By Pat Klein, Yoga+
Coffee is the hot beverage of choice in Europe, the Americas, and the Arabic world, with tea occupying that position in Britain, China, and India. In Arabia, the oily coffee berries were used as a medicine and fermented to make wine almost 2,000 years ago. There are many legends about how the stimulating properties of coffee came to be recognized. One legend traces coffee’s first use as a beverage back to an Arabian monastery, where sometime around the 10th century a monk noticed a small herd of goats cavorting all night after eating berries from the coffee plants that grew wild in the vicinity. The monks brewed a concoction of the berries in hot water and found it helped them stay awake for their nightly prayers.
The practice of roasting the beans originated in Syria in the 13th century. Coffee arrived in Paris in 1643, and by 1675 the city had more than 250 coffee houses. By the 18th century the coffee bush had reached Brazil, which now produces more coffee than the rest of the world combined. Since then, coffee has become the national drink in many countries. It has been estimated that 25 percent of all adults in the United States consume more than five cups of coffee every day. They drink four times more coffee than beer, three times more than soft drinks, and millions of gallons more than milk.
Is this healthy? Countless studies have been done, yet medical science has come up with little that would persuade people of the need to find an alternative to coffee. Some studies suggest a possible relationship between coffee and pancreatic diseases such as cancer, though this is actively debated. Others suggest a mild aggravating effect on hypertension and irregularities in heart rhythm. Many people who drink coffee recognize that it irritates their stomach, and studies have shown that its tannic acid content interferes with iron absorption and aggravates iron-deficiency anemia. The same is true of black tea. Medical research has also focused on the link between coffee consumption and PMS, fibrocystic breast disease, insomnia and other sleep disorders, and decreased rates of calcium absorption, although none of the findings are conclusive.
But the upshot is that the evidence is not compelling enough to spark a massive retreat from a beverage that has become an integral part of the daily routine in many households. The reasons people drink coffee are many and often firmly held. Besides finding pleasure in the aroma and flavor, many of us sip it as part of a comforting ritual, accompanied by a newspaper in the morning or a chat with a companion later in the day. Some also find that it acts as a morning laxative. But probably the most universal reason for drinking coffee is that it gets us going first thing in the morning and keeps us going later in the day when our energy begins to flag. It banishes sluggishness after a meal or in the evening hours at the end of a hard day.
Why Not Quit?
Even without the support of highly publicized, conclusive studies, experienced medical practitioners, especially those who take a holistic approach, know that there are many medical problems and symptoms that may be aggravated by caffeine and that a trial period of several weeks without the stuff might well be warranted to see if symptoms subside. Hypertension, irregularities in heart rhythm, sleep disorders, anxiety, panic attacks, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraine and tension headaches might abate if people reduced or even eliminated their coffee intake. Even people with chronic musculosketetal pain syndrome — in the form of head-aches, low back pain, joint pain, and so forth — paradoxically often find relief when they avoid caffeine, which is sometimes used in pain medications prescribed for those very symptoms.
Another reason for eliminating caffeine is that doing so will reduce our stress and toll it takes on our lives. We all know that adrenaline is one of the key hormones responsible for the body’s stress response. Caffeine is essentially an adrenaline equivalent — it acts in the body to block the enzyme responsible for deactivating adrenaline’s effects, thus accentuating and prolonging the action of circulating adrenaline. Avoiding coffee and other beverages that contain caffeine is a biochemical means of reducing your internal stress level.
For those interested in yoga, there is another reason to find substitutes for dietary stimulants — the challenge of tapping into the vast energies that lie within rather than depending on a drug. Overcoming periodic dips in energy through exercise, relaxation, postures, breathing practices, and meditation will revitalize and replenish the body. Caffeine only depletes the body further by masking the symptoms of fatigue and thereby sustaining a pace that the body and mind are protesting against. Lack of energy is a signal that rest and revitalization are needed, not a weakness to be overridden by chemical stimulants.
If you decide to experiment with eliminating caffeine, you’ll quickly discover it’s addictive. Other than the morning fatigue, which can often be reduced with a shower and some vigorous exercise, and the sluggish bowels, which can often be stimulated by another hot drink (although not always as effectively), the main withdrawal symptom is a headache. This usually announces itself as a dull, heavy pain, but it can take the form of a severe tension headache or migraine, beginning 16 to 36 hours after the last cup (depending on the habitual level of consumption) and lasting two to three days.
For those who wish to persist in the cold-turkey approach to self-decaffeination, the homeopathic remedy nux vomica 30c taken nightly for three to seven days may help, especially if the first dose is taken the night before mounting your first assault on the habit. Ease Plus, an herbal remedy based on a traditional Chinese formula, invigorates the liver and digestive system while calming the nervous system — all of which may make the transition easier.
Patience also helps, and if worst comes to worst, so may an ounce or two of the offending brew itself. If an abrupt halt seems too radical, a gradual transition may be more palatable, although it will require persistence. Eliminate a cup from your daily quota, stay at that level until you are comfortable, and then eliminate another cup. You can also gradually make the brew less concentrated either by diluting it with water or milk or by substituting black tea. Another trick is to eliminate the sweetener before you begin to eliminate the coffee, especially if you’ve been using sugar. Caffeine and sugar seem to be a particularly habit-forming combination.
Dropping caffeine from your life is like changing any habit — the best approach is to make the smallest change possible that still gets the job done: keep the rituals, change only what’s in the cup. Decaf may help in the transition, although if you really want to pursue this, herbal tea, a roasted grain beverage, or hot water mixed with fresh lemon juice and honey are preferable.
Pat Klein, R.Ph., is a pharmacist who has been working in holistic health care for over 25 years.