I’m a long-term coffee drinker. My parents have told me that as a little kid, I’d steal sips from their mugs, even long before other children my age were showing interest in bitter flavors. I loved it sweetened, unsweetened, with milk, and even black. As a five year old. My relationship with coffee was very much led by my affinity for the taste.
And that’s still true today! I love how coffee tastes, and the smell of fresh grounds is probably my favorite scent in the entire world. Coffee is also my favorite flavor of ice cream, and it pairs so deliciously well with chocolate (my other favorite flavor) and so my love for chocolate just feeds forward into my love for coffee.
In college, my coffee consumption began a steep incline until a few years ago when I think it reached an all-time high: I drank a 12-cup pot every day, by myself. I don’t think a person needs a degree in healthcare to realize how unhealthy that is. I eventually cut back until I was drinking about 6 cups per day and considered that “good.” After all, it was really only like “2 cups” since all 36 oz fit into just two mugs. But even though I convinced my mind that it was working, my body started showing signs that it wasn’t.
1. Blood Sugar Control
I struggle with a syndrome known as “reactive hypoglycemia.” Essentially this means that in response to stress, my blood sugar has a tendency to drop. This happens because the stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) temporarily elevate blood sugar so that the body has access to “quick energy.” But since I don’t use the quick energy up fast enough because I’m not actually in a fight-or-flight situation, my pancreas secretes insulin to bring my blood sugar back down…too far down.
Symptoms vary from person to person, but for me, low blood sugar is a shaky, fatigued feeling. My brain also shuts off, making my speech start to slur and my eyes to glaze over. In those moments, I can’t think straight, and I feel extremely lethargic. Even walking short distances feels challenging, and I often feel the overwhelming urge to fall asleep. In college, I even fell asleep while I was driving in the middle of the afternoon, causing an accident on the expressway, which was a terrifying wake-up call! It took some time to figure out that my symptoms were a consequence of blood sugar control, rather than a problem with my heart, or a sleep disorder like narcolepsy.
When the symptoms come on, I need to eat something with sugar quickly, otherwise I feel worse and worse. But eating sugar also creates spikes in blood glucose followed by the “reactive” decreases. So, sugar is only a temporary, quick fix. The best way to manage my blood sugar spikes is by preventing them by being proactive with eating regular, balanced meals and managing my stress. Coffee works against my efforts to do so because the caffeine stimulates the release of stress hormones in the body, which lead to these blood sugar fluctuations. When I drink too much coffee in the morning (especially on an empty stomach), my blood sugar drops early in the day, which generally leads to a whole day of energy struggles and uncomfortable symptoms. Cutting back on my caffeine intake has been a huge help for me in managing reactive hypoglycemia.
2. Artificial Energy
Another reason I’ve cut back on caffeine is because it interferes with my ability to stay attuned to my body signals — especially my need for rest. Because caffeine is a stimulant, it makes us feel energized and alert even if our bodies aren’t well rested and recovered from the previous day. In some ways, caffeine is like a band-aid over the symptoms we experience when we aren’t taking good care of ourselves.
Part of the reason my coffee intake escalated so much in college (and thereafter) was because I was extremely fatigued to the point where I otherwise couldn’t function without caffeine. I wasn’t eating well, I wasn’t sleeping enough, and I was extremely stressed out. Instead of addressing the root cause of all the dysfunction in my life, I added more and more coffee.
Nowadays, I’m pretty committed to taking care of my body, or at least I try to be. Obviously I’m not perfect at it. But I’ve realized that when I’m consistently drinking too much coffee, I start to lose sight of the subtle internal signals my body gives me when I need to make a change. It then becomes easy to fall into unhealthy habits. Keeping caffeine intake in check helps me keep everything else in check, too.
If you struggle to recognize hunger and fullness cues, for example, cutting back on caffeine may help you in your journey toward becoming an intuitive eater. High levels of stress hormones (including those released by caffeine) interfere with our ability to perceive hunger/fullness cues, which can consequently set us up for weight and body image struggles.
The last third reason that motivated me to cut back on the amount of coffee I drink is hydration. Drinking enough water is extremely important, but it doesn’t come easily to me. Life is busy, carrying around a water bottle is inconvenient, and outside of when I’m exercising, I don’t often think about drinking water.
Because caffeine is a diuretic, it’s working against me in terms of my hydration, which is already hard enough. The current recommendations to drink half your body weight in ounces of water daily increases ounce-per-ounce for every cup of coffee we drink. Of course there are days when I don’t drink enough water to maintain my well-being, and I can truthfully say that I feel a difference. When I don’t drink enough water, I feel tired, sweaty, cold, my digestions slows down (leading to constipation and bloating) and I find myself craving salty foods. (Water follows salt, and our bodies know how to adjust our cravings so that they get what they need.)
In drinking less coffee, I don’t just drink less, I substitute herbal tea. This helps me actually boost my hydration levels instead of detracting from them, so it’s like a double-whammy. Some of my favorites lately have been citrus and spicy flavors, especially these: Sunny Orange Ginger, Wild Sweet Orange, and Rooibos & Cinnamon