Coffee might not be the number one enemy to your health, but it certainly is a big one. Most nutritionists and health experts will tell you that the human body has a feedback loop between coffee, hormones, and your health. Researchers have shown that drinking coffee increases the amount of the hormone cortisol in your body, which then increases the production of belly fat.
Coffee is a drink that comes as a pleasant surprise for those who consume it. First, it is very delicious, and second, it can make you feel more awake and clear your mind. But, does it really work? Does coffee really help us?Throughout its long history, coffee has been both praised and rejected.
For centuries, some of the world’s greatest composers, thinkers and statesmen have extolled the virtues of coffee, while others have dismissed it as a poisonous and mind-numbing drug. Coffee is praised by some religions and forbidden by others.
Some governments subsidize the coffee harvest, others impose high taxes and duties on the product. Doctors confirm the health benefits of coffee, but at the same time are concerned about its contribution to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cancer.
Coffee is more popular than ever, which contributes to its controversial status. In moderation, coffee poses a minimal health risk to most people. In some cases, coffee even has a protective effect.
But many North Americans now consume large amounts of coffee, which can cause significant long-term damage to our neuroendocrine immune system.
The neuroendocrine-immune system consists of the processes and structures that shape our central nervous system, endocrine system and immune system, which are in a complex relationship to each other.
For example, many of us know that we get sick more easily when we are stressed. Emotional and mental stress, especially if sustained for long periods of time, leads to an increase in stress hormones, which reduces the effectiveness of our immune system.
The complex interaction of our neuroendocrine and immune systems suggests that there is no clear separation between mind and body. What we think and experience is us, just like what our bodies do.
How do we know what we know?
It is difficult to get a clear picture of the health effects of coffee. Epidemiological studies attempting to find relationships between different lifestyle factors can be difficult to interpret.
First, coffee consumption is correlated with other dietary and lifestyle behaviors, such as alcohol and nicotine consumption and lack of physical activity. In other words: People who drink a lot of coffee also tend to drink, smoke and not be fit.
On the other hand, people who avoid coffee often do so for health reasons. They are also more likely to take care of their health in other ways and to choose a healthy lifestyle, for example by exercising. To compare coffee drinkers with non-coffee drinkers is thus to overlook a number of important variables.
Secondly, there are major differences in the pharmacological constituents of coffee depending on the type of beans used, the roasting and the different methods of preparing coffee, not to mention the differences between commercial instant coffee and freshly roasted organic coffee.
There are also differences in individual sensitivity to caffeine, which are likely due to genetic characteristics related to caffeine metabolism (see coding of caffeine in Spezzatino’s coffee number), as well as lifestyle influences. For example, the half-life of caffeine is shorter in smokers than in nonsmokers, and the half-life of caffeine is doubled in women using oral contraception.
Finally, most studies observe and measure the effects of a single dose of caffeine and not the effects of chronic use. Yet most coffee drinkers drink coffee every day.
As a number of studies have shown, single-dose experiences do not always mirror the effects of our normal lives. For example, researchers have shown that we can develop tolerance to the cardiovascular effects of caffeine within two or three days. Therefore, studies that show some effect on the body at an acute single dose have little to do with chronic caffeine use.
I use epidemiological and experimental data in my naturopathic practice. But I also draw on my experience and a systematic understanding of the interactions between our nervous, hormonal, and immune systems to make informed guesses about the possible effects of coffee on my patients.
Caffeine and your brain
Caffeine is one of the main ingredients of coffee and has psychoactive effects. It belongs to a group of substances called methylxanthines. These alkaloids are known to increase cognitive ability, improve energy, promote well-being and increase alertness.
As mentioned elsewhere in Spezzatino Coffee (see Lab to Lunch), these effects are primarily due to caffeine’s ability to block adenosine receptors throughout the body. However, other neurochemical effects are worth noting.
Again, studies of caffeine’s effects on neurotransmitters (the chemicals that allow cells in our nervous system to communicate with each other) do not always paint a realistic picture.
First, the dose used in neurochemical studies is usually higher than the amount the body takes in during normal daily life.
If animals are used, they don’t drink coffee. (It’s hard to make cups that small, and without pinching your fingers off ….. Let’s just say there have been a few accidents involving spills of hot liquids. Fortunately, no legal action has been taken against McDonalds so far). The researchers therefore use a single dose of caffeine that may not reflect the neurochemical effects of chronic caffeine consumption.
Second, neurotransmitters are produced in different parts of the brain, at the same time and in different amounts, and have very different effects on mood and personality depending on the part of the brain where they are used.
Brief overview : Serotonin is involved in regulating mood and appetite; gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) normally inhibits neuronal activity and causes relaxation and sleep; and acetylcholine is involved in muscle contraction.
Chronic caffeine consumption was found to increase serotonin (by 26-30%), GABA (by 65%) and acetylcholine (by 40-50%) receptors. This can help improve the mood and energy boost you feel after a cup of coffee (which makes espresso a useful pre-workout drink). Although it increases receptors, caffeine also suppresses the release of GABA, which contributes to our sense of alertness.
Chronic caffeine consumption also increases the sensitivity of serotonin receptors. In other words: The specific serotonin receptors respond better to the serotonin in the synaptic cleft – it’s like setting up a bigger satellite dish to pick up more of an existing signal. One study showed a decrease in serotonin release but an increase in serotonin reuptake, resulting in an overall increase in serotonin levels. (Think of it as a natural recycling of the brain).
In the human body, when the number of neurotransmitter receptors increases or their sensitivity increases, this usually indicates a decrease in the functionality and activity of the neurons associated with these receptors.
Either the brain needs more chemicals to do the job, or the neurons involved aren’t working as well. This may mean that there is a deficiency of a particular neurotransmitter or that its activity needs to be increased. In the case of caffeine and serotonin, this could partially explain the stimulating effects of coffee consumption.
Caffeine has also been shown to increase serotonin levels in the limbic system, a relatively primitive part of our brain involved in regulating basic functions such as hormone release, emotional responses, mood regulation, and feelings of pain/pleasure. It has a similar effect to some antidepressants.
An increase in serotonin levels combined with an increase in serotonin receptors causes characteristic withdrawal symptoms (such as restlessness and irritability) when you stop drinking coffee. The brain is used to its serotonin receptors being more active, and when the abundant supply of happy chemicals is suddenly interrupted, it becomes irritable.
Indirectly, chronic caffeine consumption may affect neurochemistry by reducing the number of cofactors, the chemical partners required for neurotransmitter synthesis.
For example, coffee interferes with the absorption of iron, an important mineral involved in the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine. We also need an activated form of vitamin B6, pyridoxal-5-phosphate, for the synthesis of serotonin, dopamine and GABA. Coffee consumption may reduce the amount of circulating B vitamins, which may affect neurotransmitter synthesis in other ways.
For example, caffeine affects the availability of certain chemicals, our brain’s sensitivity to these chemicals, and the production of these chemicals.
Caffeine and your hormones
The effects of caffeine consumption on hormones are fairly well known, both to scientists and laypeople.
For example, a quick search on the Internet shows many sites that claim caffeine weakens the adrenal glands. But, not surprisingly, this may not be entirely accurate. Although we know a great deal about the effects of caffeine on human physiology under stress, some of the mechanisms remain relatively mysterious.
Caffeine strongly influences the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis: the interconnected system of the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain and the adrenal glands in the kidneys. The HPA axis influences the body’s ability to cope with and manage stress, both at rest and in activity.
The adrenal glands secrete two important hormones: Adrenaline and cortisol. Epinephrine or adrenaline increases breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, while cortisol releases stored glucose, which we need in greater quantities when we are under significant stress.
As you can imagine, the ability to quickly access and use stored energy was very useful to our early hominid ancestors. But while this is an excellent acute response to immediate stress (e.g., a bear chasing you), it is a harmful response when the stress is chronic (e.g., the cumulative demands of our modern daily lives).
Human studies have shown that caffeine increases resting cortisol and adrenaline levels, and that cortisol levels after caffeine consumption are similar to those of acute stress. In other words: Drinking coffee creates stressful conditions for the body.
While scientists have some idea about how caffeine increases levels of the hormone HPA, the exact mechanism is still unclear.
The problem is compounded by the fact that people tend to consume more caffeine in times of stress (as almost all students know during exam periods). They increase stress and can even make the situation worse.
Studies on rats have shown that caffeine consumption during chronic stress increases cortisol levels, blood pressure, and other negative hormonal effects. Rats under chronic stress that consumed caffeine became ill and died earlier than rats under chronic stress without caffeine.
But again, chronic caffeine consumption leads to a certain physiological tolerance and as a result, blood pressure, heart rate, excessive urination, adrenaline production and even anxiety and agitation are not as strongly affected in people who drink coffee regularly.
Other hormonal effects of caffeine appear to be related to competitive actions for metabolism in the liver. Like a congested city, the liver has only a limited number of roads, or metabolic pathways, available to it. The increase in the number of cars (i.e. chemicals) on the road is slowing the pace.
The liver detoxifies the water. B. Caffeine via the CYP1A2 enzyme system, which is also responsible for the initial metabolism of estrogens in the first phase of clearance in the liver. This is one reason why caffeine is metabolized more slowly in women taking oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy after menopause.
Although there are no studies yet showing the effect of chronic caffeine consumption on circulating estrogen levels, researchers suggested that caffeine consumption may reduce breast cancer risk by regulating the CYP1A2 isoenzyme, thereby improving estrogen metabolism.
Caffeine and your immune system
The immune system is a huge and complex system that interacts intensively with itself and is connected to all other systems in the body.
To keep it simple, we will break down the immune system into two parts: Th1 (T-cell mediated system) and Th2 (B-cell mediated system). The Th1 side is our innate immune system – a system that develops from childhood – and is our first line of defense against pathogens such as viruses and bacteria.
The Th2 system, on the other hand, is a learned system: As we are exposed to pathogens throughout our lives, we develop antibodies against them. The antibodies recognize foreign invaders on repeated contact with them and attack them stronger and faster when they invade again. Thanks to this system, a reaction to poison ivy only occurs after the second contact.
Both sides of this system behave as oscillations: When one side dominates, the other is suppressed.
Studies show that chronic caffeine exposure causes the immune system to dominate Th2. It can help treat Th1-dominant autoimmune diseases, but in the average person, it can enhance the Th2 system and cause an excessive Th2 immune response. The dominant Th2 system makes people susceptible to hypersensitivity reactions such as asthma and allergies.
To date, no link has been established between chronic caffeine use and the increased prevalence of Th2-related diseases, but given the current knowledge on caffeine and the immune system, this link seems plausible.
In my naturopathic clinical practice, we have found that some autoimmune diseases improve and others worsen with caffeine consumption.
If someone with rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disease that causes joint pain and inflammation) reports that their joints hurt significantly more when they drink coffee, it can be assumed that their joints are dominated by the Th2 system and that caffeine promotes joint destruction by further stimulating the already overzealous Th2 system.
Putting everything in its place
None of the known studies show a statistically significant association between excessive coffee consumption and derailment of the neuroendocrine immune system. We just don’t know yet how all the pieces of the puzzle will fit together.
However, some theoretical trajectories can be identified that have also been observed in the clinic. We can also make some educated guesses based on what we already know about the interaction between neuroendocrine and immunity.
Chronic coffee consumption increases insulin resistance, a condition in which the body cannot effectively deliver glucose to the body’s cells. In such a situation, insulin, which helps transport glucose to the cells, cannot do its job properly because the body’s cells are less receptive.
This usually occurs in diets high in refined sugars and starches. As a result, the body has to secrete larger and larger amounts of insulin to do the job. As parents turn off their crying baby, the body becomes less and less sensitive to the action of insulin, which means more circulating glucose, which means more release of insulin….. and so on.
It’s a vicious circle. And unfortunately, this cycle is currently observed in most North Americans. Combine a standard Western diet rich in refined carbohydrates with stress and high caffeine consumption and you have a potential recipe for metabolic disaster.
Insulin stimulates the release of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a Th2 cytokine (cell signaling molecule).
If IL-6 is chronically elevated (in this case due to high insulin levels), it can lead to Th2 dominance and possible hypersensitivity due to an overactive antibody response. This can lead to an acquired sensitivity to food and chemicals.
Interleukin-6 also stimulates the release of cortisol, a glucocorticoid hormone that increases glucose levels in the body. This leads to an increased need for insulin, which is problematic because of the insulin resistance that initiated the cascade in the first place.
Reminder: A diet rich in refined sugars and starchy foods leads to an increase in circulating glucose.
- More glucose means more insulin to use it.
- More insulin means the cells warm up, which means even more insulin enters the bloodstream (especially if you keep eating carbohydrate-rich foods).
- More insulin means insulin resistance – possibly exacerbated by high caffeine consumption.
- More insulin means more IL-6 and more inflammation and hypersensitivity.
- More IL-6 means more cortisol, which in turn means more glucose….. and we are back to the beginning of a very unpleasant cycle.
Think about this when you have a coffee and a glazed donut on your way to work in the morning.
Effect on brain function and mood
The rise in blood sugar and insulin levels is not limited to inflammation. They can cause an imbalance in the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and GABA, which can lead to subclinical mood problems such as mild depression (also known as the blues), low motivation, irritability and cognitive impairment.
People with chronic hyperglycemia, insulin resistance, systemic inflammation and stress usually have a blurred brain, memory loss, lethargy and/or short memory.
Combined with a possible coffee-induced deficiency of iron and B vitamins, which in turn leads to an alteration in the synthesis of important neurotransmitters, this can lead to states of mind in which people need coffee to continue to function normally.
Do you sometimes feel like you desperately need a coffee to cheer you up? Telling people I’m cranky until I get my coffee? If so, you may find yourself in this situation.
Caffeine, in moderation, is probably not a problem for most people. In fact, it may be good for your health. (See article on Traditional Chinese Medicine and Coffee in Spezzatino Coffee magazine) Problems arise when we drink coffee all day and combine it with a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet and a chronic increase in stress.
We consume far more caffeine than our great-grandparents. Not only have we increased coffee consumption, but we have saturated the market (excuse the pun) with other sources of caffeine. There is a lot more refined sugar available to us and our lives are moving much faster.
The standard size of a coffee cup is six ounces. If you live in North America and are under 40, I bet you don’t even own a six ounce glass – let alone find one that size in your local coffee shop!
It’s a perfect storm: Caffeine, stress, sugar and a sedentary lifestyle. This combination and its complex relationship with your neuroendocrine immune system may affect you more than you think.
Our body systems are intimately connected. Stimulation of an area can have significant effects, especially if the stimulation is sudden and/or over a long period of time.
Large amounts of caffeine probably have many negative effects on the body that are not yet clear, but when you put together the available research, these effects seem very real.
Follow the signals your body gives you. Pay attention to how you feel when you drink your coffee.
Do you feel good for a while, and then you tremble and become irritable? Are you experiencing more pain or other forms of physical suffering?
If you have any of the above symptoms, from anxiety to inflammation, consider introducing decaffeinated coffee into your life.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Is coffee bad for your hormones?
Coffee is not bad for your hormones. In fact, coffee can actually help regulate your hormones.
What Hormone Does Coffee release?
Coffee releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that helps the body deal with stressful situations.
Is coffee an endocrine disruptor?
Coffee is not an endocrine disruptor.
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