Caffeine: The Good, The Bad And The Healthy

Many of my patients enjoy coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages but they read and hear that caffeine is unhealthy and should be eliminated from your diet. They’re always asking me, “Do I have to give up my coffee?”

It’s true that there seem to be mixed messages out there about the health effects of caffeine. Some information says it should be eliminated from your diet completely and yet new research shows that a little caffeine has several worthwhile health benefits!

Let’s look at some facts about caffeine, its downside as well as its health benefits, and hopefully, for all you coffee and tea lovers, we’ll find a healthy medium!

What’s So Bad About Caffeine?

Caffeine use by man has been around for centuries, or should I say eons, as it’s believed to have been consumed even in the Stone Age through the eating of Arabica (coffee) leaves or berries that contained it. In fact, about 80% of people around the world consume caffeine in some fashion every day! It is also used as a drug for pain relief and is present in many medicines and chocolate. In short, it’s a very popular commodity!

Caffeine affects the central nervous system shortly after your first few sips of your morning coffee or tea. It stimulates your brain and makes you more alert, gives you a jolt of energy to get you going and helps with stamina to complete tasks. For these reasons alone, you can see why people are so adamant about having their morning coffee or tea before going to work!

Caffeine affects your digestion/gastric processes, stimulating it and producing more gastric acid. It also speeds up colonic activity. For people who have trouble with digestion and constipation, drinking a little caffeine in the morning seems to help them. So what’s so bad about caffeine?

Well, for one, it is addicting. The more you drink it, the more you crave it and the more your body depends on it. The pre-morning-coffee doldrums is really just your addiction to it prompting you to have some more caffeine. In addition, because it affects your central nervous system it can also contribute to the following:

  • Sleeplessness – especially if you drink caffeine after 3 pm.
  • Adrenal gland burn out – your adrenal glands produce cortisol in response to stress. High amounts of caffeine overstimulate the central nervous system and the adrenals respond to it as a stressor.
  • Belly fat increase – too much caffeine can contribute to increased belly fat from the adrenals over producing cortisol, a steroid your body makes in response to stress.
  • Raises blood pressure – but only for a short duration, same as if you were walking up stairs. However, if you already have high blood pressure, caffeine can aggravate it.
  • Women’s health issues – caffeine seems to aggravate PMS and menopause symptoms. This may be because caffeine can destabilize blood sugar levels by over-stimulating insulin secretion. Caffeine also contributes to bone loss in post menopausal women if their calcium intake is also low. Problem pregnancies are also associated with caffeine.
  • Insulin stimulation/diabetes control – can decrease insulin sensitivity which can destabilize blood sugar levels making type 1diabetes harder to control. Contributes to the production of belly fat through cortisol (see adrenal burn out above). Recent research stated that “coffee” decreases the risk for type 2 diabetes, however, not because of caffeine. Other compounds in coffee are what decrease the risk.
  • May Contain Pesticides – coffee is grown/harvested in parts of the world where there is very little, if any, control over what kind of pesticides are used on coffee bean crops. Most coffee we drink in the United States comes from South American rain forests. Some DDT with your coffee?

What’s Good About Caffeine?

After reading the list of negatives for caffeine, you might start to wonder, should I really have caffeine in my diet at all? Well, before you give up your caffeine completely, consider some new research out lately that shows some surprising health benefits of caffeine:

  • May Prevent Skin Cancer – recent studies show that caffeine added to sodium benzoate in sunscreen had a positive effect on shedding skin cancer cells.
  • Aids Weight Loss – caffeine has been present in weight loss formulas for years. It speeds up metabolism to burn more fat and the boost of energy it gives helps dieter’s maintain exercise levels necessary to burn fat/calories.
  • Relieves Headaches – caffeine has long been used in OTC pain relief formulas that have about the same amount of caffeine in them as a cup of brewed coffee. It is particularly helpful with migraine, and other types of headaches.
  • Helps Asthma – caffeine has been used for centuries to help asthmatics. It dilates airways and allows needed oxygen to enter the lungs.
  • Prevents/Treats Parkinson Disease – caffeine has a beneficial effect on the central nervous system and seems to enhance muscles and movement.
  • Enhances athletic performance – researchers aren’t sure exactly how caffeine boosts athletic performance. It may make muscle contractions stronger, or because it elevates mood, an athlete may get the kick they need to perform better. Caffeine also stimulates the brain and nervous system so may help ward off fatigue.

A Happy, Healthy Medium

Caffeine has gotten a bad reputation over the last few years and not completely undeservedly. It is true that too much of it can wreak health havoc. It can keep you from sleeping; it can decrease sodium and potassium levels in your body through frequent urination and cause heart palpitations, anxiety and agitation. On a positive note, a little caffeine, no more than the equivalent of 2 cups of coffee a day, or 300 mg, can give you a needed boost to exercise, burn fat, and stay mentally alert.

There are a few things, however, I would recommend to people who would like to keep drinking their coffee, or tea, or a caffeinated soda to ensure that it doesn’t become a health hazard:

  • Limit caffeine – to no more than 300 mg a day. Switch to decaf (which still has a little caffeine in it), or half-caff coffee if you would like to drink a cup of coffee more than twice a day.
  • Drink Water! The Institute of Medicine recommends that men consume 13 cups (8 oz) of water/fluid a day and women 9 cups. If you drink caffeinated beverages, replace 1 extra cup of water for every cup of caffeinated drink. This will ensure that you don’t become dehydrated.
  • Check B Vitamins: Make sure you take a high quality multivitamin daily and that it has the recommended amount of B vitamins in it, especially B12. B vitamins support the nervous system that caffeine works directly on.
  • Limit caffeinated sodas – to 3 times a week. With soda, caffeine isn’t the worst ingredient, the phosphoric acid and sugar is. Switch to diet soda sweetened with Splenda, not aspartame.
  • Switch Your Caffeine – to green or black tea, or even hot cocoa (the kind you make yourself from 100% cacao powdered baking cocoa) to get your caffeine boost. They have more health benefits to them than coffee as they are powerful antioxidants. Cocoa has also been shown recently to lower blood pressure and provide heart-healthy benefits.
  • Supplement with calcium/magnesium/zinc combo – 1200 mg (3 tablets) a day, to mitigate caffeine jitters and prevent muscle cramps or bone loss. Also helps you sleep!

Many people, me included, enjoy drinking their morning or late afternoon cup of coffee, tea, or an occasional caffeinated soda. There is no reason for anyone who really likes, and can handle caffeine, not to enjoy it in moderation. The time you set aside for a coffee or tea break during, or at the end of your day, can be a little beneficial “you time” which can help you decompress and relax!


Mark Rosenberg, M.D.

Dr. Mark Rosenberg, MD is a Phlebologist in Boca Raton, FL. He is affiliated with Boca Raton Regional Hospital.

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