Sure, coffee has its health benefits, but do they outweigh nervous system overdrive and the risk of addiction? Don’t let your caffeine cravings control you.
Is Caffeine Bad for You?
Is an occasional cup of coffee or tea, or even that dark chocolate bar stashed in your desk, unhealthy? Not at all, but when you become dependent on it, it’s time for a pause. From the Ayurvedic perspective, we should be the masters of our own senses and not allow them, or caffeine, to control us. “Brahma bhavati sarathi” is a Vedic saying that suggests God, or your highest Self, is the charioteer of your life, rather than your senses or desires.
If you wake up thinking about a cup of coffee, ask yourself where that craving comes from and if you are in control of it?
A Culture of Overwhelm
Overstimulating our nervous systems has become a cultural right of passage. We often work, play, and shop in excess, while we tend to neglect sleep, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Caffeine can often become the charioteer, replacing the body’s natural signals of fatigue. Not only does this cause a litany of hormonal compensations and adaptations so that your body can borrow from Peter to pay Paul, it sets the stage for adrenal fatigue and a dependency on stimulants that have long-term consequences.1,2
The real concern from an Ayurvedic perspective, however, is how this constant nervous system stimulation—designed to keep us engaged in the material world—blinds us to the world and bliss within us. We come from nature and are deeply connected to its rhythms, silence, and simplicity. We have traded our deep knowledge and awareness of the subtle and most powerful aspects of both mother nature and human nature for a world that rarely delivers lasting happiness. While chronic caffeine use temporarily stimulates the body and helps us feel good, we don’t need it. We are designed to feel good and experience joy on our own—naturally and sometimes for no reason.
The Importance of Stillness
The Veda, or ancient text, dedicated to contemplating transformation, the Dhanur Veda, uses the bow as a metaphor for life. We must learn how to pull back and hold the bowstring still—and then take action in our lives from this stillness. Overstimulated and caffeinated are the antithesis of stillness and they interfere with taking action from your calm, quiet, sattvic, and inner most self. Sattva is a state of mind that is self-fulfilled, at peace, and content without stimulation.
Consider weaning off of your go-to vices, especially when you are under stress. Become aware of how your mind pulls down a menu of stimulants and distractions to deal with stress. Perhaps you distract yourself with caffeine, sugar, chips, alcohol, workouts, yoga, movies, naps, or hikes. Become aware if any of these stress responses have control over you—whether you find yourself craving or needing them in some way. The goal is to become free of what controls you and become fascinated by your mostly unexplored world of inner space.
Caffeine: Our #1 Distraction
Stimulating our senses with caffeine can deliver health benefits, but at what cost long-term?5
While an occasional caffeinated beverage may be harmless, or even beneficial5, 90% of Americans are regular consumers of caffeine, with 64% of it coming from coffee.1,2,4 According to a study published in the Journal of Caffeine Research, the average adult consumes 200 mg of caffeine per day, which is equivalent to the caffeine in two cups of coffee or five twelve-ounce soft drinks.
The researchers found that 30% of coffee drinkers met the criteria for caffeine dependency or caffeine addiction—continuing to drink coffee even though caffeine was causing them physical harm. Over time, they required more and more caffeine to get the same stimulation. And when they tried to cut back, they experienced caffeine withdrawal.2
Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in the world, mimicking the effects of cocaine and amphetamines. Caffeine stimulates the body’s dopamine receptors, which are responsible for pleasure, by inhibiting adenosine, a neurotransmitter that can act as a central nervous system depressant. Without adenosine available to govern how much dopamine is released, caffeine use can overstimulate your brain’s pleasure centers, causing a dependency followed by an inability to achieve the same levels of pleasure or reward with the same dose of caffeine. With excess caffeine, the body responds by upregulating (increasing) adenosine levels that further block dopamine-receptor activation, cause cravings for more, and ultimately create withdrawal symptoms and addiction. The Journal of Caffeine Research study associated caffeine addiction with psychological and behavioral health concerns.2 In spite of the numerous health benefits linked to caffeine, there are risks that are rarely spoken about today!
The stimulating properties of caffeinated tea, coffee, and chocolate are attributed to a group of alkaloids called methylxanthines and their derivatives, including theopilline, theobromine, and caffeine. Theopilline is primarily found in tea, theobromine in chocolate, and caffeine in coffee.3 High doses of these methylxanthines can overstimulate your nervous system and cause dependency and withdrawal symptoms. Fortunately, the levels of these compounds in tea and chocolate are low and less likely to cause health concerns. Coffee and energy drinks are the most common sources of caffeine abuse and addiction. And we get started early in the US, where sadly, 75% of children between the ages of 6 and 19 consume caffeine.1
Health Risks of Caffeine
Before I cite the list of health concerns linked to caffeine consumption, I have to acknowledge the number of studies on the health benefits of coffee. Studies suggest that coffee drinkers have reduced risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, inflammation, stroke, blood sugar and blood pressure issues, and premature aging.7 The hallmark benefits of caffeine are increased memory and cognitive function.
But more research is needed to confirm the long-term effects of caffeine, especially on the aging process. A couple of studies have not been able to replicate the studies that suggest caffeine has cognitive benefits.1
Once ingested, caffeine is primarily broken down by the cytochrome P450 oxidase enzyme in your liver. Because of the genetic nature of this enzyme, some people cannot tolerate caffeine, while others can. The body’s circadian clock is also regulated in part by the cytochrome P450 enzyme and because of caffeine’s ability to disturb sleep, researchers are concerned that caffeine may be the underlying cause of the wave of circadian imbalances commonly seen today.1
Caffeine can also cause heart arrhythmias by overstimulating the heart’s stress receptors. Additional research shows that caffeine causes frequent urination in women, psychological and behavioral concerns, and is, of course, contraindicated for pregnancy and lactation.1 Caffeine has also been shown to1,2,5:
- Increase cholesterol
- Increase blood pressure
- Increase risk of kidney stones
- Increase risk of decreased bone density
- Increase gastric secretion linked to heartburn and GERD
- Possibly be related to erectile dysfunction
- Cause damage to, or deplete, the nervous system
- Disturb neurotransmitters in the brain
- Slow DNA repair
- Increase inflammation
- Act as an intestinal irritant linked to digestion, absorption. and elimination concerns
In one study, 91.7% of coffee beans tested were contaminated with mold. Mycotoxins are linked to a host of other health concerns, including pain, fatigue, inflammation, and cognitive issues.6
Are you addicted to caffeine? If so, consider weaning yourself off of your coffee or energy drink habit with a chemical-free decaf coffee or tea. Look for decaf coffees that are made from something called the Swiss Water Process and teas that are herbal. If you still want the benefits of coffee, including the energy boost, without being controlled by your cravings for it, then less is more. You can cut back significantly, drinking a single shot of espresso a day—Euro style.
Once you decaffeinate yourself, let us know if you find yourself more inclined to meditate, do yoga, or practice one of my breathing techniques. There is a world of possibilities in your inner space just waiting patiently for you.