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Is coffee a health food?

With the morning getting colder and the nights getting darker wrapping your hands around a steaming mug of coffee or tea is one of my favourite simple pleasures. It seems it might be my clients too and I keep getting asked if the caffeine in these drinks has any health effects we should know about?

As you know I don’t believe in labelling anything absolutely ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in nutrition and diving in to nutritional science can help us to make informed decisions about the food and drinks we enjoy.

What even is caffeine?

Caffeine is a naturally occurring plant compound, which is thought to be the plants in built insect repellent and herbicide. It is also one of our most commonly consumed stimulants worldwide and is well known for its effects on our wakefulness, focus and concentration.

Once consumed, caffeine is rapidly absorbed into our bloodstream and starts to have an effect just 15 – 20 minutes later. How long those stimulatory effects last varies significantly from person to person, but can be anywhere between 2-8+ hours. This difference lies in our liver detoxification enzyme capability, some people are slow metabolisers (me!) so may feel the effects quite rapidly and feel a bit too ‘buzzy’. Others are fast metabolisers and can seemingly consume a few cups of coffee with little affect.

What are the health benefits of caffeine?

There are a few:

  • The pleasure we get from drinking it, there is often an enjoyable ritual in making and drinking a cup of tea or coffee

  • Helping us to get going in the morning, maintaining focus and concentration at work, or keeping us awake on late-night drives

  • Caffeine-containing drinks, including coffee, black tea, green tea and even cocoa, for example, also may contain relatively high amounts of health-boosting polyphenols. This is where the good stuff comes in!

  • Polyphenols, antioxidants we can eat and are found in particularly high concentrations in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, tea, coffee, spices, dark chocolate and red wine. Hence why I am all about eating a rainbow of fruit and vegetables. Polyphenols are reported to have a host of benefits including the possible role in the prevention of some cardiovascular disease, neurological diseases and perhaps even diabetes.

  • Caffeine consumption has also been linked to a possible decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease in some people

  • Green tea may has shown benefit in reducing heart disease and stroke risk.

What are the downsides of caffeine?

There are a few scenarios where caffeine may be best avoided:

  • If you suffer from anxiety or panic, the physical symptoms of caffeine consumption (such as nervousness, palpitations, irritability or stomach upsets) can sometimes make your worry feel worse. It may be better to cut right down on caffeine in these instances. It’s one of the first things that may be recommended to clients who are particularly struggling with worry and poor sleep.

  • On the topic of sleep, caffeine actually bocks receptors in our brain which tell us when we are tired. While in theory that may sound like a great thing, it means we often don’t rest when we need to and end up overexerting ourselves leading to increase stress which has its own set of health implications. Any caffeine consumption, even first thing in the morning, could be having an impact on your sleep. Caffeine has a half life of 6 hours so that afternoon coffee could be negatively impacting your sleep that night.

  • Habitual caffeine consumption may lead to a certain amount of tolerance; you may end up needing a bigger ‘hit’ to get the same energising effects. This can be a particularly vicious circle for those suffering from fatigue; the more tired you feel, the more you reach for a caffeine boost – which eventually increases your tolerance and means you need even more caffeine to feel ‘normal’

  • If you are planning pregnancy or are currently pregnant, national guidelines recommend that you avoid consuming more than 200mg caffeine per day, as high caffeine consumption has been potentially linked to an increased risk of miscarriage, having a baby with a low birth weight and preterm birth. For more information on this;

A word of caution

If you are used to drinking a large amount of coffee/caffeine, don’t cut it out in one go. Dramatically cutting down caffeine can trigger headaches and significant fatigue in many people and even more so in those prone to migraines or frequent headaches. It is therefore recommended than anyone considering reducing their caffeine intake should cut down consumption slowly (by around 1 cup/day every 4-5 days), rather than trying to go ‘cold turkey’.

Over all moderation is key when it comes to caffeine; 1-3 cups of coffee or 2-4 cups of tea (perhaps including some green tea) a day is a sensible caffeine intake for most people. Some people can tolerate more than this, some people less. As always, there’s no single ‘rule’ for everyone. Have a play around to work out what suits you.

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