Coffee. The very sound of the word may perk you up if you’re a regular coffee drinker. A “necessity” of daily life for lots of Americans, caffeinated coffee has been shown to increase awakeness, mood, focus, concentration, and athletic performance. The cognitive effects of caffeine begin as early as 15 minutes post consumption and can last up to 6 hours. But other than its effects on cognitive alertness and offering the body an extra “get up and go,” is coffee beneficial for our overall health? Should we be drinking it daily? And what are the implications for gut health?
If you do a simple Internet search, you’ll find lots of online resources touting the scientific support backing coffee as a super food that plays a role in disease prevention and even increasing longevity: 3 cups of coffee could reduce the risk of liver disease by 50%, 4 cups a day could halve the risk of mouth cancers, 2 to 4 cups daily may reduce the risk of suicide, and 4 to 5 cups a day may significantly reduce the risk of premature death. Caffeinated coffee consumption in general is associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, depression, cirrhosis, and gout.
These associations are compelling, especially knowing that coffee was on the WHO’s (World Health Organization’s) list of potentially carcinogenic foods up until 2016, but the body of evidence supporting most of them isn’t robust enough for coffee to be recommended as a substance that improves health and prevents disease. For several of these studies, association does not prove causation.
Experts who support coffee’s health benefits continue to investigate from where they stem. Some believe the benefits of coffee are rooted in its antioxidant properties, which include hydrocinnamic acids and polyphenols, as well as its micronutrient content. One cup of caffeinated coffee contains 11% of your recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin B2, 6% of vitamin B5, 3% of manganese and potassium, and 2% of magnesium and vitamin B2. While these percentages may seem minimal, when consuming multiple cups of coffee daily, coffee becomes a significant nutrient contributor. Yet, it’s very important to note that a large majority of plant-based foods are exponentially more nutrient, fiber, and antioxidant-rich than coffee, and can do wonders for your health and disease prevention far beyond anything coffee could ever offer.
Furthermore, if you dig deeper into the research, consuming caffeinated coffee has been associated with lots of negative side effects too. A number of studies link coffee consumption to health risks including increased risk of esophageal cancer, cardiovascular disease, and bone fractures in women. Consuming coffee in excessive amounts (500mg and more a day) can result in insomnia, anxiety, depression, restlessness, irritability, digestive upset, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and muscle tremors, among other things. Studies have also associated coffee consumption during pregnancy with low birth weight and miscarriage. When consumed in quantities around 1,000 mg daily, caffeine has been linked to decreased rates of conception. Also, coffee only makes you feel more awake – it does not refuel energy levels or thwart emotional fatigue – and can mask underlying exhaustion, which, if ignored for too long, can lead to anxiety-related feelings and depression.
As a general rule, at Gutbliss we recommend no or minimal caffeine consumption (one cup a day or less), for the reasons mentioned above, as well as for specific gut-related reasons. While some limited studies show that drinking coffee long-term can increase the beneficial bacteria composition and diversity in the gut, there is ample evidence supporting caffeinated coffee as a gut irritant, exacerbating reflux, bloating, and diarrhea, as well as suppressing gut bacteria diversity.
In addition, sleep is an extremely important aspect of microbial balance, bowel regularity, and overall gut health and as previously mentioned, caffeine can mask tiredness and make it difficult to hone in on your true circadian rhythms – your inner clock telling you when it’s time to eat, sleep, and wake. Circadian disruptions share a strong association with microbial imbalance (or dysbiosis) and have been shown to lead to the very conditions coffee purportedly helps – heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and psychiatric conditions.
Currently, 61% of Americans drink coffee daily; meanwhile, 25% don’t get enough sleep and 10% suffer from chronic insomnia. Could coffee consumption have something to do with America’s sleep deprivation? And if not, at the very least, shouldn’t those who have sleep issues consider avoiding caffeinated coffee to encourage melatonin release and allow their natural circadian rhythms to kick in?
The conflicting research on coffee can make it difficult to decide whether or not drinking coffee is a good idea for your gut and overall health. As a basic rule, if you experience caffeine sensitivity, gut related issues, anxiety, or a sleep condition, avoiding caffeinated coffee altogether is recommended. If you don’t fall into any of these categories and you’re able to consume coffee without any psychological, emotional, gut, or sleep disruptions, you may enjoy caffeinated coffee in moderation (a cup or two). But be mindful, while black coffee in moderation may do little to negatively affect your health, adding cream and sweetener to your daily morning cup adds both dairy and highly processed sugar that could be problematic for your gut, overall health, and waistline.
If you choose to avoid coffee but you still crave it from time to time, you may opt for decaf coffee. But is decaf a good idea? Like caffeinated coffee, it can be fine in moderation. While most scientific studies look at caffeinated coffee, studies on decaffeinated coffee show that decaf results in significantly less acid reflux and heartburn than caffeinated coffee. But decaf also contains limited scientific evidence for the same health benefits as caffeinated coffee, excluding those related to mood and cognition. Decaf coffee contains about 15% less antioxidants than regular coffee (losses probably due to the decaffeinating process) and has a less impressive nutrient profile – 2.5% of the RDI for vitamin D3, 4.8% of potassium, and 2.4% of magnesium.
And beware, the decaf coffee at your local supermarket, restaurant, or coffee shop most likely underwent a chemical-ridden decaffeinating process, and Gutbliss does not recommended these coffee beans for consumption. While diminishing the caffeine in coffee originated by accident in the 1900s after beans were soaked in seawater during shipment, the process has since progressed and now involves soaking (or steaming) unroasted coffee beans in a chemical solvent (usually ethyl acetate or methylene chloride), liquid carbon dioxide, or water.
Solvents using carbon dioxide and water are considered “natural” while those using chemicals are not. In fact, methylene chloride causes coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, and at high doses can lead to nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, confusion, and even liver and lung cancers. And while ethyl acetate is sometimes referred to as “natural” since it’s present in some produce, the ethyl acetate used in decaf coffee is synthetically produced.
While labeling rules for decaf processes are lax, choosing organic is always a good idea. The organic seal ensures that synthetic solvents were not used during the decaffeination process. At Gutbliss, we believe the more natural the better, and opt for decaf coffee that employs The Swiss Water Process, which uses water alone as the decaffeinating solvent, and is the best method for preserving coffee bean flavor and nutrient content. So like caffeinated, as long as you choose a decaf coffee using a natural solvent, consuming in moderation is acceptable.
Lastly, if what you enjoy most about coffee is having a warm, comforting drink in your hands, opting for herbal tea may be the best thing for you, your gut, and your overall health! Herbal teas are extremely rich in beneficial nutrients that fight aging and disease (much more so than coffee), and are naturally caffeine free. Be sure to always choose organic and try an array of flavors until you’ve found the one for you. Adding small amounts of Manuka honey and/or nut milk can add layers of flavor. Try this Gutbliss Ginger Tea for a made-at-home version.