I’ve been thinking about coffee lately and wanted to share some thoughts around the health benefits and health compromising that can occur due to coffee intake.
There are many studies out there that support how coffee is beneficial for reducing the risk for:
type 2 diabetes
uterine and live cancer
There are many studies that support how coffee can be harmful for increasing health risks, such as and not limited to:
addiction to coffee (as a stimulant)
may contribute towards some cancers and cancer formations
an appetite suppressant (not in a good way)
It is important to remember that coffee comes from a plant and that we know that the plant kingdom can have natural and profound benefits on our health. The coffee plant offers numerous phytonutrients, bioactive compounds, and antioxidants. We also know that using anything in excess, even when it is naturally grown, can still have negative effects on health.
By looking at the wisdom of Ayurveda and what it has to share as far as its profound and vast ability to determine the pharmocological actions of any substance, by far more than any other system, we can best understand how to apply this knowledge to the use of coffee, at least. This is one of the main reasons why Ayurveda is highly successful, due to its ability to assess qualities of substances and its relationship to the body.
In Ayurveda, we have what is called the principle of the 6 tastes (Shadrasas), consisting of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent. Simply, there are 6 tastes and it is through the understanding of how these tastes work in our physiology, and even the mind to a certain degree, that we can either experience the medicinal benefits of substances or have them become poisons in our system. David Frawley shares with us that “Coffee is pungent, bitter, warm and pungent in post-digestive effect. It decreases Kapha, but increases Pitta and Vata, aggravating acidity. It is a nervine and cardiac stimulant and mild narcotic. It is rajasic in nature and it can be addictive. Used occasionally, it is good for low energy, hypotension and depression.” So what does it mean to be “pungent, bitter, warm and pungent”? In Ayurvedic medicine we have the Principles of and Science of ”Dravyaguna Shastra” which refers to the pharmocology of substances and the science thereof. These are Rasa, Virya, Vipak, and Prabhav. Rasa, refers to the taste, that which is immediately experienced on the tongue. Next we have Virya, which is the action that occurs in the stomach regarding whether a substance is heating or cooling. Then we have Vipak, which is the post-digestive effect and how the substance will be metabolized/absorbed in the colon. Prabhav, doesn’t pertain to every substance but this is a “specialized” category in Ayurveda that accounts for the fact that certain substances will have a benefit that isn’t necessarily accounted for but can be noticed to occur. The science of Ayurveda has room for this, but western medicine may not.
To further expand on pungent, bitter, warm and pungent it to simply state that something that is pungent, bitter, and warm consists of heating and drying qualities. If an individual has any precursory symptoms to such conditions already, then taking in any substance with these qualities will only increase these qualities. There is an axiom in Ayurveda that states “like increases like and opposites cure.” This can be applied to almost anything.
I remember learning in a course that coffee acts like this in the physiology/digestive system: Coffee is acidic by nature. When it enters into the stomach, which consists of an acidic environment(digestive enzymes such as pepsin and hydrochloric acid, balanced with alkalinity, which is the natural mucosal lining in the stomach, it raises the acidity level causing the stomach to react in a way as if there was a protein present. It is important to note that the stomach is responsible primarily for the break down of proteins, hence the strong acids, through its churning process. When coffee is ingested and falsely stimulates the stomach to increase in acidity, the body’s intelligence will say “hey, where’s the protein that I’m revved up for?” The body will then respond and say “lets see where in our own body we can find protein to break down.” This may be one of the main reasons why coffee is an appetite suppressant! This is food for thought, and there should be studies to support this but it is safe to say, knowing how the physiology works , that this is quite plausible, especially when we know how coffee can functions, what it consists of, and its strong tendency towards acidity. If there is acidity present, which many people do have this due to diet and lifestyle, then coffee will have a natural tendency to increase acidity. Acidity is heating and therefore, it makes sense that it would increase inflammatory processes of all kinds and not limited to virus’ for example. Further studies should be done to examine the correlation between virus’, inflammatory diseases such as Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease, and the effects that coffee has on them. If someone is anxious, it can be deduced that coffee will increase anxiety due to its stimulating nature. Even if studies show that not all cancers can be linked to coffee directly, it is safe to say that knowing the qualities of coffee, as mentioned previously, that anyone with internal environments of dryness and lightness, and cancers (which tend to have some form of acidity, protein/genetic issue, and inflammation) that coffee could negatively influence these as well. The question would also be how much coffee could have this effect?
Since coffee has a drying action on the body due to inherent astringent qualities (regardless of flavor) it is important to counter the effects of dryness by hydrating adequately. It could be recommended to have some water (warm preferred) but ideally “natural gatorades” such as coconut water or limeade (see recipe link below) before and after drinking coffee, to not only support hydrating the body and reduce the negative effects of coffee but to also purify the tissues that are affected by the heating acidic inflammatory properties and potential of coffee.
To slow down the catalytic actions of coffee, it has been known in cultures such as India and Turkey that coffee can be taken with butter, ghee, or even coconut oil. Additionally, milk such as whole milk, raw milk and even coconut milk contribute qualities that support reducing the intensity of the coffee and caffeine to a certain degree and helps to balance the nervous system and digestion. Not only does this support proper metabolism of coffee but it add a luxurious taste as well! The oil itself supports liver functions, and even coating of the myelin sheaths (part of nerve tissue.) Spices such as cardamom slow down/reduce some of the caffeine so it doesn’t overly tax the body and nervous system. Food for thought, though, Kapha predominant individuals can avoid adding the above mentioned fats since Kapha individuals have this naturally in abundance in their body.
Volume is an important consideration as well. Am I drinking 4oz, or 8oz. or 16oz. or even 20oz.? Typically in certain cultures like France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Africa, and India, the amount of coffee didn’t really exceed a cup. Now, with cafe chains like Starbucks we have double to quadruple the normal amount. This also plays a role as to whether coffee is a friend or foe. It isn’t uncommon for an Italian or French individual to have a shot of espresso after a meal to support digestion, or to have a cappuccino with a sort of pastry or even piece of fruit as per morning routine instead of bacon, eggs, cheese omelette with toast, orange juice and large coffee which is done as per a typical western cultured individual. Sometimes large venti coffees replace a meal because it’s on the go and some people don’t have the time to sit down and have a light healthy breakfast. This does add up and contribute towards health issues in the long run. More studies should be done to verify this but this can be experimented with personally, if you’re curious., and you’ll notice for yourself the differences. Let’s add to this, how often throughout the day. Is it one cup or 6? This is another potential negative influence. Vata predominant individuals may or may not benefit from a “little bit” of coffee depending on many factors. Pitta predominant individuals can also have a moderate amount with it appropriately being prepared for their constitution, and considerations around whether they have inflammation. Kapha individuals may be able to benefit from a moderate amount in order to get them going, with the appropriate spices, and other factors considered for their constitution but also to remember that in excess they could gain more weight.
Temperature of coffee is just as important. It is understood in Ayurveda that anything cold or frozen is not ideal for the body and health. The quality of cold is drying, light, and astringent. Therefore, when we add cold substances to a body that regulates temperature around 98.6 degrees +/- we cause a stress to the system. It’s like putting a cold bucket of water on a fire. This affects health and causes all the systems to be compromised, starting with the digestive system because all the other systems linked into the vitality and quality of health in the digestive system, one way or another. We can further say, according to Ayurveda, that a predominant Vata person or individual that has predominance of Vata symptoms should have warm substances. A person of Pitta tendencies/symptoms, should engage in warm/room temperature/cool(not cold) substances. And, a person with Kapha tendencies/symptoms should have hot. Temperature plays a crucial role with digestion of all substances. Coffee is naturally more heating, drying, due to its bitter, warming, pungent qualities and therefore appropriate considerations are needed when drinking coffee. Absolutely no cold or iced beverages! It can also be suggest that coffee, due to its previously mentioned qualities, can be influenced by season as well. For instance, since it is generally heating by nature and to drink it in hotter climates will only increase the heating potential of coffee. Drinking coffee in the cooler climates would be better. Let’s also remember how constitution can factor into this as well. (I know. There are many variables.)
The quality of coffee is just as important. Is the coffee Maxwell House or even Folgers, Dunkin Donuts or even Wawa? Or, is it Starbucks or a local cafe (Ma & Pa establishments)? The better the quality, the better it is. Still being mindful that a little bit can go a long way, as mentioned previously.
According to Ayurveda, the body, when it is threatened with or exposed to dryness or excess moisture, will attempt to remedy itself, through neurochemical signals and communication, to stimulate in a way to reduce the dryness and reduce the moisture. “The body is a historical system and requires consistency for health,” as stated by Maryanne Thompson. It is understood in Ayurveda that the primary cause and root location for most diseases is in the diet and lifestyle. Additionally, in the digestive system we can observe subtle symptoms to indicate the beginning stages of imbalances that can head towards bigger ailments. What are these subtle symptoms (not always subtle)? gas, bloating, indigestion, mild constipation, diarrhea, sharpness, hyperacidity (acid reflux), and heaviness. The body is amazing and always seeking homeostasis. It does this to a fault sometimes but should we heed the warnings or means the body communicates that it is out of balance, which is through symptoms subtle and overt, then we can regain health by listening. The body tends to communicate through pain. Pain is broken into general qualities such as heaviness, dullness, sharp, cold, dry, and hot. Listening to these is a good way to prevent bigger issues from occurring later on. For instance, that cold usually starts almost a week before the symptoms have become fully expressive. How do we know? Because and usually, there is some sense of dryness or tickle in the throat, even in the ears at times, and even in the eyes (itchy.) We ignore this and then suddenly we find ourselves having a post-nasal drip. We take drying substances like benedryl/anti-histamines/steroids/other drying agents, to dry out the mucus, but why? When the mucus is the body’s natural way of saying “hey, I’m dry. Let’s send some mucus to protect this before it gets worse.” What happens then? We usually ignore it. A week later, there is a cold. If we keep doing what we are doing, we will keep getting what we are getting. If we don’t stop to take the time to slow down and address such subtle symptoms, then the smaller signs will become the bigger signs and then we are brought to some sort of halt at some point or another.
When it comes to understanding whether coffee is a medicine or a poison, it would be best to ask yourself the questions: How is my current state of health? Am I experiencing any inflammation? Do I have any neurological issues? What is my constitutional make up (being with Vata, (nervousness/anxiety/instability of sorts) Pitta (hyperacidity, anger, ulcers, inflammatory conditions), Kapha (sluggishness, heaviness, lethargy, diabetes)? Am I an anxious/nervous/dry person? Am I a high strung/angry/inflamed person? Am I a person prone towards being heavy, slow, sluggish? (If you answer yes to these three questions, then you may reconsider coffee for you). How much coffee am I drinking (volume)? What’s the quality of coffee (good quality versus cheap)? How often am I drinking coffee(frequency)? Am I properly hydrating? What is the temperature of coffee (hot, warm, cold/frozen)? Am I taking coffee with milk(s), sweeteners (preferably natural), oils (such as coconut and/or ghee, to support metabolism of coffee and its effects on the system)? Am I taking coffee with spices such as cardamom/cinnamon (to support metabolism of coffee and its effects on the system)? Why am I drinking coffee ( reasons such as boredom, habit, comfort, addiction, for energy)?
Coffee can be enjoyable, depending on who, when, why, and how. In considering all the above details around the consumption of coffee, there is the potential to understand how it applies to you and whether or not coffee is a friend or enemy. Moderation can be a key factor but Ayurveda would still say it depends on the individual and where they are at in the present state of health (mind and body) with all this that has been mentioned. It’s not enough to think that “coffee will make me happy and if I don’t have it then x,y, z.” But is it really? Is it benefiting your whole being or harming you for the sake of pacifying some part of your mind? Because in reality, you might feel happy with coffee because it brings you comfort but it might be the actual fuel behind why your joints feel inflamed, or you’re experiencing bleeding out of your rectum or are having issues sleeping, nervousness, anxiety, diarrhea, gastritis, so on and so forth. Check with your body and really be honest about how you are supporting it. The body is designed to handle a lot. Give it the help it needs and it will do even more for us all. It just needs time, patience, consistency, and routine. It requires love and attention to thrive. It will do whatever it can to endure, survive and live.
DISCLAIMER: This information is meant for educational purposes only and not considered medical advice. Any changes in lifestyle should be reviewed by a qualified practitioner and/or primary care physician if you are currently under their care for specific conditions.