Monday, 23 January 2017

Post 42: All About Coffee

Hi guys,

This week’s post is all about one of our favourite drugs: coffee. You’ll know by now that I am an avid coffee drinker, and start most days with a steaming mug of joe blended with grass-fed butter. Now, this beverage is not strictly Paleo; Loren Cordain (who effectively began the modern movement) advises against it because of the caffeine content. In addition, it certainly was not drunk by our ancestors. In fact, coffee wasn’t around until the 15th century.

Even so, I still drink it. Coffee is symbolic of what I aim for in food: I start with Paleo (whole foods) as a base because I respect the motivations and conclusions of the people involved, then decide whether it’s biologically advantageous to enjoy. Finally, I work out how I deal with it personally, from a physical and mental health perspective. I might deal with the food group well, but tend to binge when it’s available. That means it has to be allocated to a mental category for “treats”.

It's amazing what google turns up
Coffee has a lot of benefits, and a few caution signs too, which we need to address. Like many health aficionados, I’ve decided that the benefits are worth it, not to mention the fact that is tastes great (when you know what to do or where to go), smells great, and makes you feel great!

How does coffee work?

First I thought I’d start by telling you how coffee (or more specifically, caffeine) actually works. Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors in your brain. Normally, when adenosine binds to the receptors, you feel sleepy, but when caffeine is already there, you don’t get the signal. To cut a complex story simple, caffeine doesn’t energise you, it just stops your brain from receiving the sleepy signal!

What caffeine also does is cause a cortisol release. Cortisol is stress, which is good in manageable doses, because it excites our bodies to work harder and faster. However, release too much cortisol and you become overstressed (irritable, mood swings, etc.).

Here’s some good news before we dive back into the negatives (sorry!), espresso contains less caffeine than drip or filtered coffee and, in my opinion, the taste is much better. So by drinking espresso based drinks you will be less stressed (which can be good or bad), but at least it will be delicious.

Coffee Cautions

Let’s start with the warning signs. When people reach for coffee, I imagine the majority are motivated by the mental and cognitive benefits. I am of course referring to caffeine. Caffeine is the main driver behind the “is coffee good or bad for you?” argument because, like any drug, the poison is in the dose.

Drink too much and you’ll become over reliant; you’ll be trying to cover up a poor diet which is making you feel sick and tired. A poor diet is contributing to bad sleep, so you feel as if you need coffee even more. A vicious circle ensues: you feel tired, so you drink more coffee, which interferes with your sleep, etc.

Not only that but as you become a habitual drinker (I call them “jug a day” people), the stimulating effects become lessened. While the stimulation will never completely diminish, you’ll always be chasing that old high.

And that’s just referring to the coffee itself. Once you start adding in lots of milk, creamers, half’n’half, sweeteners and syrups, the sugar content becomes astronomical. A concoction like that will skyrocket your blood sugar as well as the effect of the caffeine.

Here’s something interesting as well: heating the sugar found in dairy (lactose), turns it into something called beta-lactose. Beta-lactose increases blood sugar even quicker than lactose. So by having that vente pumpkin spiced latte, you’re destined for a blood sugar spike and crash of biblical proportions.

Before we leave this dark place, I want to draw your attention to another effect of stimulating cortisol release: it encourages your body to release more cortisol in response to other stressors. So, for example, you wake up early for an important presentation and quickly slam some espresso because it’s going to be a big day. Your body is now primed to be overstressed, and the little things will get to you even more, not to mention the big event itself! Ironically, it would be better to avoid coffee on days where you will be stressed out, because you will already feel the benefits of the cortisol release originating from your workload.

The Good Stuff

Now let’s shake off those bad feelings, and get loved up to coffee. Before coming into this post, I was well aware that I wasn’t going to convince people to stop drinking it and I had no intention to do so anyway. I am certainly going to carry on drinking coffee, but we all might as well know the deal we’re agreeing to.

There are many claims for its benefits, including decreasing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, but here are some that I want to talk about in more detail.

Caffeine - we’ve talked about this above, and it probably is the main reason why coffee is so popular. It makes you think faster, have greater mental endurance, and lets you perform better in the gym. I like to have my bulletproof coffee at the beginning of the day rather than a traditional breakfast because it’s quicker and easier, and provides energy for my morning workload. There’s not a huge amount to discuss here on top of what has been said above, but it’s important to draw attention to this popular stimulating effect.

Soluble fibre and digestion - coffee has a lot of soluble fibre (rather than insoluble e.g. in vegetables), which helps in a way which I’ll leave to the imagination… It also promotes gastric acid production, which will aid in digesting food quicker. This is one of the nice synergies with adding butter to your coffee, you consume an energy source and have the tools to break it down quickly.

Antioxidants and Polyphenols - it’s possible that coffee might actually be the highest source of antioxidants for Americans. Drinking the stuff aids in feeding your “good” gut bacteria and starving the “bad” types.

mTOR Suppression - This one I’ve covered in my post on intermittent fasting (link here), so I won’t go over it again in detail. What’s important is that by suppresing mTOR before working out, and then eating, leads to greater muscle gains.

Appetite Suppressant - I wanted to leave this one in here even though it could be seen as a positive or negative factor. Of course, if you’re using coffee in an attempt to starve yourself, that’s bad. If you’re a healthy individual who needs a little extra time on their hands or wants to fast a little longer, then it’s okay. On rare occasions it can be a useful tool in your arsenal.


So what is my actual advice on the matter? I’ve said that I don’t want or expect you to give it up if you have a healthy relationship with this particular drug. If you’re suspicious that you’re reliant on it, then take a week off and stick only to decaf. If you have withdrawals from the caffeine, then you probably had a problem. Otherwise, I think it fits in nicely with what we’re doing here and segues into my takeaways to boot:

  1. Coffee can mask a poor diet; don’t drink it if you’re reliant on it for energy or to suppress appetite
  2. To minimise the effects of caffeine on sleep, only drink decaf after 2pm
  3. Work your way down to black coffee and eliminate sugar filled extras and artificial sweeteners; enjoy the coffee for what it is!

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you did (and you aren’t already), follow me on Twitter @tomcowlin for regular updates.

Until next time,


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