Coffee is the magic elixir that keeps America humming. Before indoor plumbing was available and potable water was everywhere, Americans drank beer for breakfast and all through the day, resulting in a slow start to our nation’s prosperity.
Then the coffee bean was discovered in the 1800s. Caffeine and coffee replaced alcohol and beer and the industrial revolution was off to a great start. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Internet boom and technology revolution started at the same time as Starbucks. It helped America focus!
It is certainly why I started on coffee during medical school. Everyone else was doing it, and it seemed a great way to help me cram for anatomy and biochemistry exams. But I quickly noticed a droop every afternoon: my brain shut down, my eyes became heavy and I could only “cure” it through another cup of coffee.
During my emergency room days I would power up with a quadruple espresso and work from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Just like a drug addict, I needed more and more just to stay barely functional. My sleep was difficult, more interrupted and less restful, and I woke tired and need my “fix” of java.
So I decided to “detox” and kick my drug habit. After a few days of headache and total exhaustion, I felt renewed energy, woke up alert and ready to embrace the day, and felt steady energy all day long. My sleep deepened, and the low-grade irritability and anxiety I felt disappeared. I realized I was living on borrowed energy.
The truth is that not everyone responds to caffeine the same way. Some metabolize coffee differently than others. Our detoxification pathways are genetically determined. That is why some people have one cup in the morning and can’t sleep for days and others can have a double espresso after dinner and hit the pillow and fall into deep sleep.
The gene involved is called CYP1A2. You can get a lab test to find out if you have trouble detoxifying. The good news is some may be better than others at tolerating caffeine and may be able to enjoy that coffee.
But there are many reasons for us to take a second look at our national coffee habit and obsession. Americans sleep about 1.5 hours less a night than 100 years ago, at great detriment to our cognitive function and health.
Coffee has a lot to do this with the wide-ranging health impact of sleep deprivation on our health, including heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer. To learn more about this link read, Lights Out, Sleep, Sugar and Survival.
There are some benefits of coffee. Coffee is the single biggest source of antioxidants in the American diet. Researchers claim it can prevent Parkinson’s and ward off Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, and depression. It can help with focusing and reading and may make you more productive.
So why don’t we just put it in our water supply?
- First, coffee is a drug. And using it recreationally is certainly fine, or for the occasional pick me up when you just couldn’t get enough sleep. But there is a dark side of coffee and caffeine.
- It is addictive. It requires you to drink more and more to get the same “high” and eventually is needed just to feel “normal.” Headaches, exhaustion, and other biological signs of withdrawal put it clearly in the camp of addictive drugs.
- It stimulates the release of dopamine, which helps us focus, pay attention, and remember. But it depletes those neurotransmitters over time and loses its effectiveness.
- It stimulates the release of stress hormones including adrenalin and cortisol. This may lead to palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, and even spikes in blood sugar and insulin.
- It increases homocysteine (increasing risk for heart disease, depression, cancer, and dementia) and depletes vitamins and causes mineral loss, including magnesium the relaxation mineral.
- It causes urinary excretion of calcium and contributes to osteoporosis.
- It can cause diarrhea, reflux and heartburn.
- It may interact with common medications such as Tylenol, causing liver damage.
- Coffee increases risk of stillbirths and iron deficiency in mothers and babies.
Occasional use of addictive legal drugs such as alcohol, sugar, or caffeine cause no harm, but regular, habitual use and addiction may cause significant risk. But more importantly, it has a negative effect on the quality of life for many who drink it — they sleep poorly and are more tired and irritable and anxious.
For something that is supposed to give you more energy, it usually offers only a brief lift with increasingly diminishing returns. The surprising thing many former coffee drinkers discover is that they have more energy, not less, when they finally kick the habit. Try a drug holiday — you might be surprised at the lift you get, much better than coffee.
This blog is Dr. Hyman’s side of a debate posted 9.19.12 on Huffington Post. Please click here to read the other side.
Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below – but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD