Is My Coffee Doing More Harm Than Good?
For most of us, sitting down with a hot beverage in the morning is a relished ritual. But, what we have in that cup can have a huge impact on our long-term health. Coffee has rose to the top as the star player- with the United States consuming it at a rate three times that of tea. It’s not uncommon for us to veer our patients away from consuming coffee, let’s look at the reasons.
First: A Crash Course in Understanding the Nature of Food.
In Chinese Medicine we use a similar lens as we do for looking at herbs. We look at its “nature”, which includes temperature and flavor. The temperature initially has an impact on our digestion, but since our food helps make our blood, it effects all of our body’s systems. The temperature is inherent to the food and not necessarily a reflection in simply it’s measured temperature after preparation. Food can be cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot in nature. For the most part, our digestion does well with warm, cooked foods, with some variation based on the season.
The five flavors are useful to assess how the food effects the movement by the substance in our body. The five flavors are: sweet, salty, sour, spicy or aromatic, and bitter. Each of these flavors, or combination there of, effects the movement of energy and substance in our body. Simply put:
- sweet tonifies, generates fluids and moistens
- salty softens hardness and purges accumulation
- sour astringes to help generate fluids
- spicy moves energy up and outwards and dries fluids
- bitter drains fluids and energy downward
Coffee: Fireball in a Cup.
Coffee is one of the hottest substances that people consume in their diet. The other big ones are processed sugar and hard alcohol. The nature of coffee is hot and bitter. The combination of the two also makes it drying on the body. We know this from a western standpoint as well; coffee is a diuretic and so is dehydrating.
What is the Impact that Acupuncturists notice?
Anyone that gets acupuncture knows that we use tongue and pulse to help with our diagnosis. With the tongue, we are looking at the color, shape, and the coat. For pulse, we feel for rate, quality, and width of the vessel. A quick way for someone to peak at how much heat is in their system is to look at the color of the tongue. A healthy tongue is a warm pink all over, demonstrating the temperature in the body as moderate- not too hot or too cold. When the body has too much heat, we see a redness appear. This can show up as the whole surface of the tongue and/or red edges and/or tip of the tongue. When the heat begins to dry up the fluids in the body, we start to see cracks on the tongue- what we refer to as Yin Deficiency. This happens more when the whole tongue appears red over a long period. When the sides/edges and/or the tip of the tongue are red, we observe that there is heat in the liver (for the side-edges), and/or heart (for the tip). There can be various causes for the build up of heat in the body, but for many coffee is a contributing factor.
In terms of pulse, the rate may be faster in coffee drinkers, but what is more common is the quality tends to be “wiry”, which feels like a guitar string when you push on it. The wiry quality happens when there is tension in the vessel, which is indicative of the blood not moving as smoothly as it should- often caused by stress, pain, or diet.
Health concerns impacted by coffee:
– fertility: we tell all of our women patients that are struggling with fertility to stop consuming coffee. The hot and drying effect on the body goes against the nourishing aspects that we are trying to support to build follicles and have a lush uterine lining.
– PMS: most woman who have experienced PMS have likely felt the agitation that comes with energy getting stuck in the body, resulting in heat building up. Coffee contributes to the stagnation and heat build up, causing more irritability.
– perimenopause and menopause: most symptoms of menopause are due to Yin Deficiency, or an overall drying of fluids and substances in the body that can result in further heat build up. We call this type of pattern Deficient Heat, because it’s the lack of fluids and substance that is leading to the heat sensations. As you can imagine, coffee only exasperates these symptoms and can cause Yin Deficiency with Heat over long-term use.
– mood disorders such as anxiety and irritability. Like all ailments in the body, there can be multiple causes. With anxiety and irritability, it is common for us to see a heat component contributing to the mood. Many of us have experienced the sensation of heat rising when we experience anger; irritability is a moderate version of this. Most people with anxiety experience an upwards feeling in their chest, and a busy mind; when there is heat in the body thoughts often quicken as well.
– insomnia: at night our energy needs to go inward and downward in order to achieve sleep. The heat of Coffee moves energy in the opposite directions, upward and outward.
– nightsweats and sweating in general: similarly, the upward and outward movement from the heat of coffee can contribute to the body pushing sweat outward at night, instead of brining the fluids inwards as is supposed to happen with sleep.
– dry conditions, such as dry eyes, skin, and cervical fluid: with the heat and draining effect of coffee on the body’s fluids, it make it that much harder for the body to moisten and nourish it’s skin, eyes, or even create cervical fluid.
– acne: especially when acne is red in nature, coffee contributes to this local heat and inflammation.
– adrenal fatigue: in Chinese Medicine we lump the adrenals in with the kidneys in their function. Combined, they are the batteries of the body; we view them poetically as the Water element in the body- holding and providing the Yin and deeper reserves of the body. Coffee uses this Water/Yin energy to create the energy boost. Looking through the western lens of how the body functions, we know that coffee pull on the adrenals to release adrenaline (which is what give us the energy boost). For anyone working to recover from the effects of long-term stress that has resulted in fatigue and anxiety, coffee will only inhibit that recovery.
– high blood pressure: when people have severe high blood pressure, you may start to notice the heat rising in their body, as it shows up on their face as a reddened complexion. The heat that the coffee provides only encourages this energy to rise even further. This rise in blood pressure has been directly observed in people.
What are the Alternatives?
So glad you asked! By all means, we do not want to deprive patients of their morning ritual with a hot beverage, and luckily there are alternatives. Let’s talk about tea!
- Black tea: neutral in nature, so does not have the same detrimental impact on the body, and is safe for women who are trying to conceive.
- Green tea: cooling in nature, so is not for everyone either. Women who are trying to conceive should avoid it because it can block folic acid absorption. But because it is cooling in nature, people who tend to run cold, and/or have poor digestion with bloating and/or loose stools, should generally avoid green tea too. Because it’s cooling in nature, it can be enjoyed by most in the summertime or when the weather is hot.
- Herbal tea: there’s SO MANY to choose from! In talking with patients, I’ve found (especially with younger people) that they are drinking coffee out of habit, and not necessarily because they are trying to wake up. For these folks, I recommend trying different herbal teas and go with something that you like.
- Rasa Koffee: this coffee substitute was developed by a nursing mom who wanted a tasty drink that would be nourishing for herself and her friends. Full of adaptogens, the drink provides sustainable energy that won’t deplete the system over time.
What About Decaf?
Unfortunately even though the caffeine has been removed, the nature of the drink remains very similar. If you’re dealing with any of the health concerns mentioned, best to avoid decaffeinated coffee as well.
Can I still have an Occasional Coffee?
Many find that when they are not consuming coffee on a regular basis that they notice it’s effects much more strongly. When we’re not drinking coffee daily we can use it when we truly need it, and it’s more likely to give it’s desired effect and with occasional use our body can more easily recover. Maybe we’re driving a long distance and feel sleepy; maybe we’re traveling for work and need to get on East Coast time for a presentation. In these situations, when you’re not consuming coffee regularly, start with a small cup and drink it slowly so that you do not overdue it.
Whatever the situation- occasional use is fine for most people; but if the need for use is ongoing it’s best to address the underlying problem (usually fatigue) to truly overcome the need.
-Deanna Tasi, L.Ac.
Tao to Wellness Acupuncture Wellness Center
For an appointment with Deanna, click here.