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Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in America next to water. Millions of people depend on it to wake them up in the morning and keep them going throughout the day as well. Many nutritionists and health advocates have rallied against this grounded-bean-brew, but others will say that – like all things – coffee is fine in moderation and may even provide some health benefits as well. Contradictions like this are all too common in the world of nutrition, unfortunately. I will help sift through all this information so that you can make the best choice for your body.

What are the benefits to drinking coffee?

In his book Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating, Dr. Walter Willett boldly states that “coffee is a remarkably safe beverage”. He goes on to explain that many of the studies done on the health effects of coffee that linked it to breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and heart disease were flawed in that they never took into account the cigarette smoking that once went hand in hand with coffee drinking. Later studies had shown that indeed it was the smoking that was responsible for the listed health problems, not the coffee drinking.

Dr. Willett goes on to outline some of the benefits of coffee drinking:

    • Lower chance of developing kidney stones

    • Lower chance of developing gallstones

    • Lower risk of type 2 diabetes

    • Fewer suicides

Dr. Willett concludes that “given the body of research on coffee, it's safe to say that there aren't any major health hazards lurking in the murky depths of your cup. In short, when drunk in moderation, coffee is no threat to your health”

In Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, my mentor Paul Pitchford outlines some other positives of coffee and its consumption:

As a folk medicine, coffee has been prescribed in the treatment of snakebite, asthma, jaundice, vertigo, and headache. When a rich, greasy, heavy diet is eaten, coffee helps stimulate the user through periods of sluggishness from toxic overload. Coffee also purges the bowels in individuals who are commonly constipated from such a diet.

So what's the downside to coffee drinking?

Dr. Walter Willett tries to clarify in his book that despite his promotion of coffee, he does not mean to imply that drinking coffee is as innocuous as water, because it simply isn't. Dr. Willett also adds that:

The caffeine in coffee (and tea, many sodas, and chocolate) has definite drug-like activity. Drinking too much coffee can give you the shakes, make you irritable, and keep you from sleeping. It's also addictive. Regular caffeine consumers tend to get nasty headaches if they miss their morning cup(s).

Coffee is not without its share of problems, despite its potential health benefits. For one thing – as Dr. Willett mentioned – coffee is addicting because of the caffeine in it. Just the withdrawal from caffeine can leap a healthy person to experience headaches, depression, profound fatigue, irritability, disorientation, increased muscle tension, nausea, and vomiting. But an excess of caffeine from coffee is not only a problem when trying to get off the addiction, it can also cause health problems in its own right. In his book Caffeine Blues: Wake Up to the Hidden Dangers of America's #1 Drug, Stephen Cherniske outlines the top 10:

    1. Cardiovascular problems

    2. Stress

    3. Emotional disturbances

    4. Blood sugar swings

    5. Gastrointestinal problems

    6. Nutritional deficiencies

    7. Male health problems

    8. Female health problems

    9. Aging

    10. Adrenal exhaustion

Another factor that will potentially cause health problems that isn't as well known is the acid in coffee. The acid in coffee can damage the small intestine which will negatively affect nutrient absorption. For heavy coffee drinkers (perhaps 10 cups a day), this acidity can lead to the body leeching calcium from the bones in an attempt to restore the blood's acid/alkaline balance.

Got Adrenal Fatigue?

Another major problem that can come from too much caffeine consumption is that of Adrenal Fatigue. Adrenal Fatigue occurs when the hormones in the adrenal glands are literally fatigued from having to draw adrenaline from the glands every time caffeine is consumed. To put it simply, as we consume more caffeine, the adrenal glands must work harder to produce more adrenaline. After time, these glands can become dried out so to speak from the constant production of hormones. Consequently, numerous lifestyle factors can also lead to the production of adrenaline which can certainly complicate things for the average coffee drinker. There are a number of common symptoms indicating worn-out adrenal glands. Some of these include:

    • dark circles under the eyes

    • dizziness

    • muscle twitches

    • low blood sugar

    • hear palpitations

    • cravings for salt

    • low stamina for stress, or easily irritated

    • chronic infections (bacterial, viral, fungal, yeast)

    • light-headedness upon standing

    • tired but wired feeling, poor sleep

    • lack of libido

It is important to take care of this issue right away if you think you may be suffering from Adrenal Fatigue since the adrenal glands are very important for a healthy immune system. has outlined some natural ways to support your adrenals:

    • Get some sleep. You must rest if you are going to help your adrenals get stronger. That means going to bed every night by 10pm. Make this a priority and stick with it. Your adrenals need their beauty sleep!

    • Eliminate sugar and processed carbs. Sugar and simple cabs (junk!) put stress on the adrenals. Adrenal glands help regulate blood sugar levels.

    • Eat clean animal protein foods, organic vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, beans and grains.

    • Quit the coffee habit and drink plenty of fresh filtered water every day.

Natural Ways To Health has an extensive page on Adrenal Fatigue as well as other measures to help overcome it. Additionally, Nutri-Meds sells supplements you can take to help replenish your adrenal glads and bring them back to health.

The magic number

It seems like everyone always has a magic number when it comes to the number of cups of coffee that are ideal. Some people say no more than 1, others say 1 to 2, and many will even say 3 to 4 is fine. In reality, there is no magic number because everyone's body is different. Instead, think of these numbers as guidelines to try and see how your body responds to it. When we learn to listen to our bodies, they will tell us everything we Caffeine Blues: Wake Up to the Hidden Dangers of America's #1 Drug need to know.

In Caffeine Blues, Stephen Cherniske asks “when is a cup not a cup?”; he answers this question by saying “when it's a “standard” five-ounce serving”. Most studies done on the effects of coffee and caffeine have been based on 5 to 6 ounce servings, which is really the size of a tea cup (and generally how coffee used to be consumed). The problem with this of course is that most cups of coffee are at least twice this size. Stephen Cherniske

The majority of researchers refer to the standard coffee cup as a six-ounce serving, but most people drink from mugs, which contain twelve to fourteen ounces or more. That's not to mention convenience-store coffee cups, which contain anywhere from twenty to thirty-two ounces. If you're like most people, you probably consume far more caffeine than you think you do.

When the average serving is a mug of coffee at 14oz, and an individual drinks 3 mugs a day, that is really the equivalent to what researchers would call seven cups of coffee! Likewise, your average large cup of coffee from a coffee shop is going to be about 20oz and so that means that one large cup of coffee is equal to 3.3 cups of coffee. We can now see that it's very easy to take in more coffee than expected.

In his book, Stephen Cherniske outlines that six ounces of drip-filtered coffee contain about 100 milligrams of caffeine. He suggests that if you consume less than 100-milligrams of caffeine a day, it's highly unlikely that you are a caffeine addict. However, if your total is between 300 to 600 milligrams per day, then there can potentially be a problem since at this level you are undoubtedly experiencing some degree of mental and physical addiction. Research shows an almost 200% increase of risk for ulcers and fibrocystic disease at this level.

If you are a regular consumer of coffee, I strongly suggest you watch your dosages closely and see how your body responds without this caffeine.

Going through withdrawal?

In Caffeine Blues, there is a detailed test one can take to see if they are potentially or definitely addicted to caffeine. I recommend taking a look at your relationship to coffee; when is it consumed and why? If you drink it because you just honestly like the taste of it, that's one thing. However, most people drink coffee to wake themselves up in the morning and keep them going throughout the day. My mentor Joshua Rosenthal asks the question “why would a normal, healthy person in the prime of their life not be able to get through the day without an injection of adrenaline?”, and he's absolutely right. Having this sort of relationship with coffee not only lead to the potential problems already discussed, but also it can really mess with your melatonin levels which means your body's natural sleep and wake cycle can be disrupted and this will lead to many problems!

Going through caffeine withdrawal is not easy, especially when one is trying to cut down on their caffeine consumption. I've seen some of my clients go through this and it is certainly a difficult process. Fortunately, there are ways to avoid the pounding headaches, depression, and lack of energy that most go through when they try to get rid of their addiction. Joshua Rosenthal offers the unique suggestion of crowding out, a process of replacing bad foods with good foods and naturally we crave and desire these bad foods less. While coffee isn't necessarily a bad food, it can be if you're addicted! In his book Integrative Nutrition, Joshua suggests that “drinking water helps to crowd out coffee, but so does healthy snacking during coffee breaks as this will boost your energy through nutrition rather than adrenaline. As drinking water crowds out unhealthy beverages, healthy foods crowd out junk foods”.

I have found that Joshua's method of “crowding out” works consistently with all things, but crowding out may not be the best first step for the strongest of addicts. For this, I suggest Stephen Cherniske's Off The Bean program which is a gradual withdrawal program that includes supplements for energy as well as adrenal rejuvenation. This program is detailed in his book Caffeine Blues: Wake Up to the Hidden Dangers of America's #1 Drug

Let's talk quality

One issue that must always be discussed with food is quality. this is one of the most under-looked issue in nutrition and consequently it's also the most important. The quality of the foods we eat and drink play a much bigger role in everything. With coffee and other products that come from commercially grown plants, pesticides are a key issue to be concerned about. Conventional coffees can be awash with chemicals residues: poisonous herbicides and pesticides, petrol-based solvents in decafination, and other chemicals become involved in making it instant. Similar to all foods, the coffee consumer should purchase organic, whole beans for their cups of coffee. Likewise, it's important to consider that the oils in coffee can go rancid easily once the coffee is ground, so this also pushes the importance of getting your coffee from fresh-ground organic whole beans. More and more, these types of coffees are becoming easier to find, even at conventional grocery stores.

Something else to consider are coffee products being branded as “healthy coffee”. These coffees contain a reishi mushroom extract in them to cancel out the acidity in the coffee. Two brands that I am somewhat familiar with are Farmacy and Ganocafe. Farmacy sells whole-bean blends of both regular and decaf, while Ganocafe sells instant coffees, mochas, and hot chocolates.

The moral issue

Paul Pitchford cautions in his book, “keep in mind that the political/moral issue of coffee involves large plantations in Latin America where profits stay in the hands of a few corporate land owners”. Look for products that have the “Free Trade Certified” logo down at the bottom of the package. This helps ensure that the workers were paid a real wage and are not forced to work for next to nothing.

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