Coffee is, in some circles, referred to as a superfood (we’re looking at you, Bulletproof). In others it is positively denigrated for its addictive properties, adrenal-draining potential and ability to dysregulate hormones.
Is it possible that both these ‘truths’ are accurate? Can coffee be both devil and hero at the same time? Actually – it can. And which it is at any given moment is, yet again, dependent on individual health status – and potentially (though controversially) the quality of the coffee you consume.
The Hunter-Gatherer Diet Debate
Coffee beans have been prepared, brewed, chewed, roasted and ground and made into beverages for centuries. It is likely that these beans were around in the time of hunter-gatherers – though unlikely that the tribal populations were pausing every morning for their kick-start of caffeine. Additionally, the fashion today of drinking coffee laced with butter and oil is actually an ancient tradition – though it wasn’t originally using coffee beans (tea was used instead).
So coffee is traditional – but is it Paleo?
To be honest, it’s really, really hard to tell. Thought to be Ethiopian in origin, it’s quite likely that ancient populations who lived close to where coffee beans could be grown consumed them in at least some form. It is also quite likely that as soon as fire was discovered we would create brews and concoctions with anything we could find – which would probably include using coffee beans in some way. And yet it is highly, highly unlikely that ancient man was sipping through a tiny hole in the plastic lid of a tall paper cup at all hours of the day (and night). Whilst coffee itself may come from an ancient seed, our modern way of drinking the liquid this seed produces is a result of the modern environment.
Ancient civilisations may have used coffee for exactly the same reasons we do today – the stimulating, energy-boosting properties it confers on the drinker. And yet in modern society, this artificial energy boost is often depended upon, rather than enjoyed on occasion.
So how good for us/bad for us is coffee and caffeine consumption in the modern setting?
The Mechanistic Effects of the Coffee ‘Bean’
To begin with, you may be thinking that Coffee is a bean and therefore a legume and so eliminated on a Paleo diet. You would actually be wrong. Despite its terminology, Coffee is derived from the seed of the coffee fruit. Whilst seeds are in no way eliminated on Paleo, they are on a strict AIP diet. The reason for this is that all seeds (including the coffee seed) contain anti-nutrients which are there either to dissuade animals from consuming the plants and/or to prevent complete digestion so as to pass through the intestines intact whereupon the seed is replanted and lives on.
Anything that avoids digestion or resists being eaten does so either by having compounds within it which aggravate and irritate the epithelial layer of animals that choose to consume them – including humans – or by being so difficult to break down that it passes straight through undigested.
Coffee has been shown to stimulate gastrin in the digestive system which increases production of gastric acid and speeds up gastric movement (peristalsis). This is nothing to do with caffeine, because it happens even with decaffeinated versions. This could be a safety measure to prevent the beans being broken down – speeding up digestive peristalsis would enhance the movement of the seed through the digestive tract. Obviously we are not consuming the seed whole but the compounds in the coffee bean/seed which elicit this response (for the seed’s protection from breakdown) are still present in the drink that results from brewing the powdered beans.
Coffee also stimulates a hormone called cholecystokinin. This triggers the release of bile (from the gallbladder) and pancreatic enzymes which has a different effect on digestion – and actually weakens any acidity created by the reaction above. This means that in lower doses the ‘danger’ of increased gastric acid can be cancelled out. In excessive doses, however, the increased acidity over a long period of time results an overly acidic solution leaving the stomach. This is irritating to the lining of the small intestine and can cause damage to the very thin epithelial tissue of our digestive system. This creates inflammation – and the cascade of complications that ensue from there.
Beyond the question of acidity and digestive disruption it must be noted that Coffee’s main active compound (or most famous, at least) is caffeine. Caffeine is not universally ‘bad for you’, but it is metabolised differently depending upon genetic factors influencing its clearance from your body. Having a reduced activity in the CYP1A2 enzyme has been linked to lowered metabolising of caffeine and resultant rises in blood pressure on consumption.
And it must be noted that even in those with perfectly functional CYP1A2 enzymes, caffeine is a stimulant – it is essentially a drug which is designed to keep the body up and going when ordinarily it would need to rest and rejuvenate.
It is this ‘stimulatory’ impact which makes most of those within even the Modern Paleo community question whether Coffee consumption is actually beneficial.
There is no doubt that Coffee has been linked to health improvements: everything from reducing the risk of certain cancers and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to alleviating certain types of depression or depressive episodes. It has also been, fascinatingly, recommended for use in children with attention-deficit disorders. Anecdotal evidence suggests it offers an increased ability to focus attention for several hours after consumption.
People who drink Coffee – in moderation – have lower rates of all-cause mortality. This is believed to be down to the rich complexity of polyphenols, antioxidants and compounds within the Coffee bean. It is also directly attributable to the caffeine content itself, which is a potent compound capable of acting on the central nervous system. Coupled with theobromine (also found in chocolate and tea) which acts as a smooth muscle relaxant these two compounds can alter blood pressure and have beneficial impacts as both central nervous system stimulators and hormetic stressors (i.e stressors which result in positive adaptations). These are what makes Coffee seemingly ‘healthy’ in large-scale studies. The caffeine component is also why decaffeinated Coffees, whilst they contain some of the same chemical compounds etc., do not at all have the same positive health impacts as caffeinated Coffee.
Modern Coffee – and Modern Coffee Drinkers
So in all of this positivity – and the reality that the digestive impact of correctly brewed Coffee on your system is likely to be negligible – why are people so reluctant to qualify Coffee as a health food?
Well, in truth, in some camps – they’re not. If you’re a proponent of the Bulletproof lifestyle you will worship your coffee as a saviour to your sanity and an important part of your nutritional arsenal. You may even have been convinced to shell out unseemly amounts of money to buy supposedly ‘toxin-free’ coffee which will be ‘healthier’ for you…
But if you’re just starting out on Paleo it may have shocked you to discover that coffee is not Paleo (see our “Foods That Are In” page).
It must be remembered that Coffee has broader effects than its antioxidant status. Caffeine and theobromine are not a ‘free lunch’, if you will – they have other metabolic impacts. One of which is the release of cortisol. This is a stress-based response (remember the ‘hormetic stressor’ mentioned above – well one of the ways this works is through the release of cortisol). As with every stress-based response, low and infrequent is classed as beneficial because it demands an adaptation response.
However, when it comes to caffeine and Coffee, the way we consume it in modern society is to use caffeine regularly to wake us up, get us through low energy points, tide us over a period where we can’t get anything to eat, perk us up for a late afternoon meeting – and sometimes as an after-dinner digestif. Each consumption spikes cortisol – leaving a permanent, background stress response running.
On top of this, the receptors for the more active compounds in Coffee become down regulated over time – thereby demanding that you consume MORE Coffee in order to have the same physical response or reaction. The higher the dose needed for the positive effects, the higher the dose of cortisol that is pushed into your bloodstream.
Studies show that those who consume caffeine may seem fine on the surface and they are highly likely to not even associate themselves with being in a heightened state of alert and/or stress. And yet, their responses to all other life stressors is more extreme. As the threat and alert level of the body goes up, our threat responses to daily life are heightened – increasing the propensity for rage, anger and overreactions.
This can happen outwards – snapping at others, being quick to make decisions or overly pushy in a work setting. However, this can also happen internally. If you have read elsewhere on this site about the fact that autoimmunity is evidence of a hyper-alert, over-sensitised immune system then you will recognise that consuming a substance which piles on further stress and boosts the alert chemicals even further is not a sensible strategy, particularly when trying to reduce the overall stress burden – which is the entire point of Paleo or AIP. Proving the point, drinking Coffee (the whole drink, not just the caffeine) has been demonstrated to raise both inflammation markers and levels of circulatory cytokines. It was a small study, true – but the amount of Coffee consumed to have this effect was also small… just one large mug per day.
And here is the rub with Coffee. It is one of those substances (like Alcohol and Sugar) that has the power to change and motivate behaviour – and as such it is very difficult to be neutral about it. It is also stimulating and chemically alters the brain and the body – so its effects can be both addictive and drive dependency.
Having the occasional cup of Coffee is hardly a health hazard – this is why it is early on our Paleo Reintroductions list but it is incredibly difficult to drink in moderation without trialling a period without it. And those trial periods without Coffee might be regular features of your life going forward because, as we have stated, Coffee builds tolerance. Eventually you may need to do a re-set period of abstinence in order to build up your sensitivity to the beneficial compounds in Coffee again.
There are issues, however, with making Coffee – Bulletproof and fatty Coffee style – ‘breakfast’.
We have seen people think nothing of limiting the amount of banana they can eat to ¼-½ of a medium-sized banana (oh, the carb content!) and yet think nothing of adding tablespoons of both butter and MCT Oil to a morning cup of Coffee and calling that ‘breakfast’. No matter what you may read – this is NOT A PALEO THING TO DO.
In a nutritional framework built on nutrient density, a Coffee (no calories, stimulant, potent hormone activator) churned around with a whole load of simple fats (slightly nutritious but basically just a lot of calories in one go) does NOT rank highly.
For those with autoimmune issues, fatigue and struggles with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis are common. These issues are even common in those who are just a bit burnt out from having a very busy or stressful life. Using a Coffee to prop up energy levels may seem entirely the right thing to do. If you’re attempting to lose weight, eating no real food at breakfast might also seem like the right thing to do. In truth, metabolically, energetically and calorically, having a fatty coffee is only an approach that can be entertained by those who don’t have many health issues to consider.
The consequence of making your body cope until lunchtime with just fats and adrenal-boosting caffeine might work and feel OK in the short term. But, in our experience, unless the rest of your health is well balanced and your body is in a fairly robust and healthy state, this approach is a surefire way to create metabolic complications down the line.
Discussing the “Bulletproof” brand of Coffee drinking would not be complete without addressing the “Bulletproof” beans. Designed to be mould- and mycotoxin- free. Depending on who you listen to these are wise investments ensuring that you get the healthiest Coffee money can buy OR they are a total waste of time because Coffee beans aren’t mouldy anyway OR – perhaps most concerning – these expensive beans are a great idea in theory, because Coffee beans can be mouldy, but the Bulletproof brand of beans has been tested by independent labs and found to still contain toxins and moulds…
It is not too far of a stretch for the imagination that Coffee beans can be mouldy. And whilst it is far too much to cover in this page, there are some compelling arguments for the danger of moulds – in our environments and in our foods. If you’ve ever heard of aflatoxin and the dangers of contaminated peanuts, the Coffee toxin argument runs along the same lines.
The issue that we at Paleo in the UK have is twofold: firstly, the US Coffee bean import market has more lax rules than the UK. It is almost impossible to get any answers as to how much we need to worry about Coffee mould and toxins, because the money to fund the studies into UK-based Coffee importers simply isn’t there. The second concern we would have is that the money that was there for the research in the US came, at least in part, from a brand who created a Coffee craze and an empire… and a movie all about mould.
As nutrition and health professionals, every practitioner will have their ‘thing’ and their obsessions. It’s impossible to avoid in more ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ streams, mostly because practitioners arrive in these fields when conventional approaches have failed them with their own issues. This means that most holistic/regeneration medicine practitioners will have their own health story and journey – and they will know what hurt, harmed and healed them. The obsessions that result are the echoes and shadows of those healing journeys.
For some, therefore, the mould, mycotoxin and potentially contaminated beans avenue is a worthwhile route to pay attention to. This is particularly true for anyone who has had long-term mould exposure in their life and/or those who already have weakened immune systems. For others, the obsession over the specificity of the quality of the Coffee bean may be more down to taste preferences and strength of the roast than it is to do with the toxicity on the beans. And again, in the UK we are likely to be far more stringent on the beans allowed into our food chain and this may not be an issue at all.
Where Coffee quality IS an issue is in the question of beans versus instant. If you are someone with gliadin/gluten sensitivity, if you are an autoimmune patient and/or if you are actually diagnosed with coeliac disease – then beyond caffeine dependency and digestive disturbances you need to be aware that compounds in INSTANT COFFEE have been shown to cross-react strongly with gliadin. The immune system does not seem to be able to tell the two apart and inflammation will therefore be the response to instant Coffee consumption.
All of this is to state that Coffee is one of those simple pleasures that is clinically demonstrated to have beneficial effects on overall health outcomes. It is a potent chemical concoction, however, which can breed dependency and heighten stress states. How you choose to interact with it, therefore, will depend upon your current level of health and your current level of stress.
As with many of these potentially addictive substances, we encourage you to evaluate whether your interaction with Coffee is based on desire for the taste and for the slight feeling of energy – or whether it is based on a need wherein you would feel exhausted and bereft without it. If it is the former, this is a perfectly healthy use of Coffee. If it is the latter, it may be worth weaning your consumption down to a level at which the compounds in Coffee aren’t proving to be a dependency for you. Luckily, Coffee sensitivity tends to be reset after a brief period (1-2 weeks) of complete avoidance. (Obviously, if you are avoiding Coffee as part of AIP this is a vastly different timescale, so please follow the AIP Reintroductions guidelines if this is the case). When you bring Coffee back in you will notice exactly its effects again.
A word of warning – titrate off Coffee SLOWLY if you are dependent upon it – reduce by ½-1 cup per day. The side effects of withdrawal can be just as potent as withdrawing from drugs so take it easy – and use the symptoms of withdrawal as a sign of just how dependent you had become.