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Coffee: where physical and mental health meet

What is your relationship with coffee like?

Mine has been a push-pull, love-hate relationship, heavily influenced by the opinions of others. It began when I was just a kid, eating the foam off Mum’s weekly cappuccino at the local cafe, which, back in the 90’s, seemed to be much fluffier and it was also garnished with chocolate. Despite some ups and downs over the years, our relationship has matured. Yet still, it seems everyone has something to say about coffee and it’s hard to know what to do sometimes.

Someone dear to me asked me earlier this week, ‘Anne, what do I do? I feel like I need my daily coffee to keep me going but it makes me moody and sweat more, but then when I don’t drink it I get other cravings and eat crap plus I feel exhausted.’

When I receive questions like this, the first thing I do is put the coffee on the side for a moment and read between the lines. Someone who asks a question like this, based on my initial assessment, is likely:

- Stressed

- Over-stretched and time-poor

- A little stuck in judgement

And then I keep these ideas, at this point assumptions, in the back of my mind.

So how did I respond from there? Like any good coach, with more questions of course! We talked about whether they were using coffee as a drug versus a ritual, how much space there was for enjoyment of the beverage and how one might shift perspective and release the judgement around coffee not being a “healthy” drink to consume. So much information came out of this! Then we could go to strategy.

To keep it general, let’s get geeky for a moment check-in with the body, and then I’ll get to my real point about whether you “should” or “should not” drink coffee.

When we drink coffee, the caffeine binds to the adenosine receptors in the brain. This binding speeds up nerve cell activity and sends a message down to the adrenal glands (located just above the kidneys) to produce adrenaline, a hormonal messenger responsible for mobilising our stress response, which is part of the nervous system.

Adrenaline stimulates elevated blood pressure and moves our nourishing, cleansing blood supply away from core processes such as digestion and immune function and into our extremities, mainly our arms and legs, mobilising us for action. You know the coffee rush, right!?

This mechanism is excellent in cases where we are fighting against or escaping from danger. Less good if we’re fighting the clock or running away from an overflowing email inbox, which the body can’t distinguish from a true threat. A body in balance can handle some activation of the nervous system and will return to homeostasis naturally as the caffeine and resulting hormones are processed by the liver. However, if we pour caffeine over the top of an already activated nervous system, then we turn up the volume on a dynamic where we’re mobilising a lot of energy that’s not necessarily being burned, compromising digestion and signalling fat storage to our bodies. You read right. Stress stops you burning fat. And coffee increases stress in your body.

So, what to do? Choose the moods (largely resulting from an overloaded nervous system), the extra sweating, possibly some impacts on our waistline but have sufficient energy, or cut it out and feel drained, hungry and deprived (and probably moody on this side too...)? That sounds like a lose-lose situation, and I prefer to create a winning possibility.

Stay with me a moment.

The thing about life is that it’s kind of like a spider web. If we touch it in one spot, we’re going to impact the whole web. It’s all connected. Looking at the coffee in isolation is therefore problematic. Looking at the causes of stress, addressing underlying time and energy constraints and examining the internal landscape in which the judgement resides is probably going to yield more results than cutting out the coffee directly, because the coffee is actually meeting some kind of need that’s not otherwise met. Hence deprivation when it's gone.

When I reflect back on my 16 hour days as a financial consultant where I was knocking back 6-7 coffees a day, if I removed the coffee from my web I probably would have fallen over.

Caffeine was actually propping up my nervous system, yet I was inches away from burnout. My web needed some serious reinforcement before the coffee strand could be cut. And it took time. Nowadays I enjoy coffee, sometimes decaf, sometimes not, in moderation.

So the answer is that you “should” do whatever is appropriate for you and your current situation, your body and your goals.

The one thing that seems to be true for most of us is that we could do with some stress reduction. If cutting out coffee is going to produce more stress than keeping it in, then I’d suggest going slow. Perhaps reduce the quantity, put in some healthy boundaries like waiting until at least 90 minutes after waking for your first cup and stopping with caffeine after 2pm. Maybe replace a cup or three with quality herbal tea.

Then, get honest with yourself and make some further enquiries about why you’re feeling tired, stretched and insistent on bullying yourself about every choice you make, including whether you get to drink coffee.

Relationships, including the ones we have with our lifestyle choices, are much more enjoyable when based on desires and (mutual) benefits rather than purely needs.

So for goodness sake, if you’re going to drink your coffee then make it a good one, pause, and enjoy it!

Your nervous system will thank you for taking a break and releasing the judgement.


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