The pros and cons of coffee

photo: tyle_r / flickr

Coffee is something San Francisco holds near and dear to its heart. Its many boutique coffee shops make the ritual of coffee drinking a true pleasure.

One of the most common questions I get is, “What is your take on coffee?” Coffee can be a very emotional topic. People will either share that they drink it and cringe, tell me they will never give it up, or mention with pride they do not consume it. Tolerance of the chemicals in coffee like caffeine and theobromine varies from person to person.


Like anything we are exposed to or come in contact with, it is our liver’s job to break things down and clear them from our system. For some, genetic mutations affect their liver in such a manner that makes it more inefficient.

If there are defective or absent genes, caffeine can stay in the blood stream longer and lead to caffeine sensitivity or allergy symptoms.

The more we learn about genetics, the more we understand that they interact with our environment. Genes provide the framework much like the floor plan of a building. But depending on how you decorate and paint the walls, two identical floor plans can look very different. If we eat a healthful diet and supplement our personal deficiencies, our genes do not have to express the same way.

Naturally, as we age, our liver’s ability to detoxify becomes reduced and it behooves us to support this crucial organ. For liver support, incorporating foods and supplementation rich in B vitamins, folate, vitamins A and D, calcium, amino acids from protein, and antioxidants like vitamin C and E are important. Root vegetables like beets, parsnips and carrots are excellent food sources of liver supporting nutrients.


Beyond caffeine, coffee contains antioxidants and is actually the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet. Antioxidants scavenge the body looking for toxins that need to be eliminated. Coffee consumption has also been studied and found to have health benefits for a number of chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s.

Alertness and memory: Beyond the ritual and taste, alertness is the top reason people reach for a cup. Studies have supported coffee’s ability to increase reaction time, energy, mood, vigilance, memory, and general cognitive functions. These effects are because caffeine increases the brain chemicals, adrenaline and dopamine, involved in firing nerves faster.

Studies have also supported that coffee drinkers (drinking three to five cups per day) have 65 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Three to five cups per day may be excessive for many individuals.

Physical performance and weight loss: Due to the rise in adrenaline, the fight-or-flight chemical, your body is more focused on physical exertion than rest. Caffeine also sends signals to the body to release fat for fuel to burn. With these effects, people see on average an 11 to 12 percent increase in physical performance and 3 to 11 percent boost in metabolism.


There is no doubt that coffee has health benefits, but it can also lead people to become quite depleted. It is important to consistently check in with your body and enjoy coffee in moderation.

Acidity: Coffee is naturally a very acidic drink. The acidity can be a trigger for many affected by heartburn, indigestion, and acid reflux disease. This acidity compounded with an acidic diet can also put people at risk for chronic disease.

Poor sleep quality: The effects of caffeine can linger in the body for quite some time — research shows that the half-life is 5.7 hours. That means it takes 5.7 hours for normal healthy individuals to clear half of their caffeine intake from their system. Depending on each individual’s liver metabolism, this number can fluctuate.

Coffee as a drug: Coffee increases stimulatory brain chemicals like adrenaline and dopamine, giving it an incredible ability to increase alertness and energy. My concern for coffee consumption is when people use it to achieve “false energy” to get through the day. If you are consistently fatigued and reaching for a cup, you are overriding your body’s messages to slow down.

Adrenaline is a stress hormone and when we consistently push for more adrenaline and dopamine, we eventually become more depleted, leading to fatigue. The sensation of fatigue leads people to reach for another cup instead of listening to their body, causing a vicious cycle.

When we completely rely on coffee for energy, the withdrawal symptoms, including fatigue, low mood and headaches, can be quite uncomfortable. As with most addictive substances, your body can acclimate to your current dose and require you to need more to achieve the desired effect.

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Thalia Farshchian is a naturopathic doctor at Discover Health. E-mail: [email protected]