Coffee is a phenomenal beverage and there is no denying the fact about this. The benefits of coffee have been well studied and documented.
An umbrella review study, reviewed over 200 meta-analyses on coffee and its relation to health, and found that, coffee consumption was more often associated with benefit than harm for a range of health outcomes across exposures. Consumption of coffee associated with a lower risk of several specific cancers and neurological, metabolic, and liver conditions, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality.
Thus, coffee consumption seems generally safe within usual levels of intake, with summary estimates indicating largest risk reduction for various health outcomes at three to four cups a day, and more likely to benefit health than harm.
Lately, there has been a misunderstood hue & cry on the consumption of coffee, and the increase in cortisol production. Various articles completely blew up the issue, providing incomplete and false information to the general reader, in turn creating a panic situation of sorts, among the general coffee lover. Let’s take a little deeper look into the matter.
Firstly, coffee will effect different people differently, though that’s true for most other foods also. There may be people who can well tolerate coffee in copious amounts, without ever worrying about the side effects it may have in excess. Then there are others who are sensitive to coffee consumption, and just a cup will blow off their lids.
When we talk about cortisol, it is the body’s premier stress hormone. In simple words, when you are stressed, the body releases this hormone from the adrenal glands, and is a very essential hormone. Your body doesn’t produce something for nothing. Everything in the body has a role to play, and any disturbance can wreak havoc, if not controlled.
Cortisol is essentially a steroid, classified under glucocorticoids, used mainly for glucose metabolism in the body. The glucocorticoids also play an important role in lipid and protein metabolism and have an influence on the cardiovascular, skeletal muscles, central nervous system, connective tissues etc. They play an important role in maintaining glycogen reserves in the liver, heart and skeletal muscles.
The glycogen production is stimulated by the process of gluconeogenesis i.e. the conversion of protein into carbohydrates. That is the reason protein breakdown is increased by the excessive secretion of glucocorticoids which can lead to negative nitrogen balance in the body and thus muscle breakdown.
On the other hand, the deficiency of glucocorticoids results in retarded growth due to loss of appetite and reduction in amino acid absorption by the intestines. Also, these hormones are essential for normal muscle activity as deficiency causes rapid muscle fatigue and excess leads to muscular atrophy due protein breakdown.
The brain is highly sensitive to the actions of glucocorticoids. Deficiency of these hormones decreases brain activity and excess hormones produce euphoria, insomnia and hyperactivity. These hormones also have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. Deficiency of these hormones also increases water retention in the body leading to toxicity. There are 3 of them i.e. Cortisol, Corticosterone and Cortisone. Cortisol provides ninety-five percent of the glucocorticoids activity.
People experiencing various forms of extremely stressful experiences in their daily lives either in the form of extreme workouts like of those in HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), triathlons, ultra-runs, bodybuilding etc. or they are experiencing mental and emotional stress of any kind, or the body is under stress due to wrong eating habits, wherein the body is being overloaded with chemicals, or a lack of sleep, which is generally the most underestimated reason for stress; all will have an increase in cortisol release in the body.
Studies have shown that the level of cortisol in the body changes with daily cycles i.e. highest level of cortisol is present in the early morning (around 7-8 am) and the lowest levels are present late in the evening (around 3-5 hrs. after sleep, 2-4 am).
So cortisol is an essential hormone, and its use just like other hormones is supposed to be optimal. If your daily habits are wrong, don’t blame the hormone, it’s getting secreted more simply to protect your body. The reason it peaks in the morning is so that you can wake up, and the reason it dips in the evening is to make you sleep. If your body is secreting less than required cortisol, you will be extremely dull, fatigued, emotional and anxious.
Now, when people tell you don’t have coffee, because it releases cortisol, and cortisol harms the body, you need to understand the baselessness of such stupid statements. Caffeine does increase cortisol secretion, but so does exercise. Does that mean you will stop working out?
A study, tested 47 healthy young men, who were given 3.3mg/kg (equivalent to 2-3cups of coffee/day). The study saw an increase in cortisol by at least 30%, at least 60min post consumption. But please understand that this is just a temporary increase. It’s not a chronic elevation in cortisol.
Another study found that, caffeine consumed in the diet leads to development of tolerance to its effects, with a consequent elimination of any potential untoward consequences. But the part to observe was that cortisol increase was very normal and even less in people consuming caffeine regularly. So, if you are regular coffee consumer, the cortisol issue is never the one to bother you.
Also, most of the studies have taken a single acute dosage of caffeine into consideration, not chronic or long term ingestion, the way most coffee drinkers consume their daily poison. Every substance which you put in your body, produces some kind of effect. But these are acute and short term effects. You will hear a lot of health experts telling you about times when coffee is not to be had. Some of these advices are simply common sense, some are confusing, and some are outright rubbish.
For e.g. in a lot of cases I have heard the statement that coffee should not be consumed first thing in the morning, before sleep and instead of meals. Now, before sleep is common sense as it interferes in the sleep, instead of meals is utter rubbish as no one misses a meal for a coffee, and if you do it once in a week or so, it’s not going to harm you in any way. This is like giving an advice just for the sake of it.
Now comes the morning issue, which is controversial as well as consuming because in various parts of the world like South East Asia, having a morning cup of tea or coffee is an age old tradition. On the other hand, having a morning espresso shot is a century old tradition in European nations specially Italy and Spain.
Cortisol peaks in the mornings at around 7-8 am. So, the scientists’ advices one to consume coffee after 0930 am till 1130 am, when the cortisol levels are said to drop. The other times, cortisol is said to peak is between 1200-0100 pm, and from 0530-0630 pm. At times, when the cortisol levels are at the peak, coffee may further push the cortisol envelope.
Now, let’s take the common sense approach to this. Firstly, a lot of people love to have their morning tea or coffee, with or after breakfast. This is not an addiction, it’s a part of life which they cherish and enjoy. Even if the cortisol increases (though the timing when it peaks will be different for different people), it’s just a temporary increase, which will stabilize after some time. Enjoying your favourite beverage in the morning is not addiction.
The problem occurs, when you are sleep deprived most of the times, and you try to stay awake by having multiple cups of coffee, which skyrockets your cortisol and damages you in the long run. But, even here it is not the coffee which is to be blamed, as it is an amazing beverage which is just helping your stay awake and be more productive. On the other hand, we have already seen the amazing benefits of coffee, which makes it a beautiful beverage to relish.
On the other hand, if you drink coffee between 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. there won’t be much of an issue as the cortisol levels are already high. Caffeine in the form of coffee is relished worldwide generally in the morning, or late mornings before lunch or even in the evening.
A study tried to find out the effect of caffeine on appetite, energy intake and gastric emptying. The subjects were 18-45yr old non-obese, non-smoking men and women. Their average intake of caffeine was around 240mg per day, which is equivalent to app. 2.5 cups per day. But some participants even took caffeine up to 740mg/day. Each participant was given a beverage or a capsule which either had caffeine or was a placebo. First dose was given in the breakfast, and second was given after 120min.
The study found no major difference between groups in appetite or energy intake. The results of the study are counter to popular perception of morning coffee as an appetite reducer.
A neglected aspect, related to coffee intake in the morning is the benefit it will have on people performing an early morning workout. After a good night sleep, once you wake up, the nervous system is still not ready to perform an intense workout. Now, some elite level athletes, delay their workouts, to have the requisite readiness and intensity required to perform hard workouts. But that’s not the luxury with most others. Time is of great shortage with many, and missing a morning workout would simply mean, missing the workout completely entirely for the day.
One of the easiest ways to stimulate the brain, in simple words be mentally ready to perform an intense exercise session, is to have a good strong black coffee, or a good pre-workout supplement, around half an hour before the workout. During the workout, the cortisol levels will again rise, but then again it’s a temporary increase, which is essential for muscle growth post workout.
Everything is bad in excess, so is coffee. But a cup or two a day is not excess. So, please enjoy your coffee, anytime of the day without worries. Of course, night time may not be the right time, so avoid it in late evenings.