Caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive substance. Yet it is legal, unregulated and found abundantly in products such as coffee, tea, soft drinks (particularly energy drinks) and chocolate. As well as some prescription and non-prescription drugs, such as cold, allergy and pain medication.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, caffeine can have some health benefits, mainly due to its antioxidant and polyphenol capacity. However, these same antioxidants and polyphenols can also be found abundantly in many fruits and vegetables.
So, caffeine, as with so many things, is fine in moderation. But why should we limit it? The main reason is that caffeine increases cortisol production, and cortisol is the body’s master stress hormone; it curbs functions that would be non-essential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. While some stress is good, 4 or 5 cups of stress a day for life is not so good.
Overexposure to cortisol and the other stress hormones that follow can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including:
- Anxiety and depression
The complex natural alarm system that cortisol is part of communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear. Disrupting one part will disrupt the others.
- Sleep problems
As melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep–wake cycles) and cortisol are oppositional, if one is out of balance it will put the other out of balance.
- Decreased sex hormone production
As well as cortisol the adrenals are also responsible for producing sex hormones. Increased cortisol production results in the down regulation of sex hormone production, which may contribute to problems with fertility and libido.
- Digestive problems
Caffeine can increase stomach acid for up to 4 hours, and causes a rise in cortisol which increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream. This can impact blood sugar balance resulting in sugar cravings and increased belly fat.
- Impeded absorption of nutrients
Caffeine can interfere with absorption of essential nutrients such as calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin D and B-vitamins. Many people are also not aware that taking medication or supplements at the same time of a cup of tea or coffee can interfere with the body’s absorption of them.
- Loss of nutrients
Caffeine acts as a diuretic promoting excretion of vitamins and minerals.
- Reduced hydration
People often substitute caffeinated drinks for water, reducing their overall water intake. There is also much conjecture as to whether caffeinated drinks are as hydrating as water.
- Bad for bones
The jury is still out on this one but there is evidence pointing to increased calcium excretion due to caffeine’s diuretic effect. There is also evidence that caffeine interferes with calcium absorption and causes bone loss, particularly in postmenopausal women. Limiting tea/coffee consumption to ≤3 cups/day while ensuring adequate calcium and vitamin D intakes should prevent any potential adverse effects on calcium absorption and bone health.
So what’s the answer?
Limit your consumption of caffeine to 1 or 2 cups per day, between meals and away from medication, and not on an empty stomach.
And if you’re looking for something extra to substitute in for those missing cuppas then here are some alternatives you can try:
- Green tea
A compromise for tea lovers. If you must have a form of caffeine, green tea is the solution. It contains a compound called L-theanine, which moderates the effects of caffeine and gives you a smoother (less jittery) energy boost
- Turmeric tea/latte
Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which has been shown to reduce inflammation, support the immune system and offer anti-cancer benefits. Try with hot coconut milk for a delicious treat.
- Hot water, ginger and lemon
Just the smell and taste of this gives you a lift, but it’s also a handy detoxifier, stimulates your digestive systems and helps rid your body of mucous, as well as being anti-inflammatory.
- Rooibos tea
If coffee was never your thing but letting go of a good old-fashioned mug of tea is proving just too hard then Rooibos could be the perfect cuppa for you. Not only does it taste like normal tea but it’s also full to the brim of heart healthy antioxidants. As well as this it contains anti-inflammatory compounds and anti-spasmodic nutrients that can ward off tummy cramps and help prevent diarrhoea.