“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” – Abe Lincoln

Rich and flavourful.  Hints of dark chocolate and raspberry.  Swirling clouds of cream and a spoonful of maple syrup.  That’s my cuppa t̶e̶a̶ coffee.  We are a nation (nay, world) obsessed with coffee.  If you search #coffee on Instagram there are 173,602,564 posts (!!!)  Our fascination with this beverage deserves a post all of its own, but this is a health and wellness blog, so let’s zero in on those aspects.

Coffee is a mental stimulant, mild laxative and diuretic with a slightly sweet and bitter flavour.  Its primary constituent is caffeine, which promotes the release of adrenaline in the body by suppressing a natural relaxant in the brain called adenosine.  The result: increased wakefulness, faster and clearer thought-flow, improved focus and better general body coordination.

Sounds too good to be true, what’s the catch?  Depends on who you ask.  Coffee has long been condemned for increasing the risk of heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.  And yet, research over the past few years suggests that coffee consumption may protect against type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, liver cancer and liver cirrhosis.

Why the conflicting reports?  Often people think of coffee simply as a vehicle for caffeine but it’s actually a complex beverage with hundreds of different compounds, each leading to diverse health outcomes.  The conclusion?  Coffee is neither universally good nor bad, but beneficial when appropriate.

Most of us use coffee for energy and to stay regular.  Coffee is yang in nature–it’s internally warming as it invigorates and disperses energy (or qi) in the body.  The dispersing action of coffee combats dampness, experienced as cloudy-thinking, decreased appetite and a heavy sensation in the body.

Coffee moves in more than one direction (clever coffee).  It ascends qi, giving us a little lift and descends qi in terms of its actions of diuresis and peristalsis.  Healthy folk will experience this as a balanced action, while those with more sensitive constitutions or underlying health concerns may experience either excessive upward movement (heartburn) or excessive downward movement (loose stools).

Although coffee is not officially a part of the Chinese materia medica, several of its plant relatives are and so we can consider it in an herbal context.  The un-roasted green coffee been would be classified as an herb that regulates liver qi.  When liver qi is free-flowing, we have increased energy (attributed chemically to caffeine’s action on the nervous system).  The early use of coffee beans to regulate menstruation is consistent with the Chinese medical approach of regulating menstruation by moving stagnant liver qi.

The coffee taste, although obviously bitter, is also partly sweet.  The sweet taste is associated in Chinese medicine with a tonic effect, particularly for the spleen.  Coffee is sometimes thought to help ease liver-spleen disharmony associated with liver qi stagnation and spleen weakness, but only in small doses.  If over-consumed, especially if there is a weak constitution or imbalance to begin with, it may have the opposite effect, causing digestive distress.

The bottom line: it’s all about you.  People have different reactions to coffee, so it’s important to listen to your body and your taste buds.  Don’t quaff bad cawfee.  Find organic beans from a reputable roaster and grind them yourself.  In the words of a friend and fellow coffee connoisseur here in Victoria, “Drink coffee that tastes good to you, and not too much”.

If you do decide that coffee is right for you, here are 3 tips to consider:

1. Start your morning with water.  Your body is dehydrated from the long night of fasting; it needs water more than it needs caffeine.  Make hydration your first priority.

2. Cream it up!  If you tolerate dairy, try adding just cream in place of sugar, it will cut the bitterness of coffee.  There is a misconception that low fat milk is healthier but as a famous comedian (who has now fallen out of favour) once said, “Show me the cow who makes skim milk and then I’ll drink it”.  Low fat milk–and low fat products in general–are not healthy.

3. Enjoy it.  We live in a world where we’re made to feel guilty about food.  You can take any food, create negative thoughts around it and make it unhealthy with those stressful thoughts.  So don’t feel guilty, just brew, sip and enjoy.