Coffee: Legal Poison or Precious Medicine?
Do love your morning cup of coffee? Or do you think caffeine is a detrimental drug that should be banned? Either way, my hope is that this article will give you some food for thought.
As with most powerful medicinal plants, the story is more complicated than it seems. In Western society, we're always looking for absolute answers, but Eastern philosophy and alternative medicine encourage more flexibility and individuality.
Coffee is a medicine
According the the founder of Homeopathy, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, medicinal herbs do not provide any nourishment to the body, but have the power to alter its chemistry.
Coffee alone is not a significant source of calories or nourishment, but it has a strong effect on many systems in the body, including the circulatory system and the endocrine system.
Our innately intelligent body typically recognizes a strong medicinal substance and rejects its consumption by sending strong unpleasant sensations upon tasting it.
Which explains why, even if you drink coffee every morning, you probably didn't love it the first time you took a sip. Perhaps you drink coffee for other reasons than its taste. (Why else would you mask it with milk and sugar and syrup?)
Most children don't like the taste of bitter coffee, either. According to Homeopathy, it's our body communicating to us that this substance is not required in a healthy body.
Most people drink coffee because of its effects. Coffee:
- Gets you awake and energized
- Is a comforting habit
- Helps you go to the bathroom
The first two reasons are well-known, but few people talk openly about the third reason.
Nevertheless, many folks can't go to the bathroom unless stimulated by caffeine. Feeling plugged up is just as bad as feeling sleepy and sluggish. Coffee somewhat resolves all of these issues.
In a way, we are self-medicating every time we consume caffeine.
Coffee is a poison
Most medicines have side effects, and coffee is no exception.
You've probably heard many contradictory opinions about caffeine: Have it, it's good for the heart, metabolism, cholesterol and blood pressure. Don't have it! It's bad for nervous system, adrenal glands, digestion, and attention span.
Stephen Cherniske in his book Caffeine Blues: Wake Up to the Hidden Dangers of America's #1 Drug, lists a few scary consequences of regular coffee consumption, including: cardiovascular problems, anxiety, irritability, muscular tension and pain, indigestion, insomnia, depression, blood sugar swings, and nutritional deficiencies.
That said, I don't like to put things into categories of good or bad. Most natural substances and herbs are way too complicated to be pigeon-holed.
Since modern scientists are still studying the effects of over 800 active compounds in coffee, let's look at what ancient eastern herbalists have to say.
Ayurveda and homeopathy founder on coffee:
In Ayurveda, there are very few broad rules. One is that every item can be good for some people and bad for others.
Caffeine is no exception. What is nectar for one can be a poison to another says Dr. Lad, and Ayurvedic physician.
According to Ayurveda wisdom, coffee can be good for Kapha-prevalent people who need a boost to stay active and wake up their sluggish nature. On the other hand, Pitta types may find coffee too acidic and Vata types might feel drained from it.
Claudia Welch, a doctor of Oriental Medicine, agrees with Dr. Lad that coffee can be skillfully used as medicine in some cases but can be detrimental in other cases.
"When it comes to women dealing with stress on daily basis," says Dr. Welch, "it's best to give up coffee at least for some time, no matter what their body constitution is."
Coffee aggravates already overworked adrenal glands, it stimulates production of cortisol, and can exacerbate current hormonal imbalances.
In other words: for most people under stress, getting energy from coffee is like getting money from a credit card. Coffee pulls on the reserve energy of the kidneys and adrenals, putting the body deeper into biological debt.
The more exhausted the person becomes, the more desperately they turn to coffee as a stimulant. Instead of taking time to rest, to breathe and slow down, we overstimulate our nervous system until it breaks down.
Claudia also mentioned that not all caffeine is created equal. While tea and coffee both have caffeine, they have a very different effect on the body due to different innate qualities. Tea is bitter, light, astringent, and comes from a leaf. Coffee is heavy, oily, grounding, hot, and comes from a bean.
Most women might be craving coffee not just because of caffeine but because they are missing grounding and heaviness due to high stress. In this case, it might be best to substitute coffee not with tea but with another grounding substance, like dandelion root or chicory, advises Dr. Welch.
Dr. Hahnemann also notes that coffee can make us less aware of our body's natural urges to eat when hungry, to rest when tired, or to drink when thirsty. Basically, it deafens us to our internal voice to some degree.
I did an interesting caffeine experiment recently and learned a few cool things about caffeine, energy, and digestion relationship in my body. You can read my story here.
Caffeine and your bowel movements: the secret connection
As I mentioned above, many people drink coffee to stimulate elimination. (Sorry, but I had to be honest!)
While in the short-term, coffee can help stimulate bowel movements, over the long-term it creates constipation.
According to ayurveda, coffee can lead to chronic constipation by over stimulating the gastro-colic reflex. Once over-stimulated, the reflex loses its normal ability to be initiated by a morning glass of water and the individual becomes dependent upon coffee to pass stool.
The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, part of the National Institutes of Health, reports that caffeine can have a negative effect on digestion and lead to or exacerbate constipation.
Caffeine can lead to dehydration, and people experiencing constipation may experienced worsened symptoms if they drink caffeinated drinks, such as coffee.
Since coffee is a duaretic, it can lead to dehydration, which in turn can make stools dryer and harder to pass. Coffee, in part because of the caffeine it contains, leads to an increase in stomach acid production.
Greater amounts of stomach acid are linked to increased intestinal activity. Because IBS primarily manifests as a disorder of cramping and gastrointestinal overreactivity, the increase in stomach acid as a result of drinking coffee can lead to a marked worsening in symptoms.
Natural and Ayurvedic Coffee alternatives
Quitting coffee can seem like a great idea--but, as with any drug, it is not an easy task.
Fortunately, Ayurveda has some great options, including an herbal cappuccino!
Turns out that, when roasted, chicory tastes similar to coffee and can be used as a great coffee alternative.
Ayurveda offers different coffee substitutes for different doshas.
Dr. Alakananda Devi says that Brahmi tea is the best coffee substitute for vata types, calming anxiety, panic disorder and insomnia. A good morning coffee substitute for pitta is “coriander coffee.”
Coriander seeds are roasted, ground and made into a beverage. The roasting provides a coffee-like bitterness while the coriander seeds are pitta-calming and soothing GI.
Ginger tea, made from organic ginger root powder is the best morning beverage alternative for kapha, providing a natural stimulation to the system.
Tulsi tea is another great adaptogenic herb that can be used as a tea base for most people. To help restore adrenal glands that might have been depleted by coffee, one can take adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwagandha.
In general it takes about three to six months to fully restore adrenal glands if they are depleted by constant caffeine stimulation. During that time, it's best to rest and let your body restore.
To restore regular elimination, Triphala, priobiotics, and healthy fiber with plenty of water will help. Drinking a glass of warm water with lime or lemon in the morning can help stimulate peristalsis.