Anxiety & Coffee: Are You Brewing Trouble?

Productive. Happy. Energized. This is how I feel after I have my morning cup of coffee. But if I’m being really honest with you, there are occasions when coffee makes me feel jittery, anxious and frazzled; and that’s when I know I need to take break, interrupt the addiction cycle and ground myself again.

Coffee, especially organic, freshly roasted and freshly ground, has numerous health benefits. It alkalinizes the body, provides antioxidants, enhances athletic performance, is a cognitive stimulant and has euphoria as a side effect. No wonder we’re all hooked! Unfortunately, coffee isn’t all fun and games. On the flip side, coffee is addictive, causes your adrenal glands to pump out more cortisol, contributing to sleep disturbances, weight gain and anxiety, and in the long term can lead to adrenal exhaustion.

A brief physiology lesson: The central nervous system is made up of two branches, sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is active when we are in “fight or flight” mode, or, for our ancestors, running from a bear. Blood is shunted from our digestive organs to our limbs, heart and lungs, so that we can run away from the looming threat to our lives. The PNS, on the other hand, puts us in “rest and digest” mode, slows down our breathing and heart rate, allowing blood to be sent to our digestive organs. Knowing this, it makes sense that coffee makes us feel so energized, productive and happy, right? But on the other hand, coffee tells our nervous system that we’re in trouble and that we need to be on high alert. As if we aren’t already on high alert enough, with our hectic, fast-paced, technology driven world!

Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental illness affecting Canadian adults. Could coffee be contributing to this? You betcha! As we’ve learned, an overactive SNS make you feel anxious, as you should be when running from a bear, but not in everyday life. In clinical practice, caffeine intake is one of the first things that we address when a patient with anxiety walks into the office. In practice, I’ve seen removal or reduction of coffee reduce symptoms by as much as 30-50%!

If you avoid coffee and still feel anxious, calming the nervous system and switching over zen-mode can be as easy as breathing, with a little practice. The simple act of turning inwards can change the message that your body receives from the brain from “Run, there’s a bear!” to “Om”, in just minutes. The next time you notice you’re holding tension somewhere, your breathing has become shallow and rapid or you just feel stressed out, take a moment to breathe. Direct your breath towards your belly, slow your breath down by lengthening your exhale, recognize what’s going on in your body and acknowledge it. Take 10…slow…deep…breaths. Feel any better?  

For some, cutting out coffee and working on breathing isn’t enough to reduce symptoms, but luckily Naturopathic Doctors have many more natural and non-invasive tools to treat anxiety and other mood disorders. As with all treatment, an individualized plan is best, so after conducting a thorough health history and physical exam, we’ll come up with a realistic and sustainable plan that fits into your life, to help you feel calm and grounded again.