by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
There’s an awful lot in the media today about caffeine, isn’t there? Is it good for you or bad for you or are you simply addicted to the taste or the effect.
The headlines will tell you that caffeine is good for you…that it can promote both good health and weight loss. The next article may tell you that caffeine is not good for you the stimulants will harm you and the toxins that the beans are treated with will hurt you! What’s to be believed?
At Women to Women we believe that a cup or two a day of caffeine isn’t likely to cause harm to women – unless they are highly sensitive to it or unless their adrenal health may be in question. We have a culture which embraces the emotion of ‘having coffee’ as a social, even connective time. For some it’s a mid-day meeting with a friend, for others, a reason to sit longer after dinner to continue connection and discussion. There’s comfort in holding a warm cup – all of these factors can affect our ‘need’ for caffeine. For many women, the surprising news is that the very cup of comfort in their hand could be disrupting the delicate balance of adrenal function.
We all know that caffeine is a stimulant – it’s really a psychoactive stimulant, which means that when ingested it increases neuron firing rates in the brain and stimulates both the sympathetic and central nervous systems. In some ways, it mimics our instinctual ‘flight or fight’ response to stress. With 200 mg of caffeine (the amount in a small coffee) your body will begin to push out stress hormones – the hormones that send the message to be on alert, think fast and act fast! It makes sense doesn’t it? After all, this is the reaction many people are looking for when they reach for their ‘cuppa Joe’ first thing in the morning! Caffeine makes your pupils open wide, your breathing intensify, your heart beat faster, your liver release sugar and fatty acids into your blood. The question is do you really need all that? If your answer is “yes!” – then you really should think about your adrenal health.
When caffeine is used too often, or when used at the wrong time of day, it can cause disruption with your regular cortisol rhythm. Caffeine causes your body to think its in a state of emergency – and so your body gets to work releasing the hormones to keep your prepared! Ultimately, these unnecessary hormones are going to work against you – and may make your symptoms worse – and you may feel the need to reach for more caffeine. A cycle starts to evolve – and up and down cycle that’s bound to make you more tired, more wired, more unbalanced.
We have to remember that the adrenal glands have a variety of functions – they also help maintain levels of sex hormones as a woman transitions through life. They play a critical role particularly during the perimenopausal years as ovarian function tapers off. These small glands can only do so much, and if they are constantly being called on to produce stress hormones, then keeping the stress hormones in balance may be compromised. Those extra caffeine boosts might very well be affecting your hormone balance.
Women are very surprised to learn that there is data proving caffeine as a highly active metabolic agent which impacts both adrenal imbalance and insulin resistance. It is very common for women to have both – and its so important to address both to insure your body moves back into balance!
When you are under stress (either real or perceived!), higher cortisol levels will cause more glucose to be released. When this happens, your pancreas increases its insulin output to help all that glucose into your cells. Studies show that in women who are already insulin resistant, that caffeine will exaggerate their insulin and glucose response. So, a morning cup of coffee may explain the dip in energy and fuzzy thinking you experience in the afternoon! If you reach for more caffeine, and perhaps carbohydrates for energy, the cycle will start all over again.
The relationship between caffeine and insulin sensitivity can be confusing – there are so many factors that impact the reaction. Men and women vary significantly in their reactions; also whether caffeine is ingested alone or with food, what health challenges the body is experiencing and if the caffeine is paired with carbohydrates.
Research is showing that tea does not have affect insulin in the same ways as coffee. It suggests that tea helps reduce blood glucose which is the complete opposite.
When I suspect that caffeine may be affecting a patient’s health, I’ll often suggest that caffeine be eliminated from the diet for a day or to in order to complete a 24 hour test I use to evaluate adrenal function. Some women can’t consider it – they start to panic thinking about it, or may even break down into tears. We have to keep in mind that caffeine is an addictive substance – as mentioned before there can be both a physiologic and psychologic connection. The last thing we want to do when healing the adrenals is to cause more stress! So, please remember that cutting back or stopping caffeine doesn’t have to happen all at once. Decrease slowly – be gentle to your body – after all, healing and balance is your ultimate goal!