As the barista told me my coffee would be ready at the other end of the counter, I felt a sense of guilt for the sacrifice I was about to make for a couple power hours of work.
My love for coffee began during a family trip to the Bahamas. I was 13 years old when I asked my dad for a sip of his chai tea latte from the Starbucks counter at the resort lobby. Fast forward about 15 years, and the love for a good chai tea latte is still strong, but I have matured my palette to include Turkish coffee, flat whites, and even an iced version on a hot day. Each morning I greet the day with a hot cup of coffee. It’s a time I’ve come to savor.
There’s just something special about that cup of java. It brings feelings of comfort and confidence while creating a moment of bliss no matter what seems to be going on in my life. But lately, that can’t-live-without beverage has been causing me to have some not so delightful symptoms. About an hour after I take my first sip, the first sign arrives: sweating. My palms begin to perspire and will stay that way for hours. Next, my mind begins racing and I start thinking of too many things at once making it difficult to focus on anything. Feelings of anxiety begin to creep up and can spiral me into a not-so-great mindset.
I first noticed these symptoms when I was working in the corporate marketing world. My job was intense and required a good deal of brain power bouncing between the creative and management aspects of my role. After lunch, I relied on my latte to get me through the rest of the day, including my workout. During that time, I assumed it was environmental stress that was causing me to feel anxious. Little did I know, there was actually something else making me feel this way.
Once I left the corporate world, I began a new career path which often had me working from home. I frequently found myself in our neighborhood’s coffee shop looking for motivation in a gourmet cup of java and free wi-fi. After a while, I noticed that the sweating and anxiety didn’t go away even if I was there for leisure; no added stress involved. I found myself having to leave after about an hour because I would become so uncomfortable in my own skin.
It wasn’t until a few months later, when I was sitting in a coffee shop doing research on the health benefits of drinking the stuff that I realized the beverage I loved so much was actually making me miserable. It was a moment of irony, agony and humor—all combined to shed light on my own health issue. I was ingesting more caffeine than my body could handle.
How Coffee’s Life-Giving Energy Works
Caffeine is a natural substance found in plants such as the flowering coffea plants that produce coffee beans. So whether you’re sipping a cup of decaf or going for a triple-shot Americano, there’s going to be some level of caffeine in your beverage whether you want it or not. The trick to enjoying your beverage and taking care of yourself is knowing how much caffeine your body can handle without having adverse effects.
Caffeine causes a feeling of stimulation on a mental and physical level by blocking a naturally-produced chemical called adenosine from binding to receptors in your nerve cells. Adenosine builds up in your bloodstream as you go about your daily activities. As its levels increase, the buildup causes you to become drowsy by connecting with specific neurological receptors to slow down your neural activity. This is part of what helps you fall asleep. When you ingest a caffeinated beverage, the caffeine binds to those adenosine receptors and makes your neural activity speed up instead of slow down so we feel awake and energized.
Increasing neurological activity in this way tricks the pituitary gland into thinking there is an emergency going on so it signals to the adrenal glands that it’s time to release the fight or flight hormone: adrenaline. This is what causes the physiological effects of caffeine: your heart beats faster, blood pressure increases, airway opens up, pupils dilate, muscles tighten up, and the liver releases extra sugar for energy. Normally, these are the symptoms I’m going for when I reach for my coffee. Just a nice mental and physical boost of energy that will help me focus and be more alert, especially in the mornings! But lately, I have been experiencing much stronger side effects than I desire from my favorite beverage.
Based on most of the research I pored through looking for answers to my newly-found caffeine issue, I found that I clearly exhibited most of the symptoms of too much caffeine. Dr. Rob van Dam, an adjunct associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health recommends, “If you’re drinking so much coffee that you get tremors, have sleeping problems, or feel stressed and uncomfortable, than obviously you’re drinking too much coffee.” And, I was definitely feeling uncomfortable with my symptoms.
The Sensitive Side of Coffee
The way your body metabolizes coffee affects how sensitive you are to energizing effects. Physician and author Dr. J.W. Lang released a report through the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee that categorized caffeine sensitivity into three categories: high, regular and low sensitivity. If you are like my husband, you can drink a cup of coffee after dinner and still fall asleep. That’s low sensitivity; he can metabolize caffeine quickly and has lower binding in the central nervous system. I, on the other hand, have a slower metabolic rate for caffeine and high binding in the central nervous system—high sensitivity.
While age, sex, diet, medications and pregnancy can play a role in how your body deals with that cup of java you just drank, genetics may be the biggest factor in how your body metabolizes coffee. It does so by breaking down the caffeine in your liver. There are multiple liver enzymes involved in this process but there is one called CYP1A2 that is responsible for inactivating 95 percent of all ingested caffeine. Your body’s ability to produce this enzyme is coded in the CYP1A2-gene and there are genetic variations of it. If your genes produce the more active version of the caffeine-zapping enzyme, then the caffeine won’t linger long enough to deeply affect your brain’s stimulus centers. If you’re highly sensitive to caffeine, then you may be producing a less active version so it stays in your system longer and you may experience more pronounced symptoms.
Bingo, I’d finally hit the nail on the head. Caffeine was always going to be a problem for me. There are some factors I could try to change, but overall, it was time to look for alternatives.
Are There Any Worthwhile Alternatives to Coffee?
By now, I hope you understand that my love for coffee is deep. Like can’t-live-without-a-cup-or-else-no-one-wants-to-see-me type of coffee lover. So, the thought of giving up something I cherish each day was not going to be an option. As I turned to the internet, friends and family for ideas, I came across four that didn’t require me to give up my morning cup.
Up Your Hydration Meter
Staying hydrated might be the first solution to turn to with your fatigue issues. Even mild dehydration can impair some cognitive function. Studies have found that being dehydrated by just two percent can impair your ability to perform tasks that require attention, psychomotor and immediate memory skills. Start your day with a big glass of water and keep it going! Try adding coconut water into the mix. It’s a great hydrating alternative because it is has naturally high levels of rehydrating electrolytes which are good for fighting off fatigue and keep your muscles happy.
Chicory Root Coffee: A Delicious Alternative You Will Almost Believe
Chicory root mimics coffee flavor so it’s a good alternative to enjoy the taste without the caffeine. Alternatively, you can mix it with your coffee to cut down on the caffeine content. This is how I’m still savoring my morning cup! The root of the chicory plant is harvested, minced and roasted so that it can be brewed into a coffee-like drink. Chicory root coffee has a long history as a coffee substitute. It became extremely popular in New Orleans during the Civil War when Union Naval blockages cut off the city’s coffee supply from being delivered into the port. New Orleanians began mixing chicory root with their coffee to stretch out their supply. Today, the legendary Cafe du Monde still adds chicory root into their coffee for enhanced flavor and to keep the tradition alive. Follow their lead and start adding chicory root to your coffee so you can still enjoy your cherished drink while cutting down on caffeine.
A Cup of Tea: Better Than a Cup of Joe?
For those days when you might need an extra pick-me-up from a small dose of caffeine or if you’re just craving a hot or cold cup of something, look to tea instead. Even the strongest type of tea, black tea, has less of the plant based stimulant in a cup compared to a regular cup of coffee. Oolong, Green and white teas are also available with even smaller traces of caffeine in them. In general most herbal teas do not contain caffeine can still provide some benefits for mental clarity and alertness, like peppermint tea. Studies have shown that either ingesting peppermint as an essential oil or smelling peppermint can combat fatigue and increase concentration.
For centuries ginseng has been used a medicinal cure-all for illness from headaches and infertility to fevers and fatigue. Today, it is used for a variety of benefits including stress management, immune support, and improving physical stamina and concentration. This herbal supplement is derived from the root of plants that belong to the genus Panax which includes Asian and American ginseng. It’s important to use either one of these species of ginseng because they contain ginsenosides. These unique and beneficial compounds are believed to be the main contribution to the plant’s health-related properties. You can drink ginseng as a tea or take as a supplement. Just be careful with dosages based on supplement concentration levels, and always consult with your doctor before starting a new supplement.
Having a love for coffee doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice for it. Look to these alternatives or find some others that might work for you. And me? For now, I’m going to keep enjoying my chicory root latte and living the almost caffeine-free lifestyle.