To drink coffee or to not drink coffee – this is an endless dilemma that many of us grapple with. If you’re on the coffee train but are trying to cut back, it’s difficult to resist the delicious aroma of a fresh morning brew wafting through the entire house, or the smoky, rich flavour that lights up every last one of your taste buds.

But often, the hardest thing to give up is the ritual: that simple act of grinding, brewing, pouring – taking that first sip and letting that wave of energy and clarity permeate your body and mind.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll latch onto every piece of evidence suggesting that drinking coffee is a healthy daily habit. Coffee is high in antioxidants and can improve concentration and  our ability to learn. Some studies have also found that drinking coffee reduces your risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease and may help with depression.

However, there are a number of well-reported negative effects attributed to drinking coffee. Coffee is, after all, a highly addictive mind-altering drug. If you’re chronically stressed, coffee adds to your allostatic load or cumulative burden of chronic stress. This may bring you nearer to burn out (more correctly known as HPA dysfunction). And the stimulatory action of caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and insomnia for those that suffer from these conditions. Coffee is also a common trigger for migraines and hot flashes in menopause.

How you react to the caffeine in coffee may be related to your genes. Some people are slower at metabolising caffeine because they have a variant of the CYP1A2 gene – a gene that normally encodes a liver enzyme helping to break down caffeine. Because the variant doesn’t work as well, caffeine builds up in their system and over time may increase their risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

But even if you’re a slow metaboliser of caffeine, there are certain things you can do to improve the impact that coffee has on your body and mind.

1. Don’t drink coffee first thing in the morning

There are several reasons why we should wait at least an hour after waking to drink coffee and ideally have it after our first meal.

Firstly, we lose around 1 litre of water while we are sleeping so first thing in the morning we are often dehydrated and our body needs water and electrolytes. Coffee is a diuretic that makes the body lose more water, causing further dehydration.

Secondly, about 30-45 minutes after waking, our body produces a natural spike in cortisol, giving us a boost in energy. The caffeine from coffee also causes cortisol release, putting us in fight-or-flight mode. So coffee first thing may make you feel jittery and for some people it actually reduces its energising effects. Chronically elevated cortisol weakens the immune system, upsets the balance of our hormones and is associated with a number of health issues.

2. Avoid having coffee on an empty stomach

The bitterness of coffee stimulates acid production by the stomach, which can be problematic for people that have IBS or other digestive issues. Lining your stomach with food before drinking coffee may prevent stomach irritation and reduce jitteriness in those that are caffeine sensitive.

If you’re going to have coffee without eating first, add a source of fat like butter, coconut oil or MCT oil to your coffee. This will slow the release of caffeine for more sustained energy release and less jitters.

3. Stop drinking coffee at least 8 hours before bedtime

The caffeine in coffee impacts our ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and the quality of our sleep. Studies have found that caffeine intake affects the length of time you will spend in deep, “slow-wave” sleep, which is essential for you to feel well-rested and refreshed the following day.

So if you go to bed at 10pm, the cut off for drinking coffee should be 2pm. If you’re experiencing sleep issues, this cut off should be shifted to earlier in the day.

4. Choose single origin, organic coffee grown at higher altitudes

Coffee blends are usually made up of inferior-quality beans from a number of different sources. When you choose single origin coffee, you know exactly where the coffee beans are grown. And opting for coffee grown organically means you aren’t exposed to toxic pesticides like organophosphates (OP), pyrethroids, and carbamates which are harmful to human health. Also, coffee grown at higher altitudes such as in the mountains of Central America is less likely to have mould growing on it.

5. Avoid instant coffee

All coffee beans that are roasted to a high temperature contain a certain amount of acrylamide. This can be toxic to human health and is linked to disorders related to the nervous system. Instant coffee has a much higher level of acrylamide, about 100% higher than freshly roasted coffee!

6. Be selective with the decaf you drink or opt for healthy coffee alternatives

Most decaf coffee is chemically processed to remove caffeine from the coffee beans. Also, since caffeine is actually the coffee plant’s natural antifungal, when you remove caffeine from coffee beans they are more prone to growth of harmful mould. A lot of the decaf out there is therefore loaded with chemicals and toxic mould!

If you’re able to get your hands on coffee that has been decaffeinated using the Swiss method – immersing coffee beans in water rather than chemicals – this is a much better option. Otherwise, healthier coffee alternatives include matcha (green tea powder) which is lower in caffeine and contains the calming amino acid L-Theanine, which balances the excitatory caffeine. Cacao is also a great option, if you’re wanting to ease off on coffee as it has lower caffeine, contains magnesium and is rich in antioxidants.


Written by Shaz Andrew, Naturopath and Holistic Nutritionist