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Coffee has been a traditional drink of equatorial peoples for hundreds of years. Its dark roasted flavor and stimulant effect has drawn countless adherents to the church of buzz, and with it, a sizable market of coffee-related paraphernalia. Our relationship with coffee can be one of extremes, from casual enjoyment to chemical addiction, predicated upon whether coffee is consumed as a food or as a drug.  

With any such substance, we must use good judgement to determine if it is healthy for our body and lifestyle. If we view coffee as a medicinal herb, there are indeed many benefits that come with judicious use. When depended upon as a stimulant, coffee can become addictive, as evidenced by the notorious symptoms of withdrawal.

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When categorizing coffee beans as an extension of herbal medicine, we can apply the concept of hormesis. The hormetic principle posits that any substance can be medicinal or toxic depending on dose. There are a host of phytochemicals in coffee which need to be placed in the context of hormesis to determine not only if coffee agrees with an individual’s physiology, but at what amount. Caffeine is arguably the most famous (or infamous) such substance.

People vary in their response to the stimulant effect of caffeine. Some may experience heart rhythm problems at low doses while others can drink a double espresso and sleep soundly for eight hours. Caffeine produces its effect by antagonism of adenosine receptors in the brain, increasing respiratory rate, constricting blood vessels, and altering the expression of certain neurotransmitters. These effects may be minimal for some individuals and therefore negligible for negative health outcomes, but they can be detrimental in sensitive individuals, patients with cardiovascular disease, and those suffering from fatigue.

The diuretic effect of caffeine can be dehydrating to the body. This effect could be mitigated by drinking more water but seldom does this compensation occur amidst a busy work schedule. Heavy coffee drinkers may therefore consume coffee to the exclusion of other, more hydrating beverages. This displacing effect leads to an insidious form of dehydration that puts additional stress on the body. 

One of the conditions that responds dramatically to the complete elimination of caffeinated coffee is low back pain. The discs between spinal segments are very sensitive to dehydration as they require sufficient fluids to maintain their integrity. The discs of the low back are particularly vulnerable due to gravity and the weight of the upper body bearing down on them. Combine this with the stimulant effect of caffeine which makes pain more acute, and nerve compression in the low back can become commonplace in someone already suffering from poor posture and weak core strength. I have seen cases where simply eliminating coffee and replacing it with water caused a rapid and lasting relief from back pain.

One need not have a degree in biochemistry to establish whether coffee is or is not a healthy beverage for you. Simply consider the following questions: are you drinking coffee for its stimulant effect? If so, then you are using coffee as a drug and caution is advised. Do you drink coffee only occasionally and because you enjoy the flavor and ritual of it? If so, then you are consuming coffee as a food.

Recognizing the gray area to these questions (we often drink coffee for both reasons), you must get clear on whether you are using or abusing the beverage. Drinking coffee to keep you going on a regular basis masks a much larger problem that will ultimately result in future health concerns.

Finally, a word on decaffeinated coffee. Although this sidesteps the stimulant concern, some methods of decaffeination leave a chemical residue in the coffee which is best avoided. Choose Swiss water process if purchasing decaffeinated coffee beans.

Whether you are a casual drinker or a cafe regular, understanding your body’s response to coffee is the key to judging the health effects or detriments unique to you. What is your relationship with coffee? Leave your comments below and tell us why you avoid or can’t live without coffee.