For years my brother had a running joke that my identity as a non-coffee drinker was the worst thing about me. It was hyperbole (obviously), but I do think he meant it at least a little bit. He found it annoying that I didn’t join in on the ritual, that I wasn’t his partner in needing to make a pit stop on our way somewhere, that I always said no when he made a pot in the morning. I kind of got it because I felt a little left out, too. And then four years ago when I started drinking it, I really got it.
If I was eager to reap its social benefits, I was straight-up ravenous for its physical ones. Then and to this day, I still feel like drinking coffee is like cheating. “It’s like cheating!!!” <– I seriously say this at least once a month. My focus and productivity levels are unprecedented after caffeine; it’s really not fair to my non-caffeinated alter-egos who need to get shit done, too.
But the dull pound at the back of my head on a coffee-less day is a little reminder that my habit might not be healthy. How much coffee is too much coffee? Is it okay that I get a headache? Is it better to drink none at all? I decided to do some of my own research and, knowing our society’s trend-driven approach to health, forwent Google for real-life experts: Dr. Rupy Aujla, a general practitioner and the founder of The Doctor’s Kitchen; McKel Hill, an internationally-known Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the founder of Nutrition Stripped; and Aimee Hartstein LCSW, a seasoned psychotherapist who’s been practicing in New York for over 20 years. I wanted to know what they thought about modern day coffee habits.
I have good but not great news. Despite differing backgrounds — medicine, nutrition, psychology — they all felt the same way, and it’s the boring kind of health conclusion we’ve heard a million times. Some coffee is fine (but not too much), and we ought to think twice about why we drink it and adjust accordingly.
Dr. Aujla attributes caffeine addiction to our fast-paced lives. “People feel like they need a legal stimulant to carry them through the day,” he said. “When I so much as bring up the suggestion of reducing caffeine intake in clinic, it makes people super nervous.” SAME.
Hartstein thinks there’s nothing wrong with coffee in moderation but agrees that dependence for the wrong reasons is dangerous. “People who drink coffee around the clock are self-medicating in some way,” she told me. “The only real danger here is if someone is downing cups of coffee to soothe their feelings rather than sitting and dealing with them. Compulsive coffee drinkers can sometimes use caffeine as a distraction in order to not deal with other things.”
I guess the question we need to ask, then, is how much is too much? Short answer is it will vary. Nutritionist McKel Hill says tolerance is the key indicator. “Potential problems from coffee will be completely individual. You’ll have some who are fast or slow metabolizers of caffeine which dictate how they feel and how they body does on coffee.” She advises those who are most sensitive to caffeine, prone to stress, or suffer from migraines or digestive issues to be extra cautious about intake.
Dr. Aujla added a couple to the cautionary list: those who suffer from insomnia or raised hormone levels. “We have to weigh the potential side effects that include high blood pressure, restlessness and jitteriness,” says Dr. Aujla. “Just like a drug, you can experience tolerance where you will require more quantities to have the same desired effect.”
But…is…dependence…okay? Bad news. Not really.
“I really don’t think dependence on a substance that has these side effects is a good thing,” says Dr. Aujla. “If you develop headaches when you don’t drink coffee for a prolonged period of time, we’ve got problems, and I would definitely recommend gradually reducing your intake.”
Nutritionist Hill says other signs of addiction are feeling like you “need” coffee. “If you’re so dependent on an external substance that you need it to feel 1) energized, 2) awake or 3) like a functioning human being, then you should definitely take a closer look at why you’re body is relying so heavily on caffeine. I often recommend to clients to set up a reset week or month to recalibrate your body (and hormones) so it can find balance again. Something as simple as starting to decrease coffee by 1/4 the 1st week, 1/2 the 2nd week, 3/4 the 3rd week, etc.”
But if you don’t feel like you have a dependent relationship, you might be okay. “If you can easily withdraw from coffee and it has no negative effects on your sleep or overall wellbeing,” says Hill. “Then coffee may not pose as much of a problem to you.”
Now for the good news: It actually could be improving your health in some ways.
Dr. Aujla: “It’s well recognized in multiple studies that regular coffee drinking (~3 cups per day) is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, dementia and even fatty liver disease. I would put it down to the high polyphenol content of the beverage, the chemicals that reduce inflammation around the body, also found in dark green leafy vegetables and fruits.”
Drinking coffee is basically eating fruits and veggies, is what I just read. Hill notes, “Another benefit to coffee is the known performance enhancing qualities due to the caffeine (i.e. it’s a stimulant!). It can be great pre-workout to help give you a boost.”
Curiously, both Dr. Aujla and Hill recommended saving your coffee until the afternoon and skipping it every now and then. “I keep myself really sensitive to caffeine by consuming it infrequently, limiting my intake to about one to three cups per week,” said Dr. Aujla of his own habits. “I only drink it in the afternoons between 12 and 4, otherwise I’ll be awake past midnight.”
Hill says waiting is good for our cortisol levels. “Our cortisol levels are already naturally elevated in the morning so it actually seems when we drink coffee in the morning we’re adding fuel to the fire (that’s already burning) and that has the potential to cause elevated cortisol in some people who are already bordering that naturally from high stress, not enough sleep, poor blood sugar balance, you name it. In that case, enjoy coffee before late afternoon as long as it doesn’t impede on your sleep and rest.”
And when you skip it, Hill suggests trying an alternative. “There are SO many alternatives that can kick start your morning without coffee, such as turmeric milk or a matcha latte.”
So, ultimately, the answer is one to three cups a day, but listen to your body’s cues about how much is too much. Suffering from headaches? Anxiety? Losing sleep? Scale back. When you do drink it, do so in the early afternoon if you can. Everything in moderation.
Mugs and cups courtesy of Fishs Eddy. Photos by Krista Anna Lewis.