Grab a cup and let’s talk about coffee

When I first start with new nutrition clients, most of them are extremely concerned about my taking away their cup of coffee. Their fear is literally in the air when they first sit down with me. It’s like they are worried I will take their life line away. When I ask if they drink coffee - without any intention of judgement - there are usually immediate excuses: yes, but I keep it low calorie with skim milk; yes, but I don’t use sugar, I use Equal or Stevia to sweeten it.

These things are never my major concern. Instead, I want to know about coffee intake to determine how their weight gain and energy levels can possibly be effected by the caffeine. Once I actually start to explain the hormone response to coffee, their eyes get all big - and sometimes teary - because they know that they should give it up… but just can’t. Let me start to explain from the beginning:

What do we use coffee for?

Most people will use coffee as an energy source. It gives us a boost in energy to wake us up in the morning, so we can get out of bed and on with our lives. Throughout the day, you may feel the need for extra boosts, and stop by your favorite cafe for a quick fix. However, the energy level is never long term. You spike your energy level up, then it crashes back down, putting you in need for your next cup of coffee.

Often enough, a cup of coffee is our only downtime from daily stress. So many people tell me that the walk to the cafe to get their coffee is the only time they get to themselves to just forget about work or life. That cup of coffee, the smell, the warmth, is the one moment in their hectic life they just get to themselves. In this case it has nothing to do with getting more energy, but actually giving your nervous system a break and some downtime.

The last reason I see people use coffee, is as a food substitute. When people struggle with food in any way (the calories, the sugar, the fat, whatever your emotional reason may be), they use coffee to get an energy boost instead of real, nutritious food. Coffee can substitute entire meals for some people, letting them run all day without any real food intake. A lot of women use this method to lose weight or maintain weight loss. Of course this can’t last forever, and after some time we start to get cravings for all the foods we are avoiding, starting a whole other cycle of problems.

Our body's stress response

I have written before about the stress response in our body, and how our brain is wired. When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks in the fight or flight response. Traditionally this was used to run away from danger or fight in case this was necessary. In today’s world, however, we hardly ever have real danger… but our body perceives a fight with our partner, an overflowing inbox or a demanding boss as immediate danger, triggering our stress response.

Adrenalin - our immediate stress response

We have 2 stress hormones in our body. The first one to react to stress is adrenalin. It’s the one that kicks in when you have to meet a deadline or when you are trying to avoid a traffic accident. Adrenalin works quickly, and then takes a while to get out of your system and reset. Usually some kind of physical activity is needed to eliminate adrenalin from the system, like running away from danger - or exercising. In a good world, we don’t need adrenalin often, only in very serious, dangerous situations.

For most of us, that is not what the world looks like though. We are constantly stressed, everything is a battle and causes an adrenalin response. Very quickly we burn through all the adrenalin we have available in our body, which causes adrenal fatigue - a very popular term these days.

Cortisol - our long term stress hormone

When adrenalin is used up, our second stress hormone takes over: cortisol. This is our long term stress hormone that helps us endure our daily stress level for weeks, months, even years. Most of us do not run on adrenalin anymore, but we are already in the cortisol zone. Cortisol was traditionally only used by our bodies during war, when food was scarce and people didn’t know whether they would survive the next day. It’s a hormone that lets you survive on as little sleep as possible, and that stores all the food you eat in case you need to starve again afterwards. Can you guess what that means for our modern life? We are constantly stressed by everything, yet we have all the food we could possible want available to us at any given time. When we eat it, it will go straight into storage (meaning fat deposits), because our body doesn’t understand that the next muffin or sandwich are just around the corner. On top of that, cortisol causes muscle protein to break down, doubling the effect of gaining more fat deposits and more weight. Other “side effects” of too much cortisol are a lowered immune system, less bone formation (long term causing osteoporosis), problems with fertility, and restless sleep.

In summary, long term stress lets us feel more stressed, tired, exhausted, and we keep putting on more weight.

What does coffee have to do with the stress response?

Coffee is a stimulant, therefore it causes the exact same stress response as your other daily stresses. You are artificially stressing your body with every cup you drink, when your only intention was to wake you up enough to drag yourself to your stressful job. Instead, coffee causes a cortisol stress response, triggering your body into putting on weight and crashing with low energy. It’s a vicious cycle of stress causing us to drink more coffee, which in turn causes even more stress on the body. To break this cycle, the inevitable has to happen: you have to let go of that cup of coffee. Of course there will always be studies that show some kind of health benefit of one or two cups of coffee a day. None of these, however, take into consideration your hormonal stress response and the long term effects these can have on your health.