May 8, 2015 Updated: May 8, 2015

Millions of people drink coffee as a daily ritual for that extra boost to jumpstart their day. Many of us know the obvious that for some people coffee can make them irritable, cause heartburn, and lead to sleep problems while for others they feel alert and at their best drinking coffee.  I have come across a number of findings about coffee that I thought to add to the brew, facts that most of us do not know about coffee and that might influence our coffee-drinking habits.  It is a curious mix as there are anti- and pro-drinking arguments made in the literature and one that can lead to some confusion.

On the anti-drinking or at least drinking in moderation side, coffee over time can limit nutrition absorption. Nutrients are absorbed by projections in our small intestines called villi and these villi can actually become damaged with excess coffee drinking. Rebecca Wood, in her book, The Whole Foods Encyclopedia, reports that deficiencies have been found in B vitamins, calcium, and other minerals in heavy drinkers.  Vitamin B1 is especially important in times of stress.

Iron absorption also is decreased by caffeine and potassium lost through the diuretic effects of caffeine. Iron is required for the production of red blood cells and is part of hemoglobin that delivers oxygen throughout the body. Potassium plays a major role in muscle contraction and nerve transmission. While coffee itself reportedly contains nutrients, they are not absorbed well with corrosion of the villi.

Rebecca Wood also reports that coffee may interfere with drug metabolism and the liver’s detoxification function. Coffee’s acids can break down stored fats in the liver, which can make us feel irritable and anxious. The acids in coffee also can cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut since they thrive in an acidic environment. This condition known as dysbiosis can lead to gastro-intestinal and other problems.

Rebecca Wood reports that adding a pinch of salt to a cup of coffee can reduce its acidity.  I am not a coffee drinker so there is nothing to report on the taste front, but I would be curious to hear from adventurers. Sally Fallon in her book, Nourishing Traditions, points out that since coffee has a bitter taste, adding bitter vegetables to the diet can cut down on coffee cravings.  Again, no harm experimenting if you are considering cutting down on coffee.  Fallon is very much against coffee-drinking and believes that prolonged use of caffeine can lead to a number of serious conditions, such as cancer, bone loss, mental disorders, and birth defects. She also reports caffeine’s effects on the nervous system are most pronounced in children, especially in light of all the caffeine-containing cola they drink.  Sally Fallon leaves her discussion of caffeine with a thought-provoking comment – “It has been said that if coffee were introduced as a new drug today, it would not receive FDA approval.”

Other findings reported by the Mayo Clinic suggest that coffee increases blood pressure and blood sugar levels.  In terms of blood pressure, while dramatic, the effects are short-lived, but over time can maintain higher levels of blood pressure.  This effect may not occur for people who develop a tolerance to coffee. On the other hand, habituation to caffeine appears to decrease insulin sensitivity so that more sugar remains in our blood, which over time can lead to deterioration of our arteries and increased risk of mortality related to cardiovascular disease.  In terms of blood sugar levels, most people drinking two cups of coffee a day are unaffected by blood sugar levels. If you already have diabetes, however, the impact of caffeine on insulin action may be associated with higher or lower blood sugar levels. Caffeine affects people differently.

Another concern of coffee drinking is that it can elevate our stress hormones and tax our adrenal glands. Not only do cortisol levels increase, but insulin levels rise as well, leading to inflammation and sometimes just not feeling good.  Adrenal fatigue can make us feel very tired and at the same time lead to trouble sleeping at night. 

The oils in coffee also have been found to blood cholesterol. In the Tromso Heart Study, for example, with a population of over fourteen thousand men and women, coffee consumption was positively associated with levels of total cholesterol and triglycerides in both sexes.  In women, there was an association between decreasing HDL cholesterol levels and coffee consumption. 

In terms of types of coffee, Rebecca Wood discusses some of the problems with drinking decaffeinated coffee. For one thing, caffeine is removed with a solvent that leaves chemical residues.  Water extraction methods to decaffeinate coffee make it more acidic, which can lead to intestinal problems.  There are other strong stimulants in coffee other than caffeine that that are not removed in the decaffeination process. Instant coffee is typically higher in caffeine and chemically processed.  Organic coffee is most favored and free of chemical residues.

While these findings are may lead us to question the benefits of coffee drinking, more and more studies are emerging on the potential benefits of moderate coffee drinking in disease prevention. Coffee has been found to reduce the risk of diseases such as Type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and liver and colorectal cancer. Personally, if I felt uncomfortable with some of the everyday detrimental effects that coffee could have on my body, I might opt for a healthy diet and exercise to reduce disease risk.  There is so much research showing the role of diet and exercise as a preventative.  Again, this is a personal choice and I would love to hear from readers their thinking on coffee as it relates to health problems and disease prevention.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food.”- Hippocrates