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Coffee as a Medicinal Herb

Posted by Ryan Wade on 4th Feb 2015

coffee as a medicinal herb

Coffee as a Medicinal Tonic


Over the past year-or-so I have been following this gradual embrace of coffee as a health food. Some even promote it alongside medicinal herbs. While this was a little frustrating and concerning at first, the use of coffee as if it were a therapeutic substance is becoming so pervasive that it is time to say something about it.

Don't buy (literally and figuratively) the coffee hype.

Coffee is Not a Health Food. Coffee is Not a Medicinal Plant.

Sure, it may be temping to think of it as such. And there is a lot of pressure from society to embrace it. And it sure is delicious. And it sure can make your head buzz in this way that you might just be convinced of its godliness. And at the height of my own coffee addiction I've tried to claim it as such. But it just isn’t good for you. 

Coffee borrows from your long-term vitality for the price of a short-term buzz.

We live in a society obsessed with growth and expansion. Work obsessed; stress obsessed. New-new-new; buy-buy-buy. As a society, those expressing these obsessions to the highest degree are often seen as the archetypes of being, the archetypes of success. But we need to check out of that--out of this madness. Living in the poles of excess creates pathology, and the world and its inhabitants are suffering serious consequences from this cultural obsession with expansion and growth.

Coffee, But it Feels so Good...

Let’s take a moment and see how coffee works in the body by learning about the neurotransmitter adenosine. Adenosine is the neurotransmitter that makes us drowsy and sleepy, and as it builds up throughout the day we become increasingly tired, to the point were we are ready to go to bed. So in the absence of caffeine and when a person is fully awake, there is little adenosine present. But when we drink coffee, the caffeine, because it is soluble to the blood brain barrier, makes its way into the synaptic cleft (the little space between neurons where neurotransmitters do their action) and antagonizes the adenosine receptors, making the receptors blind to the adenosine present. This makes us feel awake and alert and beings the ushering in of stimulatory neurotransmitters and hormones.

Coffee and Adenosine

When the adenosine receptors are blocked, there is an influx of the neurotransmitters dopamine, glutamate, and gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA); these run unchecked and into excess, causing a highly stimulated state. Overtime the body becomes adapted to the intake of coffee to antagonize the adenosine receptors, which is why chronic caffeine use leads to the need of caffeine to feel awake and the absence of it causing physical withdrawal symptoms. Because the body is always working to (re)establish homeostasis, when caffeine is antagonizing the adenosine receptors, the body responds by creating more of them. When the caffeine is not present, all of a sudden you're sensing so very much adenosine and unbearable lethargy follows. Your head is in the mire and the only way to clear it is to reset the receptors or ingest more caffeine. 

Sound like the work of a drug? There’s a good reason for that. Caffeine is a drug, it is a central nervous system and metabolic stimulant. Caffeine is a psychological stimulant and is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world. Most psychoactive substances are illegal, but not caffeine.

Coffee Works (In Good and Bad Ways) Because it Causes Stress in the Body.

The aggravation of the adenosine receptors and the consequential influx of stimulatory neurotransmitters cause an increase in stress in the body. Not in some people and not just some of the time, but in all people all the time.

According to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health , “The effects of coffee drinking are long-lasting and exaggerate the stress response both in terms of the body's physiological response in blood pressure elevations and stress hormone levels, but it also magnifies a person's perception of stress.” The author of the published study, James D. Lane, Ph.D., concludes that “While today's cup of coffee might not, by itself, cause you much harm, the cumulative effects of drinking it day after day over a lifetime could really be unhealthy.”

In the study, it is noted that on days when subjects ingested caffeine, “caffeine consumption significantly raised systolic and diastolic blood pressure consistently throughout the day and night, and adrenaline levels rose by 32 percent.” That degree of stress only causes harm to the body.

Positive and Negative Effects of Coffee

Stress has a very real and deleterious impact on the body. We do not need to get into how bad stress is for you because everyone already knows how bad it is. So why drink something that increase the level of—and the damaged caused by—stress in the body?

In short, the long terms consequences of stress include: Increased rates of heart disease; increased susceptibility to infections and decreased immune function; allergies and autoimmune diseases (which includes arthritis and multiple sclerosis); aggravated skin issues including acne, psoriasis and eczema; chronic pain, particularly in the back, shoulders and neck area, and stress even aggravates and intensifies herniated discs, fibromyalgia, repetitive strain injury (RSI), and migraine headaches; long-term stress can lead to type two, insulin-dependent diabetes; and chronic stress can contribute to infertility. But again, this is just a brief overview of the long-term effects of stress on the body.

Coffee equals elevated stress.

Tolerance to caffeine begins at one week to twelve days, at which point the “positive” effects of caffeine are no longer present and you need more of the drug to produce the same effect as before. This is because, as mentioned above, the body is responding to the caffeine by producing more adenosine receptors.

In one study, subjects given 900mg of caffeine a day became fully tolerant within 18 days, with their mood, energy, and alertness the same as those who were caffeine free. Once tolerance sets in, coffee drinkers can expect withdrawal once they stop drinking it. In fact, withdrawal from caffeine starts within just 12 to 24 hours after you last consumed it—and this is how long caffeine will stay active in your body. The morning coffee impacts the night’s sleeping, even when you have no trouble falling asleep, preventing the deep reparative cycles of sleep.

Most all people will experience headaches after coffee cessation, some experiencing debilitating tiredness coupled with debilitating headaches, and many others will experience depression, fatigue, lethargy, irritability, nausea, and vomiting during coffee withdrawal. These symptoms last around ten days on average, peaking for most at day three, and many report the negative effects of coffee withdrawal to last about a full 28 days.

What About the Health Benefits of Coffee?

Despite the physical dependency and daily withdrawal symptoms associated with coffee drinking (as mentioned above), chronic and habitual coffee consumption has been associated (correlation, not causation) with a lower incidence of Parkinson's disease, colon cancer, and cirrhosis of the liver. It is important to point out that these are correlations, which only show that something occurs side by side, not that one causes the other. It is important to note this difference because there is no established medicinal quality known in coffee to account for any of the above-perceived health benefits. There is, however, plenty one can do increase overall health and reduce the incidence of disease without consuming a substance which causes physical addition and dramatically increased markers of stress. Because while coffee can not been shown to prevent disease, stress has been shown to cause chronic disease. Don’t cut your nose off to spite your face.

But what about the antioxidants in coffee, those must be good for you. Again, yes, antioxidants are good for you, but antioxidants are abundant in foods, foods that do not trigger a widespread stress response in the body. When news articles states such things as “ Coffee is a great source of antioxidants ” or when studies proclaim that “Coffee is number one source of antioxidants ,” what we are really learning about is just how poor the average diet is. If a major source of antioxidants in a person’s diet is from coffee, well that diet is largely void of vegetables and fruits, which are a good source of antioxidants. 

The ORAC value (which establishes the level of antioxidant activity) of coffee is between 15,000 and 17,000, a number which may seem impressive. But that only puts coffee in the bottom of the top 30 foods. Turmeric has an ORAC value of 127,068, cloves 290,283, and semi-sweet chocolate 18,053. But common foods that we eat throughout the day in great amounts also have high ORAC scores, such as blueberries 9,621 ( which have been shown to dramatically reduce aging in the brain ), ginger root 14,840, black beans 8,494, lentils 7,282, apples 3,898, and so on and so forth. The point here is that a diet should be diverse and full of plants and their antioxidants, and if coffee is a major source of antioxidants in the diet this is a warning sign of a poor diet.

Talking about coffee being beneficial for health is similar to those that justify drinking wine because of the antioxidants (particularly trans resveratrol) that it contains. While studies have been back and forth regarding whether or not trans resveratrol is of any benefit, to achieve the levels shown to be of benefit to health a person would have to drink over 1,000 liters of red wine every day. As with coffee, it is wishful thinking.

Furthermore, though it is not widely discussed outside of the professional coffee industry , it is well known that coffee beans that have sat for several days after roasting (whole or ground) become rancid. The beans become rancid because the high level of oil present in coffee combined with the extremely high levels of heat incurred during roasting. Once oil reaches its smoke point it becomes rancid and rancid oil is a major culprit of oxidation in the diet, promoting and worsening heart disease. The coffee beans practically become deep fried in their own oils during roasting (which is how the flavor compounds are produced in them just as they are produced in french fries). So while coffee may contain antioxidants, it also causes oxidation in the body. It is like having a paycheck for $3000 a month and bills for $3500 a month. It’s a loosing proposition.

The Heavy Metals Present in Coffee.

While comparing and contrasting the positive health benefits associated with coffee consumption against the known negative health effects caused by coffee consumption, it is important to highlight that high coffee consumption is a considerable source of lead. Brewed coffee, done in a variety of brewing styles and from a variety of beans, has been shown to contain different heavy metals, including manganese (Mn), cobalt (Co), nickel (Ni), chrome (Cr), silver (Ag), and lead (Pb). For the most part, these metals do not occur in any disease causing amounts, except for lead. For heavy drinkers of coffee, the intake of lead can be high enough to contribute to disease .

Where I live in New England it is very common to have lead present in concerning amounts, both inside and outside the home, due to the age of homes and the long, widespread use of lead based paints. Lead is present in the body it becomes integrated into the bone matrix, as if it were calcium, making it nearly impossible to detoxify (because it is part of the bone structure). Once you have been exposed to lead and it becomes part of the bone matrix you carry that lead throughout your life, releasing it gradually in small amounts into the blood stream, becoming especially problematic during pregnancy and osteoporosis. Compounding exposure to lead with a lifetime of coffee drinking seems particularly concerning.

Coffee as a Medicinal or Tonic Herb?

Many people in the health food community are linking and likening coffee to the group of medicinals known as tonics. There is a clear definition of what makes a medicinal herb a tonic medicine. In one of the earliest texts of Chinese herbalism, the Shennong’s Pharmacopeia of the Divine Farmer , tonics are referred to as the “superior class” of herbs. To be classified as a tonic, the herb must be able to be taken in larger amounts or over a long period of time and not cause any harm to the body. Clearly, coffee does not fall within—or anywhere close to—the category of tonic herbs.  A tonic must be good for you, can be taken in great amounts over a long time, and produces no ill effects.

We may like the taste of coffee, the ritual of drinking it, or the buzz we get when we drink to much, but convincing ourselves that it is a tonic medicine is just wishful thinking. Not everything that is natural and feels good is healthy.

The herbalist and acupuncturist Brendan Kelly, who sees a deep connection between coffee consumption and Jing depletion, first introduced me to the adversarial relationship between coffee and vitality and the connection between coffee and climate change. Recently, in private conversation, Qigong master Robert Peng connected the effect of coffee to the depletion of our Prenatal Yuan Qi—our deep, un-restorable reserve of vitality in the body. Both see the drinking of coffee connected with the symptoms of premature aging.

Coffee is like a credit card, borrowing from our long-term health and vitality for a quick fix of chemical stimulation. If we see ourselves being drawn to stimulants we should take it as an opportunity for introspection, asking what our body (or our soul) is missing and what it really--truly and deeply--wants and needs. Maybe it's a cup of coffee. And if it is, drink it up and revel in it. Enjoy it. And don't drink another for a long time.

Coffee exacerbates excess Heat and Dampness in the body, contributing to the type of widespread pathology both in people and within the earth. Overtime, we can experience how coffee makes us feel worn out and tired. Coffee has only adversarial long term effects on the body. It is not medicinal. Coffee is not good for you.

People sell coffee, including health food stores, because it makes money (ever pause and think about how much beer, wine, and coffee health food stores sell?), not because it promotes your health or well-being.

Maybe the Coffee Bar is just a Bar.

I am not advocating a life lived in absence of joy or of living strictly by the book--excess in any direction is still excess. Choosing to live a life increasingly in accordance with theories of Chinese medicine is breaking free of the obsession so many of us have for living in the extremes--it is about finding peace and sustainability within the gradient, something that is hard for many to do (including myself). So much of our lives exists just oscillating within the poles, yo-yoing between the "good" and the "bad," choosing the balance is where the real work begins.

What I am advocating is understanding what we put into our bodies and making knowledgeable decision about whether or not we want to put those things into our body. Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes it will be no. Think of coffee like other intoxicating drugs and choose to use it accordingly. After all, maybe the coffee bar is just a bar. 

While I am pretty adamant against drinking coffee  and see it only as having a negative effect on the body, given the right social setting I'll drink it. This is because coffee--as bad as it is--is a social drug. While this only happens a handful of times a year, I find the positive effects of drinking coffee with friends highly outweighs the negative effects it poses to my health. Building strong relationships and sustaining them if one of the most important things a person can do for their happiness and longevity, and in my opinion this far outweighs a negative effect of a few cups of coffee.