Updated: Nov 16, 2021
Coffee & Chinese Medicine Diet
Coffee, is it bad or is it good for you? There are many articles with contradicting information, so I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about coffee from a Chinese Medicine perspective. It is the world’s most popular drug after all.
In Chinese Medicine all foods, drinks and herbs are classified in their own unique way, not good or bad. Coffee is yang in nature, the thermal temperature is warm as well as in nature. The roasting process is what makes this bean have a warming property. It is also acidic.
Coffee moves qi and blood as it is yang in nature. It has ascending and dispersing qualities (stimulating the mind and lifting the spirit). It has descending quality as well (purgative, diuretic, and increased peristalsis - this is why some feel the need to go after a cup). The flavour is bitter and sweet which pertains to our Heart and Spleen organs.
Sweet flavour is related to our digestive system (Spleen Energy). This encompasses out appetite, nutrient absorption, metabolism, and the ability to sort and distribute the useful products from the waste products. On a mental and emotional level the spleen is associated with worry, overthinking and feeling sorry for oneself.
Bitter flavour is related to our emotional state (Heart Energy). This encompasses our mental and emotional well-being, specifically joy or lack of. When the heart is not balanced symptoms that may present are anxiety, depression, insomnia, agitation, manic behaviours and spontaneous sweating.
Coffee & Digestion
Coffee stimulates bile flow and promotes bowel movements and therefore can be used to treat constipation. This can be a good thing if your digestive system is generally strong and resilient but has become “stuck” due to lack of physical movement or emotional and mental stress but by no means should be used as a cure. This is a temporary fix and will eventually return. If your digestive system is weak, perhaps from illness or poor diet, then coffee might only make your bowel movements more loose or more urgent.
Coffee is also a diuretic. It stimulates blood flow to the kidneys which then increases the amount of water and salt excreted by the body as urine. For this reason, excessive coffee consumption can be dehydrating and harmful to your body. It’s also acidic and is known for contributing to gastrointestinal discomfort for people with GERD and acid reflux. Additionally, there are articles out there claiming coffee is anti-cancer. Acidity is more conducive to inflammmation and cancers. Cancer cells need an acidic environment to survive and slightly alkaline (less inflammation/acidity) environments are more resistant to inflammation and cancer.
The warming nature of coffee also means that is can be drying therefore potentially beneficial for someone with too much “damp”. The bitter flavour of the coffee serves the same purpose. The damp pathogen accumulates due to a weak digestive system and/or a rich and greasy diet (alcohol, deep fried foods, takeout foods, etc.). It’s presence in n the body is characterized by symptoms such as a sense of heaviness, edema and swelling, sluggish digestion, brain fog and greasy or loose stools.
Coffee & The Mind
We all know that coffee is a stimulant that increases your heart rate and helps you feel more awake. For this reason, it’s not good for people who are suffering from anxiety, arrhythmia, or insomnia - conditions which may be diagnosed as Heart Heat in Chinese Medicine. On the flipside, the stimulating nature of the coffee helps to reduce the brain fog and lethargy - typically symptoms of ‘damp’ as discussed above.
For people who have an irritable temper or tend to run on the hot side, coffee can aggravate their symptoms. This is due to its warming and bitter qualities. In Chinese Medicine we call this Liver Yang Rising and symptoms may include headaches or migraines, high blood pressure, red face and/or eyes, profuse sweating, outbursts of anger, short temper and irritability are a sensation of rising heat in the head.
Interestingly, the bitter flavour can mildly help clear heat symptoms From the body by promoting sweating and helping regulate body temperature. In some hot climate countries, people drink coffee for this exact reason. But if you consume too much bitter in your diet, this can generate heat and dryness which damages yin and blood.
Coffee & Your Kidneys
Coffee has a very stimulating effect on stress hormones (cortisol) and a taxing effect on the adrenals (adrenaline). In Chinese Medicine terms, this means that it depletes Kidney qi - something that cannot be replaced, on preserved and maintained. Kidney qi is what we are born with and it determines our constitution at birth. Kidney qi relates to fertility and reproduction, growth and development, brain function such as cognition and memory, bone and marrow, adrenals and hormones, ageing and death. Some articles state that coffee is beneficial and provides protection against dementia, Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive decline. That being said, the elderly are also those most likely deficient of Kidney qi.
How Much is too Much Coffee?
Coffee is not the problem. The dose and dependency is the problem.
So many people are overworked and over stressed, sleep deprived and physically exhausted. We tend to reach for coffee multiple times in a day as a way of getting through life instead of making the needed lifestyle changes.
When coffee is drunk in small doses for acute problems such as constipation, sluggish digestion, or mental fatigue, coffee can be great. Normally this is how herbs should be administered - yes coffee is a herb, its a plant. Taking large doses 3-4 cups per day everyday for a long period of time… well you wouldn’t do this with say antibiotics … so this is not appropriate for coffee use either. It is a band-aid solution for a bigger problem and it can be very addictive so if your having more than 1 or 2 (max) a day then you may need to reassess your diet and lifestyle choices for health and longevity.
A secondary but significant problem that goes along with coffee is the amount of sugar and dairy which people add to it. Dairy is a damp forming substance which makes our digestion sluggish and refined sugars weaken your Spleen qi and contribute to the accumulation of more damp. Check out That Sugar Film if you haven’t seen it already. Ditch the milk, the cream, the sugar and the syrup.
In conclusion, not everyone needs to stop consuming coffee. This is a drug that should be dosed accordingly to your constitution. There are antioxidants in coffee which can have positive effects on on cognition, so dose yourselves appropriately people!