By Brendan Kelly
The National Coffee Association says 83% of Americans drink coffee, and that we’re the world’s biggest consumer of the beverage. With new gadgets and gourmet brews it’s an estimated $30+ Billion industry. But is coffee actually good for our health? Are we drinking more coffee to keep up with the increasing pace of the American lifestyle?
Brendan Kelly, co-founder of the Chinese medicine clinic Jade Mountain Wellness in Burlington, Vermont and author of The Yin and Yang of Climate Crisis, offers valuable insight on the Chinese Medicine perspective of coffee, here’s an excerpt from his new book:
But I heard that coffee was good for you. Coffee is clearly stimulating and does increase blood flow to the brain and other areas. It can provide a lift of energy, but many short-term fixes come with long-term costs. In addition to this heat, coffee is also damp, which can trap the overstimulation and make it harder to clear from the body. The excess rising energy of coffee can also compromise our descending relaxing energy, which is the very same dynamic happening to the climate. Just as the planet is warming as its ability to keep things cool and stable decreases, our bodies become overheated and inflamed as their ability to cool themselves is impaired. For us individually as for our planet, coffee causes a host of heat- related symptoms.
Some of you might be thinking: Well, if coffee is hot, then drinking iced coffee will help cool it down. In talking about the characteristics of food, Chinese medicine is describing the food’s inherent properties, which are different from its physical temperature. Putting ice in a cup of coffee does not transform its fundamental nature; what it does do is make it more difficult to digest. When a food or drink is below room temperature, the Stomach first needs to warm it before it can start digesting. The extra energy that this warming requires means there’s less available for digestion, making the food-to-energy process less efficient. As the digestive system gets bogged down from the cold, phlegm is generated. One common metaphor in Chinese nutrition is that the Stomach is a cooking pot that needs to be maintained at a warm temperature to work effectively. The cold of ice in coffee can decrease the warmth that the body needs to maintain effective digestion, potentially creating more phlegm.
You might be thinking: I drink decaf, so that makes it okay. As with putting ice in coffee, removing some of the caffeine does not change the coffee’s basic nature. Regardless of the particular level of caffeine, coffee is still coffee, which is hot and damp. In many cases, the chemical processes that are used to remove the caffeine add toxicity. But even if a more natural, water-based process is used, from a Chinese medical view, the nature of coffee doesn’t change with its level of a particular chemical.
Another common response is: I don’t feel good when I don’t drink coffee. A major reason we drink coffee is that we’re tired, and removing coffee’s very stimulating effects can make us more aware of what’s going on. In our era of a rapidly warming and destabilizing climate, it’s essential that we see the situation clearly, both for us and for our planet. Just as there is a long list of issues associated with drinking coffee, there can be a long list of symptoms associated with stopping. These include headaches, constipation, upset stomach, fatigue, lack of mental clarity, irritability, and cold sweats.
The good news is that acupuncture and herbal medicine can be very helpful mitigating or eliminating these symptoms. Not only can there be a relatively easy transition with the help of Chinese medicine, but people often quickly realize that they have more energy and clarity soon after stopping. The process of looking clearly at our lives involves not only considering what we are willing to do, but also considering what we are willing to do without. In addition to its relevance to our own well-being, addressing our use of coffee to keep going during our era of over-busyness has real, global importance.
Some people think: I like the feeling of being “up” from coffee. That “up” feeling is the coffee’s heat. This overstimulation mirrors the heat of climate change. Part of what coffee provides is a way to avoid actually experiencing our levels of energy. In our era of constant demands and distractions, it’s not surprising that so many of us are drawn to the overstimulation of being up rather than the relaxation of descending energy.
Some of you might be thinking: I put a lot of milk in my cup, so I’m not drinking too much coffee. From the viewpoint of Chinese nutrition, anything more than an occasional small amount of milk can create phlegm. Not only can this occur in the respiratory system, but it can occur throughout the body. As coffee can also contribute to this phlegm, adding dairy to coffee can exacerbate its ill effects.
Maybe you’re like some people who have come to our clinic and say, I just like the richness of coffee. Luckily, there are many other rich drinks that don’t have the same heat- and damp-producing effects as coffee, such as tea from roasted dandelion roots.
Maybe you think, I like the hot drink in the morning and the ritual of making it. As we discussed, warm, cooked food and drinks help promote healthy digestion, and a morning ritual for starting the day can also promote health. However, having these include coffee is not particularly healthy.
Some of you might think, I’m supporting socially responsible companies when I buy fair-trade coffee. While buying fair-trade products can certainly be better for the people who grow it and for the planet, coffee remains a very stimulating drink. It’s not very likely that we’ll be able to address the root causes of climate change if we continue to be overstimulated internally. There are lots of other thoughtful, socially responsible drinks to choose.
Having worked with hundreds of people who have stopped drinking coffee, I realize that it is not always an easy process. If you want to stop or at least give it a try but are having a hard time, my recommendation is to find a good Chinese medicine practitioner. Rather than creating overstimulation, acupuncture and herbal medicine can provide what many of us are looking for when we drink coffee, namely energy. A well-trained practitioner can also help clear out the heat and dampness that has likely accumulated and help replace it with physical strength and mental clarity.
Brendan Kelly is the author of “The Yin and Yang of Climate Crisis,” which looks at the bigger and deeper issues of climate change through the lens of Chinese medicine. The co-founder and co-owner of Jade Mountain Wellness, where he currently practices acupuncture and herbalism, Kelly has also been actively involved with environmental issues for 25 years. For more information about Kelly, his book, recent articles and classes, visit personalasecological.com.