Are you one of those people who can’t function in the morning until you’ve had your coffee?
If you are, could that delectable brew be quietly contributing to your fatigue?
Or is it a vital source of clean energy?
Coffee is controversial. Some websites describe the negative health effects such as adrenal stress, decreased cognition, and an overall decrease in energy. Yet others proclaim coffee to be a cure-all; full of antioxidants and polyphenols – any diet would be lacking without coffee.
So, where’s the truth?
Is coffee good for you? Or should it be avoided?
And if you’re dealing with conditions like chronic fatigue, myalgic encephalitis, or adrenal fatigue, how do those conditions affect caffeine intake?
Before jumping into specifics, I think full disclosure is necessary. I adore coffee. This article is written with that bias in mind. So, take what you read with a grain of salt (or sugar!).
Is coffee healthy?
In the western world, there is no other food source with more polyphenols than coffee. (1) It’s so good that those who drank more than one cup of coffee after suffering a heart attack were much more likely to live longer afterwards! (2) This is the power of polyphenols!
Polyphenols are micronutrients packed with antioxidants. Remember, antioxidants are necessary to cleaning up free radicals. And that is key in overcoming conditions like chronic fatigue! Polyphenols are found most abundantly in whole foods such as dried spices, fruits, vegetables, red wine, and cocoa. Polyphenols play an important role in preventing and in reducing the progression of diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases. (3)
Also very interesting, polyphenols also play an important role as a prebiotic – a food source for the bacteria in your gut. Remember, chronic fatigue syndrome is strongly correlated with the health of your gut.
Within coffee is a specific polyphenol called chlorogenic acid. Chlorogenic acid has been shown to help decrease inflammation (a hallmark sign of chronic fatigue syndrome), and even improve cognition by way of neuroprotection. (4) Neuroprotection is a fancy word for saying that the antioxidants found in coffee exert a specific, beneficial effect on your brain. Say goodbye to brain fog!
Perhaps most impressively, one study found that the simple act of drinking coffee may help you live longer. (5) But before you go thinking coffee is the new goji/acai berry (or whatever other superfood is currently in vogue), know that it doesn’t work for everyone. And those with CFS and/or adrenal fatigue may be better off avoiding coffee!
The dark side of coffee
Now that I’ve touted all the benefits of coffee, it’s time for me to ground those facts with another reality. All the benefits of coffee I listed above may not work for you. In order to benefit from caffeine (and therefore coffee), you need to have the right genetics!
One gene, called CYP1A2, controls the expression of an enzyme that affects the breakdown and clearance of caffeine from your body. And not everyone possesses that gene. Those of you with a copy of the CYP1A2 gene from both mom and dad (homozygous) are experts at clearing caffeine from your body. You are the ones who benefit the most from coffee and caffeine. (6)
But about 10% of the population are slow metabolizers of coffee. Perhaps you have a friend or relative who starts sweating, or gets jittery shortly after drinking coffee? This is an example of slow caffeine metabolizers. And for them, drinking coffee/caffeine could actually shorten their life!
For the slow metabolizers of caffeine, regular consumption of coffee was associated with a 36% increased risk of heart attack. (7) Yet with the fast metabolizers, there was absolutely no increased risk. And as I mentioned earlier, there’s instead a protective mechanism at play.
What this means is that if you have the right genetics, coffee is a health food that prolongs your life. But with the wrong genetics, coffee will increase your risk of heart attack and likely create poorer health outcomes.
Coffee, mold, and chronic fatigue syndrome
If your coffee is covered in mold, it doesn’t matter what your caffeine metabolism genes are. You’re going to experience fatigue. Mold affects your mitochondria. (8) If you’re wanting to beat chronic fatigue syndrome, you need your mitochondria performing at their best.
Much like caffeine, mold affects only a part of the population. Approximately 24% of the population will react to mold/mycotoxins. (9) Think of these individuals as the canaries in the coal mine. They are the hyper-responders. And those with chronic fatigue syndrome are often part of this population.
A specific type of mold called ochratoxin A (OTA) is found in foods rich in polyphenols – like coffee, chocolate, wine, grains, and beer. In one study, OTA was found in 13 out of 25 commercial coffee samples. Unfortunately, even roasting the bean did not result in a reduction of OTA. (10)
When OTA is ingested, it affects your mitochondria. Remember, mitochondria are essential for your body’s energy production. No mitochondria, no energy. OTA has been shown to decrease mitochondrial function. In turn, decreasing your body’s ability to create energy. (11)
One study found that 93% of those with chronic fatigue syndrome tested positive for mold/mycotoxins. (12)
What does this mean for coffee intake?
If you’re dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalitis, adrenal fatigue or any other condition where fatigue is the predominant symptom, avoiding mycotoxins is imperative. Ensure your wines, coffees, chocolates, and grains are certified organic (note: this does not ensure they are mold free). If possible look for brands that certify their products are mold/mycotoxin free.
Caffeine and fatigue
Genetics aside, caffeine affects your cortisol levels. When you drink coffee (caffeine) your body excretes cortisol in response. This is part of the reason why you feel awake and energized after downing a cup of tea/coffee. If this cortisol effect occurs in moderation (think, one cup of coffee in a 24hr period), your body is more than adept at handling the load (so long as you have the right caffeine metabolizing genes!).
But if you drink multiple cups of coffee over the course of the day, your body’s response to caffeine becomes diminished. One study examined subjects ingesting 0mg, 300mg (about three cups), or 600mg (about six cups) of caffeine each day for five days. By the end of the fifth day, those ingesting 600mg of caffeine daily had almost no cortisol surge in the morning (cortisol awakening response). Yet those who took in 0mg of caffeine had a healthy surge of cortisol in the morning. (12)
This study showed that high levels of caffeine intake can have a negative effect on your cortisol (and therefore energy) levels. If you’ve been properly diagnosed with adrenal fatigue (hypocortisolism), avoiding coffee/caffeine entirely is ideal. If you’re unsure of your cortisol levels, opt for no more than one cup of coffee each day.
Should you drink coffee if you’re fatigued?
Well, that depends.
Do you have the right genes to properly metabolize caffeine?
If you don’t, avoiding caffeine is recommended. You can find out whether you have the caffeine metabolizing genes by doing a genetic test like 23andme.
Do you have a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalitis?
If so, the likelihood of you being sensitive to mold and mycotoxins is very high. Should you decide to drink coffee, ensure you purchase a brand that is certified mold/mycotoxin free. At the time of this writing, I know the bulletproof brand ensures its coffee is free from all mycotoxins.
Do you need coffee to get through your day?
If you do, your cortisol awakening response could be diminished. I’d recommend avoiding caffeine and working with a knowledgeable Functional Medicine practitioner to help optimize your morning cortisol levels.
Coffee and caffeine can be of great benefit or great harm. It all depends on your genetics, mycotoxin tolerance, and cortisol rhythm.
Before you continue with coffee consumption, do a thorough evaluation of the above criteria to ensure your drinking of these beverages will convey health benefits not risks.
Learn more than your doctor about foods that cause fatigue.
Also published on Medium.