Coffee. Mmmm. Even those people who don’t drink coffee can enjoy the pleasurable sensory satisfaction of freshly ground coffee beans. Coffee drinkers that don’t have their morning / post lunch / pre-bed espresso can feel just a little bit less than human. Actually for some, that’s being polite. Like someone falling off the edge of a glucose cliff, they can turn into the worst version of themselves if they haven’t slammed their triple shot short black, hold the glass. There is a reason why we turn our nose up at Starbucks or McCafe when there is a small local espresso stand just down the road. As a rule, New Zealand has GREAT coffee and even the less seasoned drinkers can wax lyrical about coffee machines, a well roasted coffee bean, or a good crema on top of our espresso. We trump Australia in the coffee stakes and are as proud of that as we are of the All Blacks.
And what’s not to love? Now that it is pretty much undisputed that, for regular consumers, coffee isn’t going to dehydrate you, it can also boast about being protective against risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It is known for its performance enhancing effects for athletes due to the effect of caffeine on the central nervous system. But really, these are almost positive byproducts of consumption for most people. Coffee, with it’s stimulant effect, helps us get out of bed in the morning, gets us through the two hour meeting (which, like most meetings, could be over and done with in half an hour), gives us something to do at 3pm when we feel like we are going to crash, and helps us unwind at the end of a busy day. While some of these are more psychological (particularly the last one), the others are to do with the effect that caffeine has in the brain. Caffeine has the ability to take the place of adenosine in our brain, an inhibitory neurotransmitter released by neurons to help promote sleep by binding to adenosine receptors and causing the release of dopamine. Caffeine is perfectly shaped to take place of the adenosine in certain adenosine receptors and take up residence instead. This allows the brain to function as normal instead of it preparing for rest, increasing alertness and offsetting any drowsiness we might be experiencing particularly when we are lacking in sleep. For some, operating in this sleep deprivation/fatigued state is pretty much how life rolls at certain times of the week or year. While some notice the effects of caffeine more than others, most will build up a tolerance over time so its stimulant effect will be harder and harder to come by without upping our dose of caffeine. It has a half-life of around 6 hours (i.e. it takes this long to eliminate half the caffeine dose from our system) which means that your body can still be in a state of alert well into the night if you typically enjoy a long black after dinner (or, to a lesser extent, an afternoon coffee). Despite assertions from people that the post-dinner caffeine hit doesn’t affect their sleep, research shows it can affect the time it takes to get to sleep, the amount of time we sleep in total and the amount of quality restorative sleep we are able to get. This could be the start of a vicious cycle where the pleasurable cup (or three) of coffee in the morning starts becoming a necessity to keep you feeling awake or alert. The ‘tired but wired’ feeling typically experienced comes from the effect that caffeine has on the pituitary gland, causing the release of adrenaline. I’ve talked before about the short (and long) term effects of this stress hormone response, and imagine many out there can relate to the exhaustion that comes from the sleep deprivation and blood sugar disregulation that can come from too much coffee.
When I chat to clients about their coffee intake they are often anxious that I will suggest they need to drop all coffee immediately. But that’s not my default position. If you aren’t experiencing any digestive issues, symptoms of liver toxin overload, sleep deprivation or any problems with anxiety, then there may be no reason to do cut back. However, if you recognise that your coffee intake is higher than it should be, and you’re using it as a crux to get you through the day, then cutting back on coffee is one strategy among other dietary and lifestyle modifications that help bring you back into balance. Some people can quit drinking coffee and experience no physical symptoms. Here are a few things that I’ve recommended to clients to help them reduce their intake and potentially limit those withdrawal symptoms:
- Warm water with lemon in the morning: this can help support liver function and reduce symptoms of sluggishness related to metabolising nutrients and toxins in the body.
- Higher protein content at breakfast: this helps support a normal cortisol level (another stress hormone which helps maintain energy and concentration and should be higher in the morning and decreases over the course of the day. This isn’t possible with increased adrenaline). A higher protein breakfast will also help keep you fuller for longer. This is important if you notice that the 10am coffee is in lieu of a snack because you’ve had a cereal-based breakfast that has barely touched the sides.
- Ensure you are drinking enough water during the day. This will help you remain hydrated and reduce any dehydration-related fatigue.
- Quit the coffee after lunch. Find a substitute. This will help restore restorative sleep patterns which will obviously reduce fatigue throughout the day. Combined with a better breakfast, your concentration and energy levels will be a lot higher, negating that 3pm coffee.
- Which of your four morning coffees are a necessity for you and which are merely a distraction from what you should be doing? Gradually reducing your intake and setting a timeline around this can be helpful. You will feel good about achieving your short-term goals, and it will may make it easier to cut back further if need be. By substituting one of these for a brisk walk up and down the stairs you will increase your blood flow and level of alertness without the caffeine hit.
- Find another beverage. If you’re not a fan of herbal teas then I can relate. I don’t like a herbal tea bag as they promise SO much more than they deliver. However a visit to a specialised tea shop uncovered some great options in the form of leaf tea which, surprisingly (to me) provided just as much pleasure as an afternoon long macchiato. Once I got my head around it.
- Jumping in a cold shower for a few minutes can also increase your alertness, as the shock factor from the cold water will increase your deep breathing and deliver oxygen (i.e. energy) to your muscles. Your heart rate will also increase and blood will pump through your body faster. Of course, this is pretty impractical for all but a few of us, so try splashing your face with cold water throughout the day for the same effect.
- Drink green tea: while this contains some caffeine, it is a lot less than your standard cup of coffee (25 mg versus 150 mg, though obviously this will vary). There is a compound in green tea called l-theanine that works to increase alertness, particularly in the presence of the small amount of caffeine in it.
- Put your feet up… literally. Putting your legs up against the wall for a few mintues will increase the blood flow to your head and can eliminate brain fog. Try it.
- When you feel a craving come on, actively busy yourself with another task – i.e. Take your mind off it. Research shows that this can help suppress your craving for coffee.
Do you need to reduce your intake? You might not need a nutritionist to answer that. Be honest with yourself about how much you are consuming and hopefully some of these strategies listed above will help you if you do. It’s likely that, after a period of time, you’ll rediscover the real feeling of pleasure that is derived from a perfect cup of coffee, which may be somewhat diluted if you’re overloading your system.