“One man’s food is another man’s poison.” This old adage can easily describe food allergies or intolerance. But what about genetics? Conflicting reports on both the health benefits and harmful aspects of coffee have been clashing with one another for over 50 years. So which reports are true? Is coffee healthy or harmful? Yes. It turns out that it’s not the beverage itself but how your body responds to it!
How Genetics Influence How Coffee Affects You
One of the reasons there have been so many conflicting studies on coffee is because the large majority of these studies are epidemiological. This means they don’t look at cause and effect but rather associations. When it comes to coffee, the genetic predisposition of the individuals in the study group is what determines the outcome.
Eating isn’t only for fuel. That is to say, not all of the food you eat gets metabolized for energy. Some dietary chemicals peel off during the assimilation process and become ligands, molecules that bind to proteins responsible for the activation of certain genes. This played, and continues to play, a very important role in genetic information influenced by your environment.
Let me give you an example: If you’re an Alaskan Native accustomed to eating a high-fat diet, it would not suit your specific genetic code to suddenly switch to a low-fat vegan diet. For this genetic type, a drastic dietary change of this sort could lead to malnutrition, neurological dysfunction, and immune system malfunction.
The same genetic “rules” apply to how your body will respond to coffee. Depending on your make-up, caffeinated coffee can either be a boon or a health risk. Using the science of nutrigenomics, science has shown that your liver, which filters your blood and detoxifies your body, is affected by a very important gene called CYP1A2. This gene is a member of the cytochrome P450 mixed-oxidase system in our liver. This gene tells your liver to make one of two distinctly different enzymes: CYP1A2 fast or CYP1A2 slow.
If your liver enzyme is CYP1A2 fast, it can quickly and easily filter out the caffeine in coffee, which helps you bypass its negative health effects. If, however, your liver enzyme is CYP1A2 slow, the caffeine is not eliminated from your bloodstream fast enough to avoid any health problems you may experience from it.
The same goes for your nervous system. One specific gene called GRIN2A influences whether or not coffee makes you feel jittery, nervous, anxious, manic, paranoid, or restless when trying to sleep. This gene has even been shown to influence whether or not coffee reduces your risk of Parkinson’s disease or does nothing at all to prevent it.
Pay Attention to How Your Body Feels
The best way to tell if coffee is negatively affecting your health is to pay attention to how your body feels when you drink it. Do you feel more alert and focused when you have a cup or two of coffee with no after-effects? Likely, your genetic makeup makes it easy for you to metabolize the beverage. If, however, you feel alert for an hour or two but struggle with jitteriness, sweating, and anxiety, your body may not be able to properly metabolize caffeine. Ditto if you have difficulty sleeping.
Coffee and Your Immune System
Coffee contains a high level of antioxidants that fight free radicals responsible for premature aging and disease. Drinking 2-4 cups of coffee per day gives your body a healthy dose of antioxidants and may help keep you safe from colds and flu. Some studies have shown that regular caffeine consumption may even inhibit cancerous tumor growth!
However, if you over-consume coffee or worse, depend on dangerous energy drinks that claim to be just like coffee, you can do harm to your immune system. This is because excessive caffeine consumption can cause adrenal burnout.
Adrenal burnout happens when the adrenal glands, which are responsible for producing stress chemicals like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, become overburdened and begin to malfunction. This reduces your immunity and leaves you more vulnerable to disease.
How the Type of Coffee You Consume Affects Your Health
Not all coffees are created equal. Inexpensive coffees often contain diacetyl, a synthetic flavor enhancer that has been linked to the development of a rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans.
Furthermore, conventionally-grown coffee is sprayed with pesticides and fungicides that have been shown to cause potentially devastating effects on your neurological system, reproductive system, kidneys, and liver. If you’re a decaffeinated coffee drinker, it’s important to know that caffeine is often removed by chemicals as well.
After that, synthetic “flavor enhancers” are added to make up for the loss of the rich taste caffeine naturally provides. Since these chemicals are not regulated by the FDA, there’s no telling what’s really in your daily cup of java or what it might be doing to your health. What you filter your coffee with is important as well. Bleached filters inject harmful bleach into every cup. Over time, this can cause serious health problems.
If you enjoy a cup or more of coffee per day, be sure the coffee you’re selecting is 100% organic. Avoid coffee blends, which may contain harmful chemicals. If you drink decaffeinated coffee, select a brand where caffeine is extracted by the Swiss Water Process.
If you’re trying to give up caffeine or cut back on it, you can avoid withdrawal symptoms by weaning off slowly. For every cup of caffeinated coffee you drink, replace it with one cup of decaf.
Each week, replace another cup of caffeinated coffee with decaffeinated coffee. Once you’ve switched to all decaffeinated coffee, you can repeat the same process by switching one cup of decaf with one cup of caffeine-free herbal tea and go from there.
Coffee is healthy and coffee is harmful. It all depends on your genetics and your metabolism as well as the type and the amount of coffee you consume. Some are completely intolerant to caffeine while others can only enjoy a cup or two each week. For others, drinking a whole pot of the stuff causes no noticeable ill effects (although I wouldn’t recommend it).
Pay attention to how your body responds to caffeine and you’ll be able to gauge how much of it (if any) is best for you.