Up For Debate: the Coffee Conundrum...

Recent statistics show that Americans consume more than 100 billion cups of coffee per year, with half a billion cups being consumed every day. That’s more than 4,800 cups every second…24 hours a day.

Given this, it is no wonder that coffee has been caught in a health crossfire, with one side claiming it is chock full of instant energy and disease-fighting antioxidants, while the other side contends that coffee is a dangerous drug and should be avoided at all costs.

Who’s right? Turns out, there are good arguments on both sides of the issue.

The Addiction Factor

First things first, we have to address the addiction factor when it comes to caffeine and coffee. Caffeine is a drug, no different than alcohol or cocaine.

According to four double-blind studies, all conducted by one research team and all done in independent groups of healthy participants, a person can become addicted to caffeine in mere days, with a minimum amount of consumption.1 Additionally, coming off caffeine causes clear withdrawal symptoms, some of which can be quite severe.

In one of the studies, researchers broke participants into four groups, with each group consuming 300 mg of caffeine a day for one, three, seven or 14 days. They found that caffeine withdrawal occurred after just three days of caffeine consumption, with a somewhat increased severity of withdrawal observed after seven or 14 days.

In short, caffeine addiction takes hold quickly. Withdrawal symptoms and their severity can vary from person to person, manifesting as things as mild as headaches and drowsiness to more severe complications such as migraines, impaired concentration and even mild depression.

While no one disputes the addictive nature of coffee, the battle does wage on regarding the health benefits or consequences of this popular brew. On the plus side, advocates point to coffee’s high antioxidants and purport that it can give you an energy boost, relieve migraines (ironically enough) and even boost metabolism.

On the negative side, detractors point to stressed adrenals and imbalanced hormone levels, both of which have been attributed to coffee consumption.

With both views making their rounds in the media and health and nutrition world, what’s a person to do? Let’s head to the research.

On the Plus Side

On the antioxidant front, an 8-ounce cup of coffee has been shown to have a whopping 1,300 mg of plant-based antioxidants. This is in the same league as other antioxidant power hitters like spinach (1,260) and raspberries (1,220).

That’s an undeniable check mark on the plus side for coffee.

As for that energy boost, it’s a different issue. While the caffeine in coffee can undoubtedly perk you up, some experts feel the boost is really a cessation of the withdrawal symptoms, which gives a sense of relief and energy.

But most experts agree that the coffee boost comes from a surge of cortisol from the adrenal glands. It’s all part of your body’s fight-or-flight response, an excitatory reaction that allows your body to protect itself from a stressful situation.

Additionally, your adrenals secrete epinephrine (commonly referred to as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. This increases arterial pressure, as well as the rate of metabolism, the concentration of glucose in the blood, the conversion of sugar to energy in muscles and mental activity.

All of this causes your morning java to rev you up. However, this cascade has a downside, in the form of cortisol, which we’ll address a bit later.

There may also be merit to the theory that coffee boosts metabolism. In a cross-sectional study from Japan, researchers found that coffee consumption was positively associated with increased adiponectin levels.2

Adiponectin is a hormone secreted by fat cells that regulates metabolism, especially of fats and glucose. It also influences your body’s response to insulin. When you have high levels of adiponectin, you tend to have a higher metabolism, as well as more balanced blood sugar.

Additionally, it seems clear that coffee helps ease headaches. According to a cross-sectional study of 1,260 high school students,3 those who had low to moderate consumption of coffee had fewer migraines.

In another cross-sectional study, this time of more than 50,000 adults, a statistically significant association was found between high caffeine consumption and infrequent headaches.4 Additionally, those people who had headaches for more than two weeks a month were often low caffeine consumers.

Lastly, according to a study published in May 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine, high coffee consumption was linked to a reduced risk of death.5 When it came to women, researchers found that those who drank one cup of coffee a day had a five percent reduced risk of mortality. Those who drank two to three cups enjoyed a 13 percent lower risk, while those who consumed four to five cups had a 16 percent reduction in risk. More than six cups showed a 15 percent lower mortality rate.

With men, one cup correlated with a six percent reduction in risk. Two to three cups netted a 10 percent lower risk, while four to five cups was associated with a 12 percent reduction in risk. These reductions were noted for death due to heart disease, lung disease, stroke and diabetes. Interestingly, they were not associated with a reduced risk of mortality due to cancer.

So, to wrap up the plusses, coffee contains a significant amount of antioxidants, boosts energy levels, may be associated with a fast metabolism, helps fend off headaches and may reduce your risk of death from cardiovascular disease, diabetes and lung disease.

Now let’s take a look at the cons.

On the Negative Side

First and foremost, we must address the adrenal issue. Excess coffee consumption can put undue stress on your adrenal glands. As we discussed earlier, the caffeine stimulates the release of stress hormones during the fight-or-flight response. This is what gives you the boost.

Caffeine also triggers the release of cortisol from your adrenals. Cortisol is your primary stress hormone. In an attempt to buffer the effects of stress, cortisol is released when the body feels threatened. Plus, cortisol affects carbohydrate and fat metabolism, promoting the conversion of stored sugars and fat into energy, as well as hormone production.

However, with habitual coffee drinkers, this fight-or-flight response is never given a break. It would be like having an alarm going off in your house without it ever shutting off. You could handle it for a while, but soon you’d want to leave the house, turn it off or at least turn it down. But you could not. Soon, you would be exhausted.

That’s exactly what happens to your adrenal glands. With a constant coffee assault, they become exhausted and burnt out.

This was shown in one study of 1,500 psychology students.6 Researchers divided them into four categories, depending on their coffee intake—those who didn’t drink coffee, those who had about a cup a day, those who had up to five cups a day, and those who drank five or more cups a day.

They found that those students in the moderate and high groups had higher levels of anxiety and depression. They also had the greatest incidence of stress-related medical problems, as well as lower academic performance.

On the hormone front, coffee has been found to increase estrogen levels in women. In a cross-sectional study of nearly 500 women ages 36 to 45, researchers found that the more coffee a woman consumed, the higher her level of estrogen was likely to be.7

In fact, women who consumed four to five cups of coffee per day—the equivalent of at least 500 mg of caffeine—during the early part of their menstrual cycle produced nearly 70 percent more estrogen than women who consumed less than one cup of coffee a day—or 100 mg of caffeine. Based on these results, researchers cautioned women against drinking more than two cups of coffee per day.

This is bad news for women at risk for estrogen-dependent cancers. According to one study that compared coffee intake of 549 women who had been newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer with 516 healthy women,8 researchers found that consumption of coffee and caffeine in general was linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer in premenopausal women.

So, to sum up, the two biggest strikes against coffee lie in its overtaxing your adrenals and increasing stress and anxiety, as well as increasing estrogen levels, which is a risk factor for a variety of female cancers. Not great news.

Our Take

So, now what? Does coffee get the green light or the red light? At the end of the day, it is actually more of a yellow one, depending on your particular health concerns.

Coffee gets the red light for those people with an increased risk of hormone-related cancers, as well as those that suffer from adrenal exhaustion. In both of these cases, the dangers outweigh the benefits. (If you are not sure if you have adrenal exhaustion, you may want to invest in an adrenal function panel to determine your adrenal health status.)

Coffee gets the green light for people looking for migraine relief or a slight boost to their metabolism. The key, of course, is moderation. Aim for one to two eight-ounce cups of coffee per day.

Most people, however, fall in the yellow light category. While coffee undeniably provides an energy boost, the neurotransmitter cascade is precisely what leads to adrenal failure. Additionally, coffee’s antioxidant capacity can be found in other natural remedies or even in different forms of coffee itself. For example, green coffee bean extract gives you the antioxidant surge, but with little to no caffeine.

Given this, if you are a self-proclaimed coffee addict, downing five or more cups a day, the research suggests you should pump the brakes. Switching some of your cups to decaf or an alternative drink such as green tea, ginger tea or any myriad of herbal teas in the market would be a good first step.

And, speaking of decaf, know this: In the United States, federal regulations require that, in order to label coffee as “decaffeinated,” the coffee must have had its caffeine level reduced by no less than 97.5 percent. Depending on the type of beans used, this could mean that your “decaf” still has up to 10 mg of caffeine in each cup. While that’s an insignificant amount of caffeine for most people, people with caffeine sensitivities may want to steer clear.

And then there’s the decaffeinating process itself. In most cases, toxic solvents are used to strip the bean of caffeine. One solvent often used is ethyl acetate, which is also used as a nail polish remover. Another is methylene chloride, which is commonly used as paint stripper or degreaser.

There are other, safer forms of decaffeination, including water processing and CO2 processing. If you decide to go the decaf route, these would be the two most desirable forms of processing. Good brands that use these forms of decaffeination include Newman’s Own® Organic Special Decaf, the Organic Coffee Company’s® French Roast Decaf and Wolfgang Puck’s Decaffeinated Sorrento Columbian Medium Dark Roast, all of which are available at Amazon.com.

Whatever you decide, you can now make an informed choice when you roll out of bed tomorrow morning.


1. Evans SE and Griffiths RR. JPET. 1999 Apr 1;289(1):285-94.

2. Imatoh T, et al. Eur J Nutr. 2010 Oct 16 [Epub ahead of print].

3. Milde-Busch A, et al. Headache. 2010 Jul;50(7):1104-14.

4. Hagan K, et al. J Headache Pain. 2009 Mar 24;19(3):153-9.

5. Freedman ND, et al. N Engl J Med. 2012 May 17;366(20):1891-904.

6. Gilliland K and Andress D. Am J Psychiatry. 1981. 138(4):512-4.

7. Lucero J, et al. Fertil Steril. 2001 Oct;76(4):723-9.

8. Kuper H, et al. Int J Cancer. 2000 Oct 15;88(2):313-8.
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