How Much Coffee Should We Really Be Drinking?

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, 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.

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  • I drink coffee to be alert, never liked the bitter taste.

  • You spoke to EXPERTS! Excellent researching skillz, Team MR. (<– I'm a scientist so I can spot a good Private Eye when I see I see one!)

    • sin_plomo

      Is this sarcastic? I’m reading it that way but I’m English so that might be my fault…

      • haha normally i would say yes but this is just about the most sincere compliment I can give a girl! I love it when researching an article involves talking to actual real people. It’s so avant garde these days

        • Haley Nahman

          lol. THANK YOU!!

  • Leandra Medine

    My deduction is that you should have 4 cups a day.

  • ladle

    I love coffee. It’s on of those things that makes me think of my mom, like long red nails and red lipstick. I drink it plain, no sugar and no milk, and like maybe two cups (kitchen cups, not coffee shop cups) a day. It makes me feel a bit sharper, but that’s it. I think I metabolize it really fast. But then I have been drinking it a long time.

    • Emily

      I’m the same – I think my dad let me start drinking “coffee” (read: milk and sugar with a splash of coffee it) when I was 5 or 6, so I barely affected by it. Now that I’m ancient though, I can’t drink it after like 3 without my sleep getting out of whack.

      • I’m even worse than that, I can’t drink it after noon or else I’ll be awake for most of the night. If I’m feeling tired at work during that typical 2pm slump, I usually settle for a quarter of a cup or just green tea instead.

      • ladle

        My mom was tired of me sneaking sips from her coffee cup so she watered it down in a tiny tiny cup for me. I can’t handle sugar in coffee at all. Milk I can, though I like the taste of coffee too much.
        I can drink it at any time honestly – I have drank it at 3am and then fallen asleep half an hour later.

  • Molly D

    Who are the people who can actually drink it all day? Are their intestines made of steel or something?

  • When I started college, my coffee intake increased leaving me with insomnia and an upset stomach. Since then, I cut back on one cup a day and I definitely feel better 🙂 However, I am still an avid coffee fan ^_^

    Laila from Townhouse Palette

  • I only have 1 coffee on a morning now (it is a triple espresso but you can’t win em all) and I feel like I sleep a lot butter but still get that boost

    – Natalie

  • Merri

    Turmeric milk or matcha lattes. L.O.L.

    • Amy Bondeson-Boyce

      OMG…thought the same thing….I rather die a little sooner….

  • Robin

    I just started drinking coffee, think I’m on it for 1,5 moths or so. Never more than one cup a day though and probably 4 cups a week so -very- moderate consumption. Still I feel like I’ve done a great thing when I skip it. I just cannot grasp why I have such a negative view of it. Like, I like it and it makes me awake, so it is probably bad for me

  • Mariana

    I reduced to 2 a day years ago and since last year my normal routine is drinking 1 at breakfast, is better for my insomnia problem.
    Coffee in Portugal is not only a daily habit but a social event, that you share with your friends or coworkers. Here is not something that you take on-the-go, rushing from home to work. Is something that you take 5 minutes to appreciate.

  • I’m so confused about how my body reacts to caffeine now. I’m not a huge coffee drinker, tbh I only like lattes and will drink them if I’m meeting someone for coffee or before going out. But caffeine doesn’t really have an effect on me – I can drink a gigantic latte and feel sleepy/tired within an hour.

  • sin_plomo

    Haley you are a mindreader! I was just wondering about this myself the other day and bought a bag of decaff to mix things up, which is working well. But when I googled if it was bad for you the results were really inconclusive so thank you for this!

  • coffelover

    I love coffee and my routine was two small cups of tinto (black coffee with a little sugar) per day: one at breakfast and one at 5pm. I’m colombian so drinking coffee (real coffee, not over sugared watery stuff) is practically in my blood. I also spiked my tintos with a generous amount of cinnamon (a spice that had many health benefits) and I recommend this combination, it is quite tasty. Unfortunately due to orthodontic procedures I had to give it up 2 weeks ago because one thing is inevitable: there is nothing that stains teeth more than my beloved coffee. I have had no physical side effects from giving it up, but who knew it would be so hard emotionally? I miss it terribly.

  • I like to think I’m not physically dependent on coffee, since I drink only 1-2 cups a day, but I am definitely addicted to the whole experience of making it, holding a warm delicious-smelling mug, and drinking it slowly in the morning. I realize I could do the same with tea, but somehow it wouldn’t feel the same.

  • Natasha

    Is it normal that I rarely feel the stimulating effects of coffee at all? I can fall asleep within an hour of drinking coffee, no problem. Am I an alien? I mostly drink it because I enjoy the taste and the social aspect.

    • Merri

      I’m the same. I’ve never felt jittery, and I often drink a cup in the evening and fall asleep easily. My parents and siblings are the same. I do, however, feel the massive headache that comes with withdrawal if I don’t drink it, but it’s honestly one of the highlights of my day, so I don’t have a problem with that.

      • Natasha

        Hmm, my parents are the same too.. Maybe the tolerance is genetic. I definitely don’t think I’ve built it up – I don’t drink more than 1 or 2 cups a day, and I can go weeks without it. I think as long as we listen to our bodies and shake up our habits once in a while we should be alright!

  • grace b

    I would like to report that the TWO venti iced coffees I had was toooooooooo much coffee. I feel like I’m a freshman in college again learning my limits…

  • the bitter taste of coffee makes me stay awake

    Harga Cream Elora