Is coffee doing you more harm than good?

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Whether it starts your morning or finishes your day, we all rely on coffee to give us a boost. It helps us make up for a late night, catch up with friends, and push through a boring meeting, but could coffee be so good that it’s bad?
It all comes down to caffeine, and how much of it you drink. Experts recommend no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day – about four cups of coffee [1] – but why? There’s a lot of conflicting information when it comes to that beautiful brown brew, so we’ve compiled some of the data to help reassure you about your coffee habits – or maybe give you the boost you need to cut down.

What can coffee do for you?

The Good:

The good news for the two-thirds of us who drink coffee daily is that yes, coffee does reduce tiredness and make you more alert [2]. Coffee has been shown to reduce the risk of a heap of health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, depression, and even some cancers [1]!

Contrary to popular belief, coffee actually helps you hydrate. People used to think caffeine was a diuretic (makes you go to the bathroom), but now researchers think consistency is key – as long as you drink the same amount of coffee each day, at the same time, you’ll have no worries bathroom woes [3]. Coffee can even help at the gym! The caffeine in coffee can give your exercise a short term boost of up to 10% [3]. Best of all, coffee drinkers just live longer than non-coffee drinkers [1]. Three cheers for the bean!

Photo by Chevanon Photography

The Bad:

Coffee jitters are real: too much caffeine can lead to increased heart palpitations, anxiety, headaches, and even panic attacks [1]. Coffee can also disrupt your sleep, or stop you getting to sleep at all. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, definitely talk to your doctor about coffee – it has been linked to early birth and low birth weight [6]. For some decaf is the only option: even small amounts of caffeine triggers stomach aches, heartburn, fatigue, and irregular heartbeat in a small percentage of the population [3]. Coffee can’t sober you up, and has no impact on your blood alcohol level. It can make you feel more awake, but don’t let that fool you – you may still be drunk [5].

A bright spot: while it’s possible to have a caffeine overdose, it’s pretty much impossible for coffee to kill you – you’d have to drink more than 100 cups, or nearly 24 litres, in a single day [2].

Why does it affect people differently?

Turns out, the way coffee affects us is literally part of who we are. There are multiple parts of our DNA that affect our caffeine sensitivity, including how caffeine gets broken down in the liver, how the brain reacts to it, even how it impacts sleep [2]. Some people can tolerate a lot of caffeine, or only a little, but most of us are somewhere in the middle. Tolerance comes into play here – if you drink coffee every day you’re likely to be able to drink more without side effects, good or bad [4].

Photo by Elle Hughes

Is it true you build a tolerance?

As you might have guessed, you can build up a better caffeine tolerance when you regularly drink coffee, but a lot of it comes down to your genes.
A bigger tolerance isn’t necessarily a good thing either – if it takes more coffee every time to feel that buzz, pretty soon you’ll be drinking more than is good for you and losing all those health benefits!

How to tell if you’ve had enough

Always listen to your body – if a headache’s starting to come on, you’ve got a jumping knee, or you’re making friends with the toilet, it’s probably time to stop for the day.
Most importantly, take it slow. Caffeine takes anywhere from five minutes to half an hour to circle through your body: have one cup and wait for it to take effect before rushing back to the kettle [5].
Doctors recommend no coffee later in the day either: give your body a chance to return to normal and get ready to sleep.

Photo by Wallace Chuck

How can you cut down – or get off the beans altogether?

Caffeine is classed as a drug like alcohol or nicotine, and immediately cutting it out of your life will give you withdrawal effects just like any other drug. That said, there are some steps you can take to make cutting down, or quitting, caffeine easier [7, 8].

Is your coffee drinking part of a routine? Don’t get rid of the routine, try substituting something else. Always have a coffee at 4pm? Substitute it with decaf or a herbal tea; that way you keep your routine, and keep cutting down on your caffeine!
Start off cutting out just one cup of coffee each day. You may want to try this on a weekend or holiday so there’s not as much pressure.
Keep a diary of your progress. That way you have something to look back on and feel proud of, and a way to keep yourself accountable.

Remember that withdrawal symptoms take 12 to 24 hours to begin, and can last two to nine days. If you can push through that, you’re past the worst of it [5]!

The round up

All things in moderation: coffee can have health benefits, as long as you don’t have more than four or so cups each day.
If you don’t like coffee, the health benefits aren’t so amazing that you should start drinking it, but if you do, they’re a great bonus!
The biggest thing is to pay attention to your body: if you get those dreaded coffee jitters, try changing up your routine, or cutting down on the coffee.
As always, if you have any concerns about coffee you should speak to a medical professional for personalised advice.