Coffee: Good or Bad? A Point of View from Chinese Medicine

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Coffee: Is it good for your health, or is it bad? Even if you’re an infrequent java drinker, you know this is a heavily debated topic. Experts from all health and nutrition perspectives have thoughts on the subject. Unhelpfully, these thoughts are usually extreme: Advocates for coffee cite antioxidant properties that could prevent cancer, while other experts say research shows drinking multiple cups a day could shorten your lifespan. How do you know who is telling the truth?

Let’s consider first that true health experts have your best interest at heart, and simply share what they can, based on their approach to learning medicine and the human body, as well as on what they’ve seen and experienced in their own lives to be true. Therefore aspects of all approaches could be true, even if the information presented by one group seems to contradict information from another.

So what’s the viewpoint in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

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From a TCM approach, no food is considered inherently good or bad. Food--and drink--is classified by its properties. In TCM, food is seen as a form of medicine--arguably the frontline of medicine, because it is consumed every single day, and works internally to provide the foundation of fuel and fight for daily living.

In TCM, whether or not a food is healthful or harmful is determined by what your body tells you. In TCM, you can ask yourself:

  • Am I suffering an imbalance? (Indicated by feeling one thing when you want to feel something else, such as cold when you want to feel warm, pain when you want to feel comfort, restlessness when you want to feel calm, etcetera)

  • What do I need to achieve balance? (What will make me feel the way my body says it wants to feel?)

When it comes to coffee, this pick-me-up drink has properties the same way other herbs or foods do that are listed in the Materia Medica. Coffee’s thermal nature is warm or hot. Its taste is bitter and sweet. It is considered a purgative. Although these things may seem obvious, and maybe therefore unhelpful, consider that coffee may make you feel warmer as you are drinking it; it may taste bitter, causing a physical reaction; it may leave you feeling slightly dehydrated; and it might help stimulate those regular bowel movements your doctor so awkwardly wants you to have. These things are significant because coffee can be either healing or harming depending on your body’s present condition; i.e., how much it does--or doesn’t--need these side effects.

Take for example that coffee is warming in nature. When you eat or drink warm-natured things, the action of consuming them often has a warming effect on the body--it can increase your circulation and elevate your heart rate. People who “run cold” tend to suffer a variety of familiar symptoms, such as bloating after eating, cold hands and feet, edema, fatigue, and a significant lack of energy and desire to sleep. For these people, the warming nature of coffee can be helpful and healthful, offering them a little “get up and go.”

If you’re not one of these people and you tend to “run warm,” you might have any variety of symptoms consisting of hot flashes, mouth sores/ulcers, anxiety, restless sleep and vivid dreaming, a bitter taste in your mouth, irritability, heartburn, and burning urination and/or bowel movements. In this case, coffee may not be the best beverage for you.

Chances are, however, that you already know the effects coffee has on you. You don’t need a health expert to tell you the positive effects of coffee if you know you don’t react to it well; nor do you need a health expert to tell you why you should quit when you know it gets you through the afternoon slump. The key in TCM is to tune into your own body, and trust what it tells you. It is always giving you valuable feedback.

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When you drink coffee, how do you feel? Do you get agitated, irritable or anxious? Do you develop palpitations, have trouble sleeping, do you have hot flashes, sweat more, or feel overly excited and anxious? If so, you may want to back off on the joe for the time being, but remember: Nothing is static. Your body is ever-changing, so you may not have to cut out the delicious goodness forever.

Optional coffee add ins:

  • If you run cold with extremely cold hands and feet: try adding cinnamon and nutmeg to your morning brew! It can add just the right amount of flavor and increase the warming nature with gentle and effective herbs.
  • If you run warm and coffee makes you feel incredibly anxious, but you just LOVE your morning hug in a mug, try adding dairy or heavier oils to your cup, such as coconut oil or butter. This will have a more grounding and rooting effect, and may help you tolerate the coffee a little better.

One last thought, because we can’t talk about coffee without addressing caffeine… often people follow up my soap box speech about thermal nature and properties of coffee with a question about decaf coffee.

In terms of TCM, the two breeds of coffee share the same properties. Remember that TCM is a very old medicine, and over the years, we have developed many short-cuts and alternatives to things just so we can have what we want, even though they are not especially good for us. Taking this into account, there are many other factors to consider when determining if coffee is right for you, such as extreme caffeine sensitivities or allergies. You individually may want to avoid coffee altogether regardless of the healing properties listed above if you suffer extreme side effects because of your genetic makeup.

Here’s to your health,

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