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Nutrition + Diet

Why Coffee Impacts Women Differently (Hint: Hormones)


December 23, 2020

As a Brit it wasn’t until meeting my American husband that I discovered the buzz-inducing delight of a hot cup of joe. I had dalliances with varying forms of coffee in my twenties, but mostly the Mocha Choca Frappuccino kind (aka dessert in a cup), that bore little or no resemblance to the black-as-hell morning elixir that became the lifeblood of my thirties.

Every night my husband would set up his Mr. Coffee machine (a device that was totally foreign to me) with a mixture of ground coffee beans and espresso. And every morning he would wake up to freshly brewed, ridiculously strong coffee, whilst I sipped on my cup of English Breakfast Tea with almond milk.

Then, my tumultuous love affair with coffee began.

It didn’t take me long to adopt his coffee drinking habits, however. I began to love the energy-boosting buzz the jolt of caffeine gave me. I’ve always been a morning person and relish early starts, so even when I enforced a caffeine curfew of 12 or 1 p.m., I still had seven hours to consume my new drug of choice.

As a Holistic Nutritionist I’m passionate about the quality of what goes into my body, and over the years we switched to a low-acid, organic brand that we both loved. I justified my coffee addiction as I could list all the antioxidant- and polyphenol-boosting qualities of the black stuff. I could point to numerous studies that showed that coffee drinkers lived longer, and since it was my only real vice, I could validate the three or four large cups I was drinking a day. Until I couldn’t.

I started experiencing health issues.

Last year, after an extreme work schedule, punctuated by numerous cups of Nespresso (I was living in a hotel while working on location), I lost my period. My lab work showed that my thyroid was still in what conventional medicine considers the “normal” range. But it wasn’t functioning optimally. (I always look at blood work through a lens of thriving, not surviving.) This was causing cortisol dysregulation, adrenal fatigue, lack of periods, low energy, no sex drive, and hair loss.

Low thyroid function, cortisol disregulation, and hormonal imbalances are all aspects of health I look at with my clients, so I jumped straight into a protocol that included improving the quality of my sleep, reducing my cardio, and a regime of cortisol-regulating, adrenal-boosting adaptogens and nootropics. But I didn’t quit coffee, even though that’s exactly what I would have told my clients to do.

The caffeine in coffee raises our cortisol levels (our stress and energy hormone). When we have elevated cortisol levels, the production of our thyroid hormone slows down. Low thyroid hormone (or more specifically, when we fail to convert one type of thyroid hormone, T4, to its energy-boosting counterpart, T3) can cause irregular or lack of menstrual cycles due to suppressed ovulation. Other symptoms include weight gain, hair loss, and feeling tired all the time. Of course, that’s when we reach for another hit of “false” energy-boosting coffee and send our adrenal glands screeching into submission.

My lack of periods lasted for almost six months. While I don’t have plans to start a family, I understand how important a well-functioning endocrine system is for overall health. (I advise all my female clients to prioritize and optimize their hormonal health, especially from their mid-thirties—the start of pre-menopause—onwards to ensure an easier ride through perimenopause and menopause.

Still, my love for caffeine continued.

I would take a cocktail of supplements throughout the day to regulate my cortisol, mostly to undo the damage from my four-a-day coffee habit. I’ll never forget trudging four blocks to the nearest coffee shop in the snow at 5 a.m. to get my pre-work hit when the vending machine in my NYC hotel was out of order.

So what made me finally quit? Well, vanity, mostly. After a routine teeth cleaning I realized how sparkling my pearly whites could be, compared to the yellowy brown tinges my coffee addiction had caused. I was also carrying a rather unattractive spare tire just under my belly button. (That’s where fat is stored when cortisol levels are high.) Yes, even we health professionals can be more motivated by appearance than our health. But anything that encourages us to create healthy change is a win in my book.

I finally decided to quit.

After that visit to the dentist, I quit coffee cold turkey. It wasn’t too bad for the first few days. I was buoyed by the exuberance of a new healthy habit, and though I was eliminating coffee, I still had caffeine in the form of green tea and matcha lattes.

Four days in was a different matter. I found myself suffering with classic symptoms of withdrawal: crankiness, tiredness, anxiety, sweating, and shakiness. I soldiered on since I’d come so far, and the withdrawal symptoms eased pretty quickly. What worked for me was having a coffee replacement on hand, as part of my love for the black stuff was tied up in the coffee-making ritual. I quickly became a connoisseur of herbal teas and adaptogenic matcha lattes.

The relapse.

My undoing came about three weeks in while I was traveling for work. The only option in my hotel at 5 a.m. was coffee. I succumbed. And then I took this renewed habit back home with me. For another couple of weeks I succeeded in making my early-morning coffee the only one of the day.

But then the creep set in. I’d have a few sips of the coffee my husband would make mid-morning. Or I’d indulge in the new pour over service offered at my coworking space. Or I’d justify my after-lunch java hit if I had an event that evening. I was also still having at least one matcha latte a day, which meant that my caffeine intake was back up to my previous amount.

This time around the negative effects were obvious. I was having extreme energy highs and lows. I even started to have panic attacks before leaving the house, something I had never experienced before. Or maybe I had, but I was so used to my caffeine-induced cortisol highs and lows that I thought it was normal.

It was time to quit, for good.

The anxiety got so bad that my husband sat me down for a heart-to-heart and told me to quit the caffeine, for good this time. In our modern-day world our bodies are under so much cortisol-inducing stress from external factors (careers, relationships, over- or under-exercising, environmental toxins, constant attachment to technology, poor sleep, processed foods— the list goes on), and me adding more stress from my out-of-control coffee habit was sheer craziness.

So here I am, back on the wagon, this time going completely caffeine-free. And I recommend you do the same. Because mental health, physical health, relationships and career are far more important than that cup of joe could ever be.

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