Long-term gains are sacrificed for short-term goals with coffee. Here’s why.
I know this going to raise the hackles of some my biohacking friends and competitive athlete clients who love their bulletproof coffee. I, myself, love the smell and taste of a good espresso and am not against an occasional cup of coffee. But I do recommend to my athletic and fast-paced clients that they take daily coffee out of their diet, in exchange for a higher degree of cognitive and athletic performance.
I should note that I live in one of the smartest, athletic, and most ambitious places in the country (Boulder, Colorado), the kind of place where scientists, tech start up entrepreneurs, and nationally-ranked triathletes all rub elbows over a green-smoothie Sunday brunch. It’s the kind of place where being at the top of your game — and staying there — is a serious driver for many of my friends and my clients. Coffee, then, is often used by these high-achieving men and women to climb their next literal or hypothetical hill.
Coffee and Credit
Chinese Medicine is fond of metaphors to describe how our body functions, for the simple reason these metaphors point to the larger truths that emerge from complex systems like the human body. Caffeine’s interaction with the body is like that of a credit card. The credit card is a great financial tool and can give us extra resources right when we need it. Chinese Medicine envisions the kidney/adrenal complex to be very similar.
Caffeine allows us to borrow the energy of tomorrow from our reserves to use today, which is great in a pinch. If we use our credit card sparingly and pay off our balance in full each month, it just is a tool to help manage our finances. The problem is when we no longer can pay what we owe each month and go further and further into debt. Likewise, when we use caffeine beyond our ability to repair via our parasympathetic nervous system, i.e. rest and repose, we start to see the ecology of our body being damaged. (The parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes called the “rest and digest” system, and is what is active when we slow the heart rate and relax our sphincter muscles — chilling out, in other words.)
In functional medicine, we like to focus on how substances interact with the receptor sites, the space in between the neurons. Understanding how crucial neurotransmitters function, we get insight into how different substances impact our body. Caffeine blocks the receptor site that the neurotransmitter adenosine binds to. Adenosine slows you down and activates your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of your nervous system gets you ready to sleep, digest and repair cellular damage.
The great part of caffeine is that when we block our nervous system from slowing down into parasympathetic response, we get the rush of speed, strength and delayed fatigue from a sympathetic nervous system that remains active. This rush stimulates dopamine and we get a satisfied feeling of our global reward signal being pinged. All is good, for a time. Except that we’re accruing debt on that credit card.
Coffee and an Adrenal Stress Response
Nature designed caffeine as a protective pesticide which functioned to shock the herbivores munching on it. So what happens when we are down-regulating adenosine and stimulating the system throughout the morning and the afternoon, downing coffee to get us through the next lull in our workday? We go into an adrenal stress response.
You know your adrenals. The last time someone cut you off when you were a little sleepy, you felt them. Boom! The adrenals stimulate the release of the big dogs: adrenaline and cortisol flood the system and we are awake — wide awake. You feel jazzed and might feel a pit in your stomach, but you’re ready! At least until the adrenaline and cortisol wear off, and the fatigue returns.
Drinking coffee or other high caffeine drinks is creating this moment all the time, but in a smaller way. And over time, it has some serious side-effects that can impact those of us looking to operate at our very best.
#1 Blocks Cellular Healing and Deep Sleep
Drinking coffee for years will lead to elevated cortisol levels throughout the day and evening, the downside to the stress response. Staying in a dominant sympathetic, fight or flight state blocks repair and more importantly inhibits the deep delta wave sleep which is where we repair both body and mind. Staying in a sympathetic dominant state for an extended period can impact the regeneration of the nervous system over time and lead to anxiety or sleep issues, premature aging, slower recovery from injury, slower muscle growth, and damage to the cardiovascular system.
#2 Releases Sugar that Gets Converted into Fat
Spiking your cortisol causes your insulin to surge and release the sugars out of your liver and into your muscles for increased energy, but those sugars get turned into fat unless their immediately used. Increased cortisol ups the conversion of your essential fatty acids, and in an emergency (or if you down an espresso right before a CrossFit workout) this can work because the fats are used before they have a chance to land on your waistline. But if you’re drinking coffee at your desk or on the bus, like most of us, those sugars turned to fats are doing you more harm than good.
#3 Coffee Equals Long-Term Inflammation
Controlling inflammation is the key to faster recovery from workouts and slowing the aging process. This is why things like Whole Body Cryogenic Therapy have appeared for the most cutting-edge of athletes, in an attempt to slow the inflammation response of the body.
Having an elevated sympathetic state creates vasoconstriction, which means less blood flow to your periphery. Many coffee drinkers remark on cold hands and feet because they are chronically vasoconstricted. This increase recovery time and will aggravate old injuries and create a higher level of inflammation over time.
A low inflammation diet and exercise regimen is one of the best ways to ensure steady, stable growth, especially for those who are pushing their edges in other places and creating intentional stress responses (the gym) alongside unintentional ones (the job).
#4 Coffee negatively impacts your gut health over time
The acidity of coffee is associated with digestive discomfort, indigestion, acid reflux and dysbiosis (imbalance of your gut flora). Caffeine interferes with the production of GABA, the neurotransmitter that calms your nervous system and tells your gut to digest. When we favor the sympathetic nervous system by using stimulants, we don’t allow our parasympathetic system to do it’s job.
In this case it is getting the billions of intestinal villi to absorb nutrients and move wastes down out of your intestinal tract. Irritated bowels are a common complaint seen in our clinic, from IBS to diarrhea and constipation, most digestive complaints are improved by cutting down caffeine intake considerably. But more importantly then not having the side effects of too much caffeine is getting the benefits of a healthy gut and body whose PH is properly balanced.
Coffee as a Recreational Drug
An occasional cup of coffee tastes great and is super enjoyable. I tell my patients to use coffee as an occasional recreational drug not as a daily habit, like an occasional glass of wine or fine ale. That said, for committed athletes and entrepreneurs who are looking to optimize their practices for elite level of focus and output, coffee as a daily habit does far more harm than good, and should be avoided.
Keep an eye out for my next blog post on how to use small amounts of caffeine and large amounts of adaptogenic herbs to maximize your potential and minimize long term negative effects.
Enjoy your coffee, but enjoy it in moderation.