Good For Some, Bad For Others

Here is the long and short of it:

Caffeine has been shown to cause temporary increases (1-4 hours) in blood pressure, so if you are prone to blood pressure issues, this could be a worthy reason to at least cut down your intake.

Coffee is rich in antioxidants, and in fact is the most antioxidant- rich substance in many people’s diets (this could, ahem, be changed if you started eating better, but that is another article).

Research is starting to show that consuming regular and reasonable quantities of coffee offers dramatic protection against Parkinson’s and colon cancer in part because of its high antioxidant levels.

Caffeine raises cortisol levels. Cortisol is your stress hormone, the one responsible for fight-or-flight. This means that drinking coffee throughout the day, especially if you are drinking coffee in lieu of proper amounts of restful sleep, can lead to increasing sleep issues. If you are already having a hard time sleeping, cutting back on coffee could bring improvement.

The news about coffee and blood sugar is mixed. Caffeine impairs insulin output, meaning that after you consume coffee, blood sugar levels are higher for a while. However, the combination of polyphenols, magnesium and chromium found in coffee actually is protective against inflammatory diseases (such as type 2 diabetes), and seem to actually “offset the [...] effects of caffeine.”

The takeaway here is that if you have type 2 diabetes, sufficient research suggests that consuming coffee can be protective. If, however, you have type 1 diabetes or are hypoglycemic, you may want to avoid coffee.

Caffeine (and coffee in particular) may be beneficial for your liver. Small studies have shown decrease in the progression of various liver diseases, from cirrhosis to liver cancer to hepatitis C in patients who consume higher quantities of coffee. The suspicion is that there are anti-viral and anti-carcinogenic properties in coffee, and a substance that inhibits the growth of abnormal cells.

There are many more studies that talk about coffee’s relationship to anxiety, depression, longevity, cholesterol and more. Most of the research currently out there points to the fact that coffee is good for you, and that is welcome news to the good people of Portland. The caution is that most of these studies show associations, but do not actually prove that it is the coffee or the caffeine that is causing the benefit.

The bottom line is that if you are of reasonable health and are not (overly) using coffee to make up for deficiencies in your sleep or your mood, coffee can provide a good deal of benefits. The real truth of it is that you are all different, and your body will not handle the caffeine drug the same way as will your neighbor’s / sister’s / partner’s / officemate’s / etc. Pay attention to how you feel with and without coffee, and let that determine if it is virtue or vice.

Erin Brockmeyer, LAc, is owner and acupuncturist at Solstice Natural Health in downtown Portland. She creates custom health plans for patients to help them tackle their most complicated health concerns, including infertility, prenatal care, fibromyalgia, thyroid conditions and chronic and acute pain conditions. Visit her website http://www.solsticeacupuncture.com for more information and to download her free e-book 5 Simple Ways to Improve Your Health Today.

Home Page Photo Credit: marfis75 via Compfight cc


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