Caffeine and your adrenals — could they be paying dearly?
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
- Caffeine prompts the stress response
- Caffeine, adrenals, hormones, and insulin — a complex relationship
- Finding a healthy balance between caffeine and adrenal health
“I’m useless ‘til I’ve had my morning coffee.” How often have you heard this statement from a coworker, a friend, or even yourself? It’s almost a cliché in our culture that to get ourselves going in the morning, we need a caffeine jolt first thing — many of my patients reach for coffee, tea, or cola before they’ve even gotten dressed or had breakfast.
And you know, there’s nothing wrong with that — in moderation. But for many women, caffeine masks an adrenal imbalance that may be preventing them from restful sleep. If a patient tells me she simply can’t function in the morning without caffeine — or that she needs “booster cups” later in the day — that’s when I start thinking there might be an issue with her adrenals.
Caffeine itself isn’t the sole cause of adrenal dysfunction, but many of the changes our bodies undergo when we use a lot of caffeine can strain our adrenals. If we substitute a cup of coffee for sleep or for a nutritious meal, it can undermine our adrenal health. So let’s take a closer look at how caffeine affects our bodies — our adrenal glands, in particular.
Caffeine cries “wolf” to the stress response
Caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant, which means it increases the rate at which neurons in the brain fire and stimulates both the central and sympathetic nervous systems. This stimulation is similar to our natural “fight or flight” reaction to stress. Both originate along the HPA axis: with just 100–200 mg of caffeine (less than one short cup of Starbucks drip coffee), your Hypothalamus, Pituitary, and Adrenals begin pumping out stress hormones — epinephrine (aka adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol.
These stress hormones are needed for our bodies’ innate response to a real or perceived threat, sending the message: Think fast! Act fast! That’s why, after that cup of coffee your pupils dilate, your heart beats faster, your blood vessels dilate, your breathing intensifies, your muscles contract, and your liver releases sugar and free fatty acids into the blood for instant energy. You may also feel more anxious and worried, with no more cause for these feelings than the shot of caffeine you just drank. You are literally poised and ready to outrace and outwit any danger — but most of the time you’re sitting at your desk or behind the wheel of your car.
That’s great for productivity and alert driving. What I like to tell women is that their adrenals’ “mission critical” is to ensure survival. But the secondary function of our adrenal glands is to provide for hormonal balance across the life span — and this function is particularly important as we get older.