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Nutrition

How to have a healthy relationship with caffeine

November 10th 2017 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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Coffee (aka, survival juice) is a workday staple for many of us, and a good cup of builder’s tea is the ultimate British comfort drink, but how do you know if your caffeine habit has gotten out of hand, and what do you do about it?

Coffee and tea aren’t just beverages in the UK- they’re both cultural pursuits in their own right. It’s a fact universally acknowledged that you can’t get your hands on a proper cuppa beyond Britain’s shores, and while the notion that a cup of tea solves almost everything is widely held, coffee is also brewing up a storm. According to Mintel, coffee shop sales have soared by 37 per cent over the last five years, with 65 per cent of us having popped for a coffee over the past three months, and the market forecast to grow by a further 29 per cent over the five years to come, by which time it’s expected to be valued at a whopping £4.3 billion. Basically, beans are big business, tea is a national pastime, and the logical conclusion is that we’re all a bit buzzy as a population.

The thing is, as most of us who’ve cradled a hot cup of coffee on a cold winter’s morning will identify, caffeine can be a profoundly positive and uplifting stimulant, delivering a literal shot of energy and comfort when you need it most (can you tell that I’m emotionally attached to espresso?). Despite the jittery reputation, some believe that caffeine can have a positive effect on our health and wellbeing when consumed in moderation, and a few of our much-loved caffeine sources such as tea, coffee and dark chocolate are praised in health circles for their high levels of antioxidants, plant polyphenols and flavonoids. As such, here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of caffeine, alongside how to work out how much you’re actually having, whether you could be hooked and how to gently ease yourself off the java.

The good news

Caffeine per se doesn’t have any direct, proven health benefits, aside from increasing alertness and concentration, although as nutritional therapist Daniel O'Shaughnessy highlights, this effect is temporary. Anecdotal evidence suggests that caffeine can make you feel more sociable, while South Korean research indicates that caffeine could improve immune function and reduce the severity of allergic reactions and asthma attacks. By no means go replacing your Epipen or inhaler for ristrettos, however, as the potential protective effect is small, and chances are you’d have to get through litres of latte to replicate the anti-inflammatory effects of your meds.

As for other hopeful caffeine tidings, a French study reported that women who consumed caffeine regularly showed a slower cognitive decline than their decaf counterparts. Again, more research required, but if you’re partial to a brew this can only be a win in caffeine’s corner. As for other purported caffeine advantages, much of the good press is related to the caffeine ‘vehicle’ so to speak, rather than caffeine alone, as Daniel explains:

“Coffee and tea definitely have health benefits. Coffee is rich in antioxidants and research shows that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of diabetes, liver diseases and neurological disorders. Studies also indicate that coffee drinkers live longer, with the optimal amount of coffee being around four to five cups a day for maximum longevity.”

We chug 55 million cups of joe every day in the UK, so that probably makes us immortal. To this roster of bean benefits, Karen Alexander, Technical Advisor & Nutritional Therapist at Wild Nutrition, adds that coffee drinking is also associated with a lower incidences of obesity, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease, and in some cases it can reduce the risk of certain cancers. To add to the glowing coffee CV, a significant US study reported that women who drank two cups of coffee a day or more were less likely to suffer from depression.

Coffee and other caffeinated drinks naturally increase our feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, so it’s no wonder that we love them so much.

As for tea, going green is particularly positive from a health POV according to Daniel:

“Green tea is rich in polyphenols such as flavonoids and catechins which function as powerful antioxidants and can protect the body from damaging free radicals. Green tea also contains theanine which can promote calmness. L-theanine increases the activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, which has anti-anxiety effects. It also increases dopamine and the production of alpha waves in the brain, which is why green tea gives you a milder buzz than coffee.”

If nothing but a mug of Yorkshire will do, you’ll still get your antioxidants in, plus a dose of calcium if you take milk. Hold the sugar for health purposes. You’ll also find a high antioxidant count in dark chocolate, alongside caffeine (in general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the caffeine content), and the latest incentive for a square or five mid-morning is that it boosts levels of healthy bacteria in the gut. We’re just popping to the newsagent...

The bad news

Many of us have overcaffeinated at least once in our lifetimes, and will be familiar with the ‘energiser bunny in a bad way side effects’. Think mental and physical restlessness, increased anxiety, headaches, irritability, eye twitches, general rambling, an increased frequency of loo trips and digestive discomfort, although how caffeine affects each of us is a personal issue, as Daniel underlines:

“Metabolism of caffeine is dependant on genetics. Some people may not metabolise caffeine well, which means that it can linger in their for system longer, exposing them to negative effects of caffeine such as increased blood pressure.”

Karen recommends limiting your exposure to caffeine if you notice adverse effects after even just consuming relatively little, as the fact that some people’s livers are slow to process caffeine can also present problems where blood sugar control is concerned.

From a mental health perspective, Daniel emphasises that necking flat whites isn’t advisable either:

“Coffee stimulates the adrenal glands, which means that every time you drink it, you're activating the body's fight-or-flight response. For the stressed individual, this can make matters worse, plus make you feel more tired in the long run.”

Most of us are familiar with the caffeine ‘crash’, when the effect of your morning cappuccino wears off and you’re essentially nursing a degree of caffeine ‘hangover’, but for those suffering with the following conditions, it would be wise to limit or avoid caffeine altogether:

  • Anxiety

  • Dizziness

  • Upset stomach

  • Irritability

  • Insomnia

  • Fast heartbeat

  • Tremors

Those with urinary incontinence will likely need to cut down their caffeine intake too, as caffeinated drinks in particular have a diuretic effect, encouraging the body to produce urine at a faster rate than is normal.

Daniel adds that caffeine should be minimised to 200mg or less during pregnancy as it can cross the placenta and reach the foetus, increasing the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery and lower birth weight.

How much caffeine are you consuming?

You may be drinking four or five cups of coffee or tea and day and feeling just dandy, but it’s not just your daily hot drink fixes that come laced with caffeine. We’ve covered chocolate, but you’ll also often find the stimulant present in energy drinks, which may seem rather obvious, but many play on their natural vitamin and mineral content alongside “reviving” herbs, without necessarily shouting about the fact that some cans contain almost 150mg of caffeine per can. Then there’s the really hidden caffeine sources, as Karen describes:

“Many medications for headaches, migraines and colds and flu contain caffeine, so always check the ingredients on the label. This is also the case for some supplements (watch out for “sports” supplements in particular), which is especially problematic if you are a slow metaboliser of caffeine. Reputable supplement brands will not add caffeine to their products so always check the label for this and other undesirable added fillers and binders.”

As for the well-known caffeine hits, here’s what your average servings clock up in terms of caffeine content:

One mug of filter coffee: 140mg

One mug of instant coffee: 100mg

One mug of tea: 75mg

One bar of dark chocolate (50g): 50mg

One can of coke: 40mg

One bar of milk chocolate (50g): 25mg

This is roughest of rough guides, particularly if you frequent coffee shops, as caffeine content can vary wildly according to coffee serving sizes and strength, coffee beans used and roasting and grounding methods. Daniel gives us a few benchmarks:

“Caffeine content can range from from 100mg for an espresso to 300mg for a large high street chain coffee, and be aware that even decaf can contain caffeine. Coffee shops want you to develop an addiction so that you keep coming back!”

That’s a side order of sinister with your short black, and speaking of caffeine cravings...

The signs of caffeine dependence

Caffeine, and especially coffee, has been somewhat fetishised in the 24/7 social media landscape, but as with anything considered through the filtered lens of the Internet, Karen reckons that it’s worth looking beyond the memes and latte art for a caffeine reality check:

“Many people use language like “I can’t start my day until I’ve had a coffee” and the Instagram quotes about coffee addiction have become part of social media culture. However, no one should need coffee or caffeine to function.”

It may feel like rocket fuel on tough days, caffeine isn’t a cure-all, and the more you consume, the less you get out of it, as Daniel summarises:

“If you simply cannot function without coffee and the buzz is not there anymore, you’re likely dependent on it. Anything above five cups a day, or much more than 400mg, can be considered excessive.”

If you start to experience withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, low mood, anxiety, difficulties getting to sleep or even palpitations, you may have developed a physical dependence on caffeine. From a psychological perspective, if you’re spending a lot of time thinking about and seeking out your next caffeine fix, or struggling to quit even though you know it’s having a negative effect on your wellbeing, it’s possible that your relationship with caffeine is veering towards the unhealthy. Ease off the espresso pedal and ride out the symptoms for a few days, or alternatively, try a few of the following techniques and alternatives. Not the same lift as a Venti americano you’ll agree, but far better for your nerves in both the short and long term.

Cutting back on caffeine

If you feel sprightly, happy and healthy on your daily brews, by all means crack on, but if you suspect that you and caffeine need to go on a break, or at least take it slow, there are a few practical and holistic steps to take. First off, the obvious one- cut down on the strength and frequency of caffeinated drinks. Daniel also suggests looking at the way you’re consuming caffeine, and making changes according to how it’s affecting you:

“If you suspect that caffeine is triggering sleep issues, try not to consume it after 1pm. Have caffeinated drinks with a meal so that they don’t raise blood sugar so much, plus this way you’re less likely to get the jitters. Don’t consume caffeine when you’re feeling stressed, as it’ll only make you feel more frazzled, and as a general rule always use high quality tea and coffee- poor quality coffee in particular can be riddled with mould and pesticides. If you do want to go decaf, go for water-processed- this should be stated on the label.”

As an alternative to going cold turkey, Karen encourages alternatives such as matcha green tea or even a matcha latte if you’re feeling swanky/spendy, or if are kicking the caffeine bucket, start the day with a dandelion, barley or chicory coffee (they’ve been doing the rounds since wartime rationing days). Hot water with lemon will make you feel suitably virtuous, and if it all gets a bit much, Daniel keeps a bag of cacao nibs handy for a bitter, slightly caffeinated kick.

Karen’s last piece of ‘coming off the caffeine’ counsel is to be kind to yourself:

“One of the best ways to recover from caffeine addiction is to allow yourself an initial period of time where you can relax, have plenty of deep sleep and eat wholesome, nourishing foods prepared at home where possible. You cannot expect your body to run optimally without allowing yourself time to recover.

Coffee and other caffeinated drinks naturally increase your feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine so it’s no wonder we love them so much. Find other ways to naturally increase your dopamine levels, such as laughter with friends, listening to great music and exercise.”

Replace lattes for lolz. Let us know how you get on….

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Follow Daniel on Twitter @NkdNutrition, Karen @NutritiousRoots and Anna @AnnaMaryHunter

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