Let’s Get Real About Caffeine And Chronic Illness

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Hello dear friends!

I’m going to start out by raising my hand and publicly admitting that I am a huge coffee lover. My tumultuous relationship with Bulletproof coffee (yeah, the stuff with butter in it) has had its ups and downs over the past 2 years. So many creamy cups of liquid gold have enabled me to be more productive and maybe a tiny bit more awake on more than one occasion, but it’s really the ritual of it all that keeps pulling me back in. Inhaling the aroma of freshly ground beans, waiting for the kettle to whistle, pouring the water into my French press, blending in the yellowy butter and coconut oil…it’s part of a routine that gives me some kind of psychological pleasure. Otherwise, I wouldn’t keep coming back to it, would I?

Because after all these years, the truth is, my body doesn’t actually like caffeine. And I still have a hard time admitting that. My nervous system is already on overdrive thanks to my CFS, but add some stimulants to the mix, and I’m all jacked up. In the best scenario, I’m simply more motivated (but get tired more easily), and in the worst of cases, I’m shaky, nauseous, agitated, irritable, and have wildly varying heart rates and body temps. When things get really bad, I always throw in the towel and cut out my coffee again, or switch to an herbal tea. And I always feel better. It’s just this dang psychological addiction! Maybe you know what I’m talking about? I don’t actually need the caffeine (I actually do better without it), but there’s just something about that creamy coffee smell and inclusion into the “cool kids club” that tugs at me.

I have to really step back and remind myself sometimes that caffeine is not just a nice little thing we use when we’re tired or need to write an extra thousand words in a day. It actually has significant systemic effects that can put unneeded stress on your body and irritate any underlying conditions you may have. And I’m just going to put this out there- caffeine is no bueno for people with chronic illnesses like CFS, Lupus, Lyme Disease, MS, and the myriad of other mystery diseases like them. I know it’s probably not what you want to hear. Trust me, even I don’t want to hear it most of the time. Especially since those of us with fatiguing illnesses rely on stimulants to even semi-function on many days.

So, what does all this caffeine do to our bodies, and how is it really hindering our healing process? I’ll be honest, the effects of caffeine are very broad, and it may have different effects on different people, but I’ll try to point out some of the biggies that I see.

She's smiling, cuz that's herbal tea in her cup!

She's smiling, cuz that's herbal tea in her cup!

1. Acidity

You’ve probably heard the buzzwords “alkaline” and “acidic” being thrown around a bit lately, especially when it comes to our diet, and there actually is some validity to these ideas. Certain foods and drinks promote a more acidic environment in the digestive tract and in the bloodstream, while others push it more towards the alkaline side. Our bodies generally regulate our blood pH to remain around 7.4 (7 is neutral, with higher being alkaline, lower being acidic), but what we choose to eat or drink will undergo chemical transformations once consumed, and this can tip the scales one way or the other. Our immune system and detoxification pathways work the best in an alkaline environment, so the more acid you pour in, the harder your body has to try to heal any underlying infections, which can spell trouble for we chronically ill folks.

2. Mineral absorption

It’s been well studied by now that coffee can actually leach minerals and other trace compounds from your body, and it does this by two different mechanisms. One is by quickening gastric emptying- coffee tells your body to move things along, making your bowels move (hence the post-coffee poos), and speeding up the pace by which your food travels through. This can prevent full absorption of nutrients, especially the smaller vitamins and minerals. The other way is through promotion of urinary excretion- elevated mineral levels have been shown in the urine of coffee drinkers, so if you are already dealing with electrolyte issues, gut issues, or musculoskeletal issues, it might make things worse!

3. Stress hormones

If your body is already under a lot of biochemical stress (e.g. anyone with an illness), caffeine can absolutely throw everything for a loop by prompting the release of even more stress hormones. Goodie! The master stress hormone, cortisol, is notoriously pro-inflammatory and can mess with everything from your fat burning to your insulin sensitivity. And the famous “fight or flight” hormones of epinephrine and norepinephrine get shot into your bloodstream as well, which is why you can feel jittery, feel your heart racing, and why your blood pressure increases. Caffeine stays in your system for at least 4-6 hours, and if you drink coffee every day (like most people do), just think of the constant stream of stress signals that you are sending all your little cells!

The list really could go on and on, but I’ll stop it right there. After all, your body is highly intelligent, and if it doesn’t like caffeine, it’s probably trying to tell you! The real challenge is not in reading all the science, but in learning to slow down and tap into your body’s wisdom. Really feel the effects when you drink something caffeinated, or maybe give yourself a short coffee time-out for a week or two, and see how you feel. And if you don’t figure it out right away, that’s okay! I’ve gone back and forth for years, but I’m slowly coming around to the cold hard fact that caffeine is preventing me from fully healing. And trust me, no cup of liquid gold is worth that!

Give me your thoughts, friends! And as always…

~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~