Coffee: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

And why I’m quitting the stuff.

Laura is writing....
The Happy Human
7 min readJul 25, 2021

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Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Human consumption of coffee dates back to the 15th century, where animals were seen eating coffee beans and not needing sleep. Coffee was used first in the Islamic world for religious practices including hunger suppression, increased focus for study and staying awake during Ramadan, then later was offered in coffee houses before spreading to Europe and beyond.

Today we gulp it down by the gallon, start our days with it, glamorize it on Instagram, and add caffeine extract to everything (including weird things like shampoo and Lay’s potato chips). This is probably because advertisers know we are addicted to the stuff and so it will help products sell.

With all this consumption, surely there have to be some downsides. Yet, most mainstream media portrays the health benefits of drinking coffee, with few mentions of the downsides.

The FDA cites that 400 milligrams — that’s 4–5 cups a day — is safe for consumption. But what if coffee isn’t actually good for us? What if we are all addicted to caffeine, and we are not looking past the reinforcing headlines to actually understand the truth?

The Good

  • Coffee is a social drink and has changed the way we work, socialize, and congregate.
  • There is a whole industry associated with coffee (Starbucks net revenue was $26.51 billion U.S. dollars in 2019).
  • Drinking coffee before exercise can improve athletic performance.
  • Coffee (as well as decaffeinated coffee and tea) may be associated with a reduced risk of diabetes.
  • There is a trend in research suggesting a negative association between coffee consumption and Alzheimer’s disease, (but this is not definitive).
  • Caffeine could help motivate people with depression, as well as lower the effects of chronic liver disease, and can help those with stage 3 colon cancer.
  • Coffee tastes great!

The Bad

  • Coffee may cause anxiety, nervousness, heart palpitations, and even panic attacks. Excessive ingestion leads to a state of intoxication known as caffeinism, which is characterized by restlessness, agitation, excitement, rambling thought and speech, and insomnia.
  • ‘Coffee may help you live longer’ articles misinterpreted the study on coffee consumption and mortality. The authors conclude not that it may help you live longer, but “regular coffee consumption was not associated with an increased mortality rate in either men or women. The possibility of a modest benefit of coffee consumption on all-cause and CVD mortality needs to be further investigated.”
  • Coffee cups and Nespresso pod capsules are major sources of garbage. Of the billions of cups and lids that get used every year, in the UK it’s estimated that less than 1% of cups get recycled.
  • Caffeine is known to disrupt sleep cycles. Dr. Matthew Walker (author of Why We Sleep) says caffeine can change the quality of our sleep, as it can actually “decrease the amount of deep, non-rapid eye movement sleep that we have, stages three and four of non-REM sleep. That’s that restorative deep sleep. And as a consequence, you can wake up the next morning, and you don’t feel refreshed, you don’t feel restored by your sleep.” So that’s why we reach for coffee first thing in the morning?!
  • A lot of money is spent on coffee (see picture below). Some ‘experts’ claim takeaway coffee is why millennials can’t afford to buy a house.
The Latte Factor- if you don’t buy lattes at Starbucks, you’ll suddenly be rich!

The Ugly

  • Coffee is known to have acrylamide, which may contribute to cancer. However, other research has shown that coffee may reduce the risk of cancer. One paper was published warning against using acrylamide in isolation to point to cancer, but then this paper was commissioned by the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee. Confused yet?
  • Four caffeine-related syndromes are recognized in the DSM–IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) including caffeine intoxication; caffeine-induced anxiety disorder; caffeine-induced sleep disorder; and caffeine-related disorder (not otherwise specified).
  • Going back to Dr. Matthew Walker’s book on sleep, he writes that, “Most people do not realize how long it takes to overcome a single dose of caffeine, and therefore fail to make the link between the bad night of sleep we wake from in the morning and the cup of coffee we had ten hours earlier with dinner.” Walker continues to outline all the negative effects lack of quality sleep can have, including damage to your immune system, memory retention, and learning, increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and even Alzheimer’s.

The Results

Essentially, every health study I read (for and against coffee) focused on the fact that while there was a trend, it wasn’t a fact that coffee (or caffeine) was good or bad for humans. However, some classed caffeine as a psychoactive drug and compared it to having properties of classical psychostimulants, such as cocaine and amphetamine. I still don’t know if coffee is good or not, but after reading the scientific studies behind the clickbait ‘Coffee Makes You (insert incredible claim here)’ headlines, I no longer believe coffee is a miracle drink.

The most interesting study I found was ‘Recent Caffeine Drinking Associates with Cognitive Function in the UK Biobank’ where they found that “recent caffeine drinking was associated with higher performance on RT [reaction times] but lower performance on FI [fluid intelligence], Pairs [matching], and PM [prospective memory].” The authors go on to state: “Memory and reasoning tests have not generally been shown to benefit from acute caffeine intake but the impaired performance we observed on these tests was unexpected” (but also that the results “warrant further study” as usual). It seems that drinking coffee will speed up reaction times (e.g. when driving and avoiding an accident), but perhaps it isn’t as beneficial as we first thought.

Why I’m Quitting Coffee

I love coffee. With the exception of 3 months in Japan, I can confidently say I’ve drunk coffee every day for the last 10 years, and probably at least 2 cups a day. That’s over 7,300 cups of coffee, without much of a break. I love coffee so much that in August I wrote an article asking UK cafes to start a coffee subscription service (CaaS) a.k.a. all you can drink coffee. Shortly after I wrote that article one of the largest UK coffee chains, Pret, actually launched their coffee subscription (coincidence, I think not….) at a much cheaper price than I was offering to pay.

Working from home has increased my coffee habit from two per day to 3 or 4 a day (because ‘getting a coffee’ is a legitimate excuse for a work break). But this year I’ve felt more tired than ever before, especially in the mornings, and have been relying on coffee just to get me through the day. My sleep quality has decreased, and I’ve had many restless nights, I’m sure because of too much coffee during the day. I’ve also noticed a significant drop in energy in the afternoons — the coffee crash — and overall look (and feel) tired. This is what led me to research coffee in the first place.

In his book, Dr. Walker writes: “Can you function optimally without caffeine before noon? If the answer is ‘no’, then you are most likely self-medicating your state of chronic sleep deprivation.”

He explains it perfectly — I’ve been self-medicating myself with coffee into a state of chronic sleep deprivation. Why is it affecting me now, after 10 years? Again, Dr. Walker has an answer, “Caffeine is removed from your system by an enzyme within your liver, which gradually degrades it over time.”

Someone recently asked me, “What area of your life needs to change to improve everything?” My answer was to stop drinking coffee. And so this is why I am quitting coffee. I believe that removing coffee and caffeine will improve my life — from the quality of my sleep to my work and productivity, ability to focus, and ultimately, my overall health.

At the end of February, I decided to have no coffee, and while I expected to have withdrawal symptoms or cravings, I had the opposite — abundant energy. I’m currently trying a pattern of one coffee every other day, and each day without coffee feels better than with.

I’ve had about 10 coffees so far, and none tasted as good as expected, but all made me feel jittery and a little stressed. It seems my liver enzymes have given up processing coffee and have left me to it. Suddenly life without coffee seems better than with, and I can also clearly see that while my body doesn’t need caffeine, my mind craves the habit, comfort, and predictability of coffee. This is going to be my personal experiment with removing coffee and caffeine, and I’ve already glimpsed that the grass is greener without.

Without ending this article saying coffee is good or bad, I instead implore readers to assess their own caffeine intake, energy levels, and dependence on their dark habit. How does coffee make you feel? How do you feel without it? Can you go a day without coffee? And what area of your life needs to change to improve everything?

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Laura is writing....
The Happy Human

Passionate about personal development, journalling, planning and goal setting. Founder of Giftofayear.com