To Drink or Not to Drink That Next Cup of Joe

Coffee – most people drink it, but it’s gotten some bad press over the years. How can something natural be bad? Well, it might not be bad in every situation in the most natural forms. In fact, new research shows that this beverage can even ward off certain types of cancer. For you coffee drinkers out there who are thinking this is the best news since man walked the moon, keep reading: coffee is still linked with negative health consequences and its consumption requires a heaping dose of moderation!

Positive Press

Liver protection is one of the most recent health benefits attributed to coffee. Several recently published studies[1],[2],[3] confirm the same result: drinking this beloved beverage lowers one’s risk of developing liver cancer. Coffee’s protective effect was evident even in those dealing with active liver damage, such as that caused by hepatitis or alcoholism, both of which raise the risk of liver cancer.

This liver research offers a nice segue into the topic of individuality. For example, while you may toss and turn all night after one cup of coffee, your friend, who drank two cups, sleeps like a baby. This is because caffeine’s effects are different for each person.29 In fact, for some people, the effects of caffeine can last up to 20 hours.29 Jacob Schor, a naturopathic doctor in Denver, explains the liver cancer angle like this:

“People who aren’t able to tolerate coffee have slow Phase I liver detoxification pathways. Having a lower capacity to break down toxic chemicals may put these people at greater risk to develop cancer. On the other hand, coffee induces Phase I liver pathways and over time increase one’s capacity to break down these toxic chemicals[4] and provides protection. Thus, non-coffee drinkers may have an aversion to coffee due to genetic factors making them less able to tolerate it. Regular drinkers receive protection from coffee both by having liver function stimulated and from innate anti-cancer effects of chemicals in the coffee.”

Two known anti-cancer nutrients found in coffee include cafestol and kahweol.[5] Besides liver protection, a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2005 found decaffeinated coffee reduced the risk of rectal cancer.[6]

An additional action behind coffee’s positive effects comes from its antioxidant nutrients, which protect the body from oxidative damage, believed to be the underlying cause of everything from cancer to aging. Clinical investigation has found coffee to have as much or even more antioxidant activity than green tea.[7] Chlorogenic acids (CGAs) are the most abundant types of antioxidants in coffee and have been shown to support healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels as well.[8],[9],[10],[11]

Even the caffeine in coffee appears to have benefits. A reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease has been linked with coffee and other caffeinated beverages. The researchers are not sure the mode of action but suggest that caffeine may protect the brain and nervous system.[12] Other studies suggest that caffeine may protect against neurodegeneration in such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease[13],[14] and dementias.[15] Caffeine has also been shown to improve lung function in asthmatics for at least four hours.[16]

The final benefit we’ll discuss is well understood in the java-drinking community – heightened brain function.[17] When dragging their heels, not able to think clearly or needing to stay awake, many people turn to coffee. The jolt of energy from the caffeine gives a jump-start to the nervous system, perking up the senses, sparking memory, and revving the stress hormone engines.

As desirable as some of these benefits are, coffee drinking does raise some concerns.

Issue Number 1 – Caffeine

Caffeine has a stimulatory effect on the nervous system.[18],[19] The body senses the increased nerve activity and releases the stress hormone adrenaline to put out the fire. Adrenaline is produced by the adrenal glands, which are two, small, often overworked glands that respond and deal with any stress we encounter – whether it is from a cold, running late to work, or the loss of a pet. Adrenaline speeds the heart rate, tightens muscles, and causes the release of sugar into the bloodstream for extra energy and the short-lived “lift”– basically getting ready to “fight or flee.” This agitating effect is why caffeine is discouraged for those already dealing with higher levels of anxiety, since it can exacerbate symptoms.[20]

Once the coffee rush wears off, those with too much wear and tear on their adrenals tend to feel lousy, which may prompt them to drink more coffee! And the whole cycle starts all over again. This can contribute to what is called adrenal burnout, which can lead to symptoms of difficulty getting up in the morning, general fatigue, PMS, memory issues, mood swings, headaches, insomnia, and allergies.[21],[22] Caffeine also functions as a diuretic and accelerates mineral loss.[23] This stimulant also appears to worsen PMS symptoms.[24],[25]

Blanket statements about how much caffeine is acceptable or damaging to health are hard to make since each person’s response is different.29 Variables to consider are gender, weight, age, stress level, general health, metabolic rate, genetic factors, and medications.[26] Depending on the amount of coffee, the variety of coffee, the roast, and how it is made, a cup of coffee can impart anywhere from 30 to 300 mg of caffeine.[27] The best way to determine the effects of caffeine is through personal evaluation.

Issue Number 2 – Addiction

There is a difference between wanting coffee and needing coffee (caffeine). The latter is a sign of addiction. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you feel you “cannot function” until your morning cup of brew or strong tea?
  • Do you need a caffeinated pick-me-up in the middle of day to keep the engines firing?
  • Do you rely on caffeinated beverages to move your bowels?
  • Does your brain feel fuzzy or cloudy without caffeine?
  • Do you experience withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, constipation, and irritability, if you go without caffeine for a day or two?
  • Do you have a persistent desire for the beverage, or have you been unsuccessful at efforts to cut down or control your use?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, there is a good chance you are a coffeeholic! Look at it this way: the stressful yo-yo effect of caffeine often blinds one to the real, underlying problem. For instance, if you need an energy boost, it’s likely due to nutrient insufficiencies, allergic reactions, or a lack of sleep – not a caffeine deficiency! Covering up the problem with the stimulation of caffeine complicates and compounds the problem.

Issue Number 3 – Growing and Processing

Coffee often contains an abundance of pesticide residues, nitrosamines, solvents, and other possibly carcinogenic compounds.[28] In fact, it has been suggested that coffee is the most heavily pesticide-laden food or beverage.[29],[30] Fortunately, conscientious growers are producing organic varieties without the use of these harsh chemicals. Another source of undesirable contaminants, such as ethyl acetate, methylene chloride, and trichloroethylene,[31] is the solvent-based decaffeination process. But, decaffeination can also be accomplished with the Swiss Water process, which is 100% chemical-free.

Before You Pour that Next Cup of Joe….

When all is said and done, you still can enjoy your java, but there are some guidelines to consuming this beverage in the most healthful way possible.

  1. If you drink caffeinated coffee, be sure you don’t need It may take up to seven days to “decaffeinate” the body[32] and even longer to re-establish hormone balance.[33] If addiction is present, back off the bean slowly by drinking less and less, mixing in decaffeinated coffee and supporting the body through adequate nutrition.
  2. To ensure that addiction does not develop, limit coffee intake to one to two cups (6 to 8 oz) per day. For many people, consuming it more as a treat every two or three days is best. However, research suggests that it may be prudent for those with liver concerns to drink more. Take a caffeine-break with a week or more off every few months to be sure you can easily do without.
  3. Use only organic varieties to reduce your intake of undesirable contaminants.
  4. Use Swiss Water decaffeinated varieties with or instead of caffeinated varieties and avoid all solvent-decaffeinated brands.
  5. Rotate or mix a healthful coffee substitute into your coffee-drinking routine, such as Pero®, Teeccino®, Kaffree Roma™, Dandy Blend™ or Cafix®. These tasty caffeine-free coffee alternatives are usually made from some combination of barley, dandelion and/or chicory-root. They are good to help reverse or prevent a caffeine addiction.
  6. Use the herbal sweeteners stevia and lo han instead of refined sugar or artificial sweeteners. If you use cream, opt for the real deal, and organic.

As with most aspects of nutrition, individuality is paramount and coffee consumption is no different. In excess, caffeine can cause problems, but an excess to one person may not be excessive to another. Coffee clearly has some healthful properties, but its use should be intentional, rather than addiction driven. Evaluate your response, monitor your intake, and reverse any level of addiction. When you sit back with your deliberately chosen cup of joe, you can do it with a peace of mind and confidence that you are nourishing yourself.

Shopping For Coffee

Fair Trade Certified™ – This certification aims to achieve greater social equality by setting standards that protect the prices paid to farmers, prohibits child and forced labor, prohibits discrimination, and supports community development. It does offer some limits on the use of agrochemicals and GMOs, although not as extensively as organic.

Rainforest Alliance Certified – More specifically focused on the environmental impact of growing coffee, this certifies that growers are taking measures to improve the soil, reduce chemical use, maintain or improve tree cover and protect wildlife, provide workers with a decent wage and respect the rights of the local peoples and community.

USDA Organic – Use of this label requires that no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers have been used and requires a buffer between the organic coffee plants and any other crops not grown organically.

Shade-Grown – This term indicates that the coffee plants were grown under a canopy of trees, which is how coffee plants traditionally grow, instead of on modern coffee plantations. Shade-grown coffee produces higher yields and a reduced dependence on synthetic chemicals. Using this traditional growing method helps to preserves forest and forest-like habitats–especially important to protect migratory and local birds, which is why this growing method is sometimes referred to as “bird friendly”. Contact companies using this claim to verify the percentage of shade grown; 70-100% is considered ideal.


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[2] Shimazu T, Tsubono Y, Kuriyama S, Ohmori K, Koizumi Y, Nishino Y, Shibuya D, Tsuji I. Coffee consumption and the risk of primary liver cancer: pooled analysis of two prospective studies in Japan. Int J Cancer. 2005 Aug 10;116(1):150-4

[3] Inoue M, Yoshimi I, Sobue T, Tsugane S; JPHC Study Group. Influence of coffee drinking on subsequent risk of hepatocellular carcinoma: a prospective study in Japan. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Feb 16;97(4):293-300.

[4] Huber WW, Prustomersky S, Delbanco E, Uhl M, Scharf G, Turesky RJ, Thier R, Schulte-Hermann R. Enhancement of the chemoprotective enzymes glucuronosyl transferase and glutathione transferase in specific organs of the rat by the coffee components kahweol and cafestol. Arch Toxicol. 2002 May;76(4):209-17. Epub 2002 Apr 4

[5] Cavin C, Holzhaeuser D, Scharf G, Constable A, Huber WW, Schilter B. Cafestol and kahweol, two coffee specific diterpenes with anticarcinogenic activity.  Food Chem Toxicol. 2002 Aug;40(8):1155-63

[6] Michels KB, Willett WC, Fuchs CS, Giovannucci E. Coffee, tea, and caffeine consumption and incidence of colon and rectal cancer.  J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Feb 16;97(4):282-92.

[7] Comparison of the antioxidant activity of commonly consumed polyphenolic beverages (coffee, cocoa, and tea) prepared per cup serving. Richelle M, Tavazzi I, Offord E. J Agric Food Chem.  2001 Jul;49(7):3438-42.

[8] Ong KW, Hsu, Tan BK. Chlorogenic acid stimulates glucose transport in skeletal muscle via AMPK activation: a contributor to the beneficial effects of coffee on diabetes. PLoS One. 2012;7(3):e32718.

[9] Ong KW, Hsu A, Tan BK. Anti-diabetic and anti-lipidemic effects of chlorogenic acid are mediated by ampk activation. Biochem Pharmacol. 2013;85(9):1341-1351.

[10] Johnston KL, Clifford MN, Morgan LM. Coffee acutely modified gastrointestinal hormone secretion and glucose tolerance in humans: glycemic effects of chlorogenic acid and caffeine. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003. 78(4):728-733.

[11] Kozuma K, Tsuchiya S, Kohori J, Hase T, Tokimitsu I. Antihypertensive effect of green coffee bean extract on mildly hypertensive subject. Hypertens Res. 2005;28(9):711-8.

[12] G. Webster Ross, MD; Robert D. Abbott, PhD; Helen Petrovitch, MD; David M. Morens Association of Coffee and Caffeine Intake With the Risk of Parkinson Disease. JAMA. 2000;283:2674-2679.

[13] Lindsay J, Laurin D, Verreault R, Hebert R, Helliwell B, Hill GB, McDowell I. Risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease: a prospective analysis from the Canadian Study of Health and Aging. Am J Epidemiol.  2002 Sep 1;156(5):445-53

[14] Does caffeine intake protect from Alzheimer’s disease? Maia L, de Mendonca A. Eur J Neurol.  2002 Jul;9(4):377-82.

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[17] Jarvis MJ. Does caffeine enhance absolute levels of cognitive performance? Psychopharmacology (Berl) 1993;110(1–2):45–52.

[18] Weiss B, Laties VG. Enhancement of human performance by caffeine and the amphetamines. Pharmacol Rev 1962:14:1–36.

[19] Cherniske, Stephen, M.S. Caffeine Blues. Warner Books. 1998.

[20] Bruce M et al. Anxiogenic effects of caffeine in patients with anxiety disorders. Arch Gen Psychiatry 1992;49:867–9.

[21] Wilson, James, N.D., D.C. PhD. Adrenal Fatigue. The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Smart Publications. 2002

[22] Schwarzbein, Diana, M.D. The Schwarzbein Principle II. Health Communications, Inc. 2002.

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[24] Rossignol AM, Zhang J, Chen Y, Xiang Z. Tea and premenstrual syndrome in the People’s Republic of China. Am J Public Health 1989;79:67–6.

[25] Rossignol AM. Caffeine-containing beverages and premenstrual syndrome in young women. Am J Public Health 1985;75(11):1335–7.

[26] Cherniske, Stephen, M.S. Caffeine Blues. Warner Books. 1998. pg. 51

[27] Cherniske, Stephen, M.S. Caffeine Blues. Warner Books. 1998. pg. 27-28

[28] World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer. Coffee, Tea, Mate, Methylaxanthines, and Methylgloxal. International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Evaluation of Carcinogen Risks in Humans. 1991;51:1-153.

[29] Hollingworth HL. The influence of caffeine on mental and motor efficiency. Arch Psychol 1912;20:1–66.

[30] Cherniske, Stephen, M.S. Caffeine Blues. Warner Books. 1998. pg. 17


[32] R. N. Warren. Metabolism of Xanthine Alkaloids in Man. Journal of Chromatography, 1969; 40:468-69.

[33] Cherniske, Stephen, M.S. Caffeine Blues. Warner Books. 1998. pg. 21

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