This was the first question I received from a little nutrition presentation I did. The audience turned to the questioner then to me as they were clearly thinking the same thing…. “Do I have to give up my sweet, precious, liquid gold?!”
The answer was “no, it’s not, but maybe yes, it depends…” This is the standard response for many health and fitness questions because everything depends on the person, goals and context – (be skeptical of those who say otherwise).
Yes! You’re an individual! And your processing of coffee is going to be different to that guy you know who makes a brew before he goes to bed. You might be like 50% of the population and have a variant of the CYP1A2 gene which makes you a ‘slow metaboliser’ of caffeine, putting you more at risk of hypertension, heart disease and impaired fasting glucose through excess coffee consumption. You might be taking oral contraceptives – this will double the clearance rate for caffeine, so you’re probably good with half a shot of espresso if you’re on the pill.
But coffee, let’s talk about the good:
- It increases resting energy expenditure
- It increases mental energy.
- It enhances cognitive function
- It increases neuromuscular function and coordination.
- It has many antioxidant properties.
- It Increases short term memory.
But we know this, right, the media loves headlines that boast the benefits of coffee, and there has been a lot of research documenting these pros. We must also remember that caffeine is a drug, and like all drugs it does have its drawbacks.
So when we finish that yin yoga class, adenosine is produced and we feel like a space cadet. Take that same yin yoga class, but add an espresso half an hour before and we won’t have the same spaced out feeling. Why? because caffeine blocks adenosine production, up-regulating our own neurotransmitters such as dopamine and glutamate, and blocking our capacity to slllooww doowwnnn. So caffeine is not actually making us wired, it’s putting a brick on the brake pedal, allowing us to keep charging.
BUT I LIKE BEING UP AND ABOUT, HARD CHARGING, ALWAYS ON THE GO, DOING EVERYTHING AT ONCE…
To work out the effects of coffee, we must factor in our external environment. Most of us live in a sympathetic/stress dominant society. High intensity exercise, smartphones, 12 hour workdays and the ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ mantra means that we’re often wired from dawn to dusk – no this is not good. Add caffeine to this sympathetic state and we can easily become over – stimulated where anxiety and jitteriness can override the cognitive benefits to the brew.
I can attest to this in my own life. Get me on a holiday and 2 coffees a day will really hit the spot but if I have the same amount when I’m in the city, running a business, studying and training heavily and that same amount might send me over the edge. Realising this has led me to avoiding caffeine in stressful times like exams or long work days, but enjoying it when I feel myself more balanced.
In a more practical sense, let’s look at when coffee can or cannot help you:
Studies show that coffee is good for ‘getting shit done.’ Not necessarily for creativity but for completing learned tasks that don’t require creativity or intuition. For unskilled, learned behaviour, e.g. data entry, you can get a lot more done, and probably have more fun.
The story is different when we need to apply abstract thinking and creativity. Studies indicate that caffeine will improve speed, but not necessarily skill. Though creativity is hard to measure in a lab setting, there’s some good evidence to suggest that moments of insight happen with the wandering mind. In my experience, moments of creativity occur when we’re in a float tank, after a yoga class, in meditation, and not when you’re forcing it. For me, jacking myself up with caffeine to inject some creativity often results in reverting to admin because we LOVE GETTING SHIT DONE.
For power sports like powerlifting and weightlifting, caffeine can play a role but I’d limit it to competition days and times when you really need a pickup. If you require it to get you psyched for every training session then you should take a day off and go for a walk in the sun.
Verdict: Avoid as a ‘pick me up,’ use in competition days.
In high intensity sports like MMA and CrossFit, caffeine can be effective, but again, if you’re using it to get you psyched about a workout then it’s time to pause and reflect. I’ve been around CrossFit for awhile and I’ve seen many people rely on stimulants to get them through workouts, neglecting the messages their body is sending them and leaving them susceptible to injury and burnout. Further, they block the parasympathetic nervous system activation that’s essential for recovery, and they end up moving through workouts without any purpose or intent – kind of like a wounded warrior in a battle scene who’s throwing their sword around courageously but failing to connect.
Verdict: Use on competition days and avoid reliance on it.
In endurance sports like rugby, AFL, or triathlon I don’t think caffeine has a place in training or on game day. The effects of caffeine are too short lived to be beneficial for the whole game. In these sports we need to think about longevity, recovery, and getting up and going week after week. Caffeine could only be used for the last 20 minute push in a grand final, but we want to be relying on adrenaline and muscular endurance 99% of the time.
Verdict: Avoid except for the last 20 minutes in a Grand Final.
In Social Occasions
Coffee holds a special place in our culture, and for many it’s a beautiful tool for getting people together, and this is the more important than any of the above. I’m coming to believe that the healthiest thing that you can do is have a good community and quality relationships, so I won’t let any of the above get in the way of enjoying coffee for social reasons.
If you enjoy coffee and it’s helping you in some form or another, then go for it. If you’re operating from one espresso to the next then maybe it’s time for a few days off, or a yoga class. For athletes, I’d seriously look at the effect that coffee is having on adrenal function and performance, and use it sparingly. Again, the case of coffee comes down to bio-individuality; who you are, what your goals are etc. One thing that we can all agree on though, is that you should always, at all costs, avoid decaf.
Steve is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner. While based in London, he works with clients around the world to restore health using fitness, nutrition and lifestyle protocols.
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