Coffee: your friend or foe?

Coffee. It’s like the world’s favourite elixir. Mine included. For an athlete, there are many studies supporting its use as an ergogenic aid for athletes – helping reduce rates of perceived pain and effort, improving muscle fibre recruitment and enhancing glycogen repletion post-workout. These benefits are individual, however, and while research suggests that genetic differences in our ability to detoxify caffeine could account for this, it is not a universal finding. This is something true for athletes and non-athletes alike.

Other features of coffee are also salient for all individuals. Caffeine is ketogenic; not only can it help mobilise fatty acids to be used for energy, it increases the presence of ketones in the bloodstream – hence it is a good pre-workout fuel to help elicit fatty acid oxidation pathways and provide fuel for the workout in the absence of glucose. This doesn’t necessarily translate in additional body fat loss (more important lifestyle strategies are required for that, such as a caloric deficit, resistance training, reduction in stress etc), but can encourage these energy pathways to be upregulated, helping in the process of becoming adapted to a lower carb dietary approach.

Coffee improves insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance (potentially related to the polyphenols present, though the mechanism is currently unclear), therefore enhancing the effects of both a lower carb approach, or a plan that includes fasting (either intermittent fasting, super-fasting, or a 5:2 approach such as the one in my fat-loss plans). Further, anyone doing my accelerated fat loss plans who have that 16h intermittent fast on the ‘fasting mimicking’ days could experience a more potent effect from the fast by including black coffee alongside water as their beverages of choice.

Autophagy, where our body starts to clear out damaged cells from the liver, heart and muscle tissue, is one of the benefits of fasting as you know. In mice models it might take just 16 hours for this to occur, in humans it is likely to take a lot longer given the differences in our metabolic rate (a mouse has a faster metabolism). Consuming caffeine on an empty stomach (or as part of a fast) promotes autophagy, which theoretically would shorten the time that is required to fast to stimulate this process. It also triggers AMPK, an enzyme that inhibits fat storage, promotes fat burning and activates antioxidant networks. These properties are thought to underpin much of the purported health benefits of drinking coffee.

It IS a balance though – if you’re following a fasting protocol, working out, and reading this at 3.30am in the morning, it’s a good sign that your brain is wired – raising cortisol to the extent that it’s (quite obviously) disrupting sleep. When we fast, like exercise, it places a stress on the body – this is where many benefits come from, as your body responds and adapts, becoming more resilient. However, too much of anything is too much! If coffee on top of your fasting regime or exercise program (or, life in general) is causing this stress response, then it is worth dialling it back a bit (or go 1/2 and 1/2 with decaf) to see if this changes your stress response.

Caffeine (or coffee), though, may not be good for anyone with gut issues. As it can stimulate the stomach cells to release more gastric juices, aiding in digestion, we often hear that too much coffee promotes a highly acidic environment and as such, could increase the risk of damage to the cells and subsequent gut issues. The literature, though, reports that caffeine does not negatively impact gastric or duodenal ulcers, and in fact when administered in vitro, could help repair cells damaged by inflammatory bowel conditions such as ulcerative colitis, and is also protective for the mucosal layer of the gut. Research suggests this is because caffeine increases blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract. Conversely, caffeine can lower the tone of the oesophageal sphincter – the valve that controls the release of stomach acid into the oesophagus, thus may promote heartburn and reflux.

With all research studies, it’s important to remember you are your own best investigator when it comes to how coffee affects you. I’ve said this before, but a good point to reiterate. The best advice, then, is to pay attention to how you feel when you drink coffee. Does drinking coffee make you more wired, especially when you fast, indicating it stimulates your stress (or cortisol) response? Does it give you reflux or heartburn? Does it upset your digestive tract more than settle it? Everyone has a different tolerance level to coffee, and further, our ability to detoxify it may also be different. If you feel great when you have coffee, and you don’t have any gut-related issues, then it is likely absolutely fine for you. If you notice an irritated gut, or you feel a bit wired, then it isn’t worth persevering with coffee for the purported health benefits – in your case, it might be making things worse.


Ahhh… coffee 🙂

Pre-eating? On that…

Pipped at the post. I was all set to pontificate (and had written ~ 600 pearls of wisdom about) why people eat when they aren’t hungry. Then I notice the email notification for Sarah Wilson’s blog, and I click on it to reveal…. Pre-eating. Great minds…

There are many other reasons though for people to eat when they’re not hungry, but pre-eating –eating in anticipation of being hungry, or – in the case of the athlete – eating in anticipation of needing fuel for a workout – is a biggie for some people. Just a few days ago in the clinic an athlete told me their afternoon snack wasn’t because they were hungry, it was in case they ran out of fuel for their workout in the afternoon. I asked  what the worst thing that could happen was. Of course the automatic reply was that they couldn’t finish the workout. I then asked if they’d ever tried it to see if that was indeed the case. They hadn’t.

So many people pre-eat for because they fear being hungry. I get this a LOT. When I recommend that someone forgo the snacks during the day, sometimes it really is  fear in their eyes when they ask me ‘what if I get hungry?’ What if? While hunger has been the cause of death for millions of people worldwide, it hasn’t actually killed anyone I’ve ever sat down with. Or anyone they’ve ever sat down with. But the idea of being hungry can create this ingrained panic in some people that, if they don’t eat – even if they’re not particularly hungry – they will not be able to resist temptation that comes their way in the form of the jar of lollies on their colleague’s desk, or the biscuit tin in the staffroom. As Sarah pointed out, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the sensation of being hungry –and don’t trust themselves to hold back once they do get to eat.

The other obvious reasons people eat are out of boredom, habit, guilt, stress or because it’s scheduled. All of these deserve a blog post in themselves. A lovely friend I studied with was the classic scheduled eater. I remember quite clearly being in our office, both of us working away on our theses (this was before the internet was anything more than email and I was one of the first people I knew to have a cellphone; there was no Twitter or Facebook to distract us. Thus, I do believe we were in fact working). She started being a bit random in what she was saying (which wasn’t unusual, she was the most intelligent girl I knew, yet could be quite fluffy too…) however when I asked her about it she declared she could barely focus on the screen in front of her because her blood sugar levels had plummeted and she needed to eat. I suggested that we go for lunch, but she was adamant she couldn’t eat until 1pm, yet it had barely turned 12pm. This self-imposed scheduling of meals is not about the fear of being hungry, but more about exerting a level of control. For some, these food rules that govern our intake is a comfortable place to reside in, and if you have the willpower to adhere to them, then that’s the internal battle won.

Another example I came across where the wheels fall of was in the comments section at the bottom of Sarah’s blog: Kat has commented that she delays her breakfast until 8.30 (for as long as possible) yet this leads her to snack constantly throughout the morning. Again, this conscious (or otherwise) rule to not eat until later – trying to delay food intake and (in essence) reduce food intake has  unintended consequences. I see this a bit in my clinic also – people are scared that if they begin to eat earlier in the day, then the overall volume of food will increase because they will be hungrier earlier. Of course, right? Increased food, increased weight. Not necessarily. And, in this case, I believe the opposite is true. The reasons I thought Kat wasn’t able to regulate her appetite was that she either isn’t eating enough at breakfast (which is possible, as she mentions her weight has stalled and she’s not able to shift weight) or she’s not eating enough protein and/or fat to help stabilise both her stress hormones and her blood sugar to enable her to coast through the morning snack free. Those two food-related reasons could lead to higher than normal stress hormones as she isn’t responding to her body’s hunger cues. The body will store more fat in this environment, making it difficult to shift weight. The stress hormones will also cause the liver to dump additional glucose in the bloodstream which leads to fluctuations in energy and mood and (at worst) the dreaded ‘hangry’. Of course, if Kat is constantly grazing, she might never feel that way and could be overeating to compensate for the changing energy levels.

If Kat ate breakfast earlier, and ate MORE for breakfast, I believe she will feel far better. In addition, if this did lead to an increased food intake, the body’s stress hormones will be far more stable, and the way the body responds to calories is largely dependent on the environment within the body. The increased stress response created by delaying the meal could mean that Kat is far more likely to store those calories for later use. By tuning into her hunger signals and regulating her stress response, Kat might find that she is able to eat more food (and thus, more dietary energy) and burn it more effectively.

I actually think that whether Kat is eating too much (or too little) is almost a moot point. If Kat is hungry, she should eat. If she isn’t hungry, then she should wait to eat. As Kat was reading Sarah’s blog, then at least we know she is eating the right type of food to help maximise her nutrient intake and thus her health goals. When she told me what she was eating (quinoa porridge with chia seeds and almond milk), I suggested she go ½ and ½ with almond milk and coconut milk – and (obviously) eat when she was hungry. That’s what I love about open forums. It’s a great place to offer unsolicited advice. 😉

What, why, how, when and where we eat garners so much attention and so many emotions. Sarah’s blog was really just to highlight a fraction of the discussion (as this is), to get people thinking about why they eat and whether or not they needed to snack. It didn’t say to NEVER snack, it was about tuning into your hunger cues and recognising when you are hungry. For a lot of my clients, it’s a habit rather than a physiological drive. That’s why for many people I discourage snacking. However it’s really individual and there is no one size fits all approach. Do you snack? Do you need it? Do you even know? Try going without a snack at a time you would normally eat. What’s the worse that could happen? You get hungry. Well it’s unlikely to kill you.

Anyone for a short black?

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.