Caffeine: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

by lydia on January 25, 2013

Okay, maybe my title was a bit deceiving since I don’t plan on talking much about the apparent ‘good’. Caffeine cartoon/ecard Coffee smells and tastes great, yes! It’s like a form of art. One of life’s simple joys for many. Believe me, I was a major coffee afici0nado for many years and even worked at Starbucks! I had a reputation and it was a known fact if you came to my house you were gonna get a killer cup o Joe! So, what happened to that season of my life? I came to realize caffeine was my drug of choice (along with sugar), and I no longer wanted to be dependent on a substance to drive my energy. I also knew that I felt better overall not dependent on coffee, so I quit drinking it. That was the spring of 2009 I believe. For two years I felt awesome with no caffeine and was so glad to be free of the burden I used to feel NEEDING coffee. Then one day, I started drinking a cup of tea here and there. Life got stressful and I drank tea more often. Next thing you know I’d go in cycles of using that cup of tea to drive my energy. Since I had burned out adrenals a few years back and likely low cortisol, I have to be very careful to manage my diet/sleep/stress in order not to crash my adrenals again.

In the past year I’ve found that I’ve needed something to get me going in the morning quite often though not daily. Thankfully, I could stop drinking it any time without withdrawals, but recently over the holidays, I found myself letting more caffeine sneak in on a regular basis to the point that it was hard to give up. Not just caffeine from tea, but coffee (which is higher) and my gluten intolerant gut can’t deal with the possible cross reactions to gluten (more on that later). There is no guilt on my part for it, just simply a realization that something is off and I should rather work to resolve it more holistically than just give into the false energy from a cup of tea or Joe.

I’m sure many of you can relate. It isn’t easy being a single mother of 4 boys, and sometimes I don’t keep up with taking care of myself as well as I know to. Thankfully, I am informed enough to know I just don’t tolerate coffee and it needs to be something I avoid. Weak tea is more tolerable for me and the occasional cup is fine.

While there may be some people who seem to ‘do well’ on coffee, I am learning that it’s really not ideal for anyone to consume on a regular basis. Of course it’s always a choice whether to consume it or not, however today I want to talk about why I think it should be kept as an occasional ‘treat’.  This post is about caffeine in general though, so I won’t isolate coffee unnecessarily. It just seems the top choice of Americans to get their caffeine fix, after all; ‘America runs on Dunkin‘.

Caffeine & Blood Sugar

The BIGGEST reason I knew I needed to quit coffee; it affected my blood sugar. Starting my day off with a cup or two of coffee really messed up my blood sugar. I didn’t understand that fully then, but I do now. That same year I quit coffee was the same year I finally got my blood sugar under control. Prior to that time, I was hypoglycemic, reactively so. That was NOT fun! Read more here on how your blood sugar works.

Since caffeine can increase blood sugar it can aggravate hypoglycemia and diabetes. When it is combined with sugars, it can be even more devastating to your blood sugar level. It can be a contributor to insulin resistance. Something not one of us alive should take very lightly. Caffeine is a stimulant that is used to ‘drive’ one’s energy. Stimulants aggravate blood sugar issues and deplete two important neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine.

Caffeine raises blood sugar levels and disrupts the blood sugar–regulating effect of insulin. In fact, high-dose caffeine administration (the equivalent of six cups of coffee) has been shown to produce transient insulin resistance that is very similar to Type II diabetes.

Hypoglycemia results when blood sugar levels fall below normal. Since blood sugar (or glucose) is the fuel that runs our muscles and brain, hypoglycemia typically produces fatigue, depression, and anxiety. There is no single cause of hypoglycemia. It is an imbalance in the complex process of energy metabolism involving the liver, pancreas and adrenal glands. Caffeine plays a major role because it stimulates the fight-or flight stress response. As part of this response, the liver rapidly raises the blood sugar levels. This is felt as a “lift” by the person who drank the coffee (especially if the coffee contained added sugar) but the body must then deal with the metabolic emergency of hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar). This is accomplished by the pancreas, which secretes insulin, driving the blood-sugar level down. In some individuals, however, blood sugar may decrease to levels below normal, resulting in hypoglycemia and the all-too-familiar “letdown” feeling a few hours after the coffee lift. Of course, many people simply reach for another cup of coffee, which starts the roller-coaster cycle all over again. (Stephen Cherniske, M.S., ‘Caffeine Blues’.)

Caffeine & Hydration

Caffeine is a dehydrating beverage, and requires one to drink MORE water to replace what was lost thanks to a cup of Joe. For every 8 ounce cup you will need to replenish with another 12 to 16 ounces of pure water. Caffeine’s diuretic effect causes loss of potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc and other minerals, the B vitamins, especially thiamine, B1 and vitamin C. Since dehydration is the most common deficiency in our culture, I am certain that caffeine and other dehydrating beverage consumption is a key contributor.

Caffeine’s Effect on the Adrenals

Those with low cortisol may seem to benefit from coffee. The problem is the consuming coffee is only exacerbating the underlying problem. I think it can be okay to consume small amounts while working to resolve issues with low cortisol, though I think it would be best if adaptogenic herbs were used. Why? Caffeine can trigger a boost in dopamine which activates the pleasure center in the brain. The same thing that cocaine, amphetamines and other psychoactive drugs do. Again, it’s an energy driver, so it’s not going to resolve the root problem. Those with high cortisol that drink coffee, ooh mama, watch out!

When your cortisol levels are already high and you add the stimulation of coffee/caffeine you are asking for trouble. Caffeine over stimulates the adrenal glands by creating a stress response in the body as we saw above in the role that caffeine plays in affecting our blood sugar. It creates an upswing in cortisol and other stress hormones. Whenever we have a rapid rise in our blood sugar, there is always a quick drop to follow. Both the high and the low can have an effect on the adrenal glands.

In the book ‘Caffeine Blues’ there is a chapter describing just how caffeine consumption can contribute to leading the adrenals in dysfunction and habitual use can take you through all 3 stages of adrenal fatigue to the point your adrenals totally crash. Then you are in trouble, because let me tell you it’s very difficult to recover from deep adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue and caffeine just do not mix. The reality is, the more you over stimulate your adrenals with caffeine, which ultimately leads these already overworked glands, the sooner you end up in complete adrenal exhaustion. If you believe you could be suffering from adrenal fatigue you should get an ASI test (adrenal stress index) done to see what your cortisol is doing. Read more about how one’s blood sugar affects adrenal health and even the entire endocrine system.

Coffee & Gluten Intolerance

Unfortunately, simply avoiding gluten for those with celiac or gluten intolerance is not enough if you want full recovery. There are many foods that are cross reactive to gluten and coffee is one of them. Cyrex Labs has a gluten-associated cross-reactive foods and foods sensitivity test that you can order and find out for sure if indeed coffee is something you need to avoid. Personally, that test is kind of expensive for me, so I just need to avoid it for now. This post by Paleo mom may shed some more light on why coffee consumption is not a good idea for those sensitive or allergic to gluten.

French Press Coffee

Caffeine/Coffee Substitutes

This list is namely for coffee or tea drinkers. I don’t drink soda or energy shot drinks, but I will address those in another post.

  •  Organic Decaf Coffee (Swiss Water Process) – I can suggest using this as a way to help you wean off of fully caffeinated coffee. However, if you are gluten intolerant you might not be able to drink it if you want to heal. (*Note: I test fine for a couple types of decaf coffee -but have tried to drink Starbucks and simply cannot as I do not believe it is gluten free. It’s important to know how to muscle test or pulse test so you can determine if a given food is causing your body a reaction.)
  • Dandy Blend – I have not personally tried Dandy Blend, but know MANY who have and love it. The taste is very satisfying from what I understand. The bonus to this beverage is that it is a good liver support as well as an enjoyable beverage and coffee replacement.

  • Green Tea- On occasion this would be a good replacement until you can wean off of the need to stimulate your energy. Since green tea holds more health benefits and has a much lower dosage of caffeine per cup, it could be a great option for most. However, for someone in deep adrenal fatigue, I recommend getting off the caffeine until you’ve healed for some time.
  • Adaptogenic Herbal Teas-  such as siberian gingseng, schizandra, astragalus, ashwaganda and others. I like Ashwaghanda and have used it often, I like to blend it with an orange blossom tea since it isn’t the yummiest of teas (though it’s not bad either).
  • Kombucha -this is a fermented tea beverage with very little caffeine left in it (though it does have some). The benefits of kombucha help to support the body instead of subtract nutrients. It is loaded with b vitamins, enzymes and some probiotics. It’s a very energizing beverage you can easily make at home. I consider it more of a tonic. Highly recommended!
  • Bullet Proof Coffee – If you are simply not willing to give up that one cup of coffee a day because it’s your one vice that you look forward to, at least make it bullet proof. What is bullet proof coffee you ask? It’s coffee with a good amount of fat added to slow the effect on your blood sugar and adrenals. For each cup of coffee add 2 Tbsp. of grass fed butter and 1 Tbsp of coconut oil, blend for a minute in the blender. It makes a nice froth! Add a touch of raw honey or green stevia and serve. I still don’t recommend this for those in adrenal fatigue or those with gluten intolerance, but it’s a lot better when you add enough fat.

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