Caffeine

It only makes sense to follow a post about sleep with a post about caffeine, right? I personally am a huge fan of coffee. It started during undergrad when my friend Mallory turned me on to white chocolate mochas at the student center coffee shop and it’s all been downhill from there.

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Cafe latte in Paris last year!

Let me start by pointing out that there are two types of people out there: people who are considered fast metabolizers of caffeine and people who are slow metabolizers. And there’s actually a genetic difference between the two. You can get your DNA tested, or you can answer some simple questions and get a pretty good idea of which you are.

  • Does a cup of coffee make you jittery?
  • Do you still feel the effects several hours later?
  • If you have a latte at 4pm are you still too wired to sleep once bedtime rolls around?
  • Have you ever had a piece of dark chocolate right before bed and had trouble falling asleep?

If you feel the answer is yes to more than one of these questions you might be a slow caffeine metabolizer. It takes your liver longer to process the caffeine and flush it out of your body (up to 9 hours!) than it would a fast metabolizer who can have a post-dinner espresso and have no trouble sleeping through the night.

But what does caffeine actually do? Basically, caffeine inhibits molecules that would typically act like dampers on the central nervous system, preventing our body’s natural calming mechanisms from helping us to unwind and relax.

Coffee, tea, and dark chocolate are all sources of caffeine and also happen to be great sources of antioxidants. Soda also provides caffeine, but I’m hoping you don’t drink those anymore. No antioxidants in those, no health benefits. Just sugar.

There are all sorts of articles available around the internet about the health benefits of different types of tea, particularly green tea and it’s component EGCG. Coffee has great benefits too though and because it contains so much more caffeine than tea it’ll be the primary focus of the rest of this post.

Some studies say that Americans actually get most of their antioxidants from coffee, but I think that’s more of a comment on our population’s lack of fruit and vegetable intake than the antioxidant content of coffee. But coffee contains lots of important minerals, such as magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and manganese and several B vitamins as well.

Some benefits of coffee include:

  • Seemingly protective effects against liver disease and certain cancers
  • Increased longevity – regular coffee drinkers are 15% less likely to die prematurely
  • Coffee improves cognitive function, increasing alertness and mood
  • It has also been associated with a decreased chance of developing Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s
  • It improves athletic performance by increasing heart rate and relaxing airways, allowing more oxygen to enter the body and help create energy. It also increases fatty acid mobilization, helping to fuel activity.
  • While high doses of caffeine does temporarily decrease insulin sensitivity and our ability to tolerate glucose rich foods, coffee consumption is associated with an overall 35% decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

It can be tough to consume too much caffeine from the more ‘natural’ sources of tea or coffee – it would require drinking 75 cups of coffee for the caffeine to reach a toxic level in our body. Caffeine pills and energy drinks are a different story though.

Some of the less fun aspects of caffeine include

  • The fact that we can build a tolerance to it and then experience withdrawal when we miss our daily dose.
  • It can disturb sleep if consumed too close to bedtime. Most recommendations are to avoid it within 6 hours of bedtime. I find that lunch is the latest that I can safely drink it.
  • Coffee is rich in omega-6 fatty acids. That might seem like a good thing, but omega-6s are over-consumed these days because of all of the vegetable oils used in processed foods. We actually need more omega-3s in our diets to balance the omega-6s out.
  • Unfiltered coffee (such as from a French press) actually contains a compound that seems to raise LDL cholesterol (the bad one). Simply using a brewing method that involves a filter appears to prevent this though.
  • Caffeine intake has been associated with miscarriage during early pregnancy. Recommendations for pregnant women are to limit caffeine to 200 mg of caffeine a day (about 12 ounces of coffee or 4-10 5-oz cups of tea, depending on tea type and steeping time).

Interestingly, slow caffeine metabolizers seem to be more susceptible to the negative effects of caffeine. There’s a higher association with miscarriage, higher blood pressure, and non-fatal heart attacks in slow metabolizers than in fast. And fast metabolizers may actually benefit more from the good aspects of coffee.

So what’s my personal, coffee-loving, opinion on the matter? Well first off, don’t start drinking coffee if you don’t already just for these health associations. You can get similar benefits from a healthy diet. But if you are a coffee drinker, 1-3 cups per day seems most beneficial.

Also watch your additives – sugar and artificial sweeteners still aren’t good for you. Those sugary Starbucks drinks are more dessert than caffeine. I don’t think a splash of milk or cream will hurt you, but if you go for the higher fat half-and-half or cream leave it at just a splash so it doesn’t become a significant source of saturated fat or calories in your diet.

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Hey, we’re all unique. The information on this blog isn’t a substitute for individualized advice from a healthcare professional. Check with your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle.


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