To Drink Or Not To Drink – The Coffee Controversy

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Lately there has been a lot of media attention and research surrounding caffeine and its effects on our health. I’ve heard reports on the radio that suggest that one to two cups of coffee a day for women increase mental acuity and alertness . While this sounds pretty common-sense, it has on some days influenced my decision to drink coffee over another beverage. What has surprised me the most has been how the same program (the Dr Oz show) has both promoted and warned against the use of caffeine in our quest for better health. As a nurse, I know that caffeine is a drug -   whether it’s in coffee, tea, or as caffeine citrate, which we give as a medicine to patients for certain heart rate abnormalities. So naturally, as with any drug, there are side effects: increased heart rate, abnormal heart rhythm, restlessness, anxiety and increased production of urine. As a drug, it can also be habit forming and thus produce certain other symptoms as we try to break the habit. What’s most concerning to me as a woman is when I see other women (and men) use and abuse caffeine as a means of weight loss. Though it does speed up metabolism (to a degree), it also speeds up heart rate and can have negative impacts on cardiovascular health. I’m talking about the incredibly large doses that individuals consume in weight loss pills and some energy drinks. Combined with other ingredients in these products, the caffeine can be pretty harmful, leading to headaches, dizziness, and heart palpitations.

 

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While it is by no means a weight loss strategy and should not be used to mask some of the more insidious reasons behind our fatigue (i.e. lack of sleep, poor diet, hormonal imbalances, etc), I can’t argue that caffeine is my friend. I’m a nurse   who works mostly night shifts and, while there are nights when I can stay awake simply by keeping hydrated with ice cold water and being active, there are those nights when the perks of my coffee or tea can’t be ignored. I work in an environment where mental acuity and alertness are paramount. If a good cup of coffee or chai will help me feel more present and clear, it’s definitely the right option for me. Even Dr Oz agrees that 200-300 mg of caffeine (about 2-3 cups of coffee a day) is not harmful and can in fact be beneficial for our health. A recent article by CNN highlighted how some new research shows a correlation between women’s consumption of coffee and decreased risk of depression. The Huffington Post also listed   seven health benefits of coffee.   Among the most interesting (but probably requiring further research) are the effects of caffeine on cancer prevention and reduction in risk of Alzheimer's.

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As with most substances in this day and age (such as soy, dairy products, vitamins, wine and other ‘trendy’ foods), the research often confounds the average person. However, the thing to remember is that in most studies, whether the results are positive or negative, the subjects usually consume very large quantities of the product in question. My mantra on most of these foods is: know the full story, make an informed decision, and consume in moderation. For instance, I know the reported risks and benefits of caffeine, and then I make a decision based on what suits me and my health and life in that moment. Who wouldn’t enjoy the spicy comfort of a good cup of chai, or the slow roast and aroma of a strong cup of fair trade coffee? If I find I’m not truly enjoying it anymore   or I can’t start my day or activity without it, it’s probably a fair sign that it’s time to reevaluate my reasons for, and the consequences of, drinking coffee.