Updated 05/24/20

I’ve heard a lot of people talking lately about how coffee and other caffeinated products are carrying them through each day during the current crisis. People are more exhausted than ever, in part because of the emotional toll the pandemic is taking on us all.

Even though people are working from home, their days are just as busy — often even more so, when they add extra cooking, cleaning, laundry, and supporting children in the household with remote learning. That means less time for rest – right when we need it most.

This “pandemic fatigue” means that a morning cup of coffee easily becomes two or three… or all day caffeine consumption just to keep moving forward. But what does that mean for your health?

Information on caffeine consumption has been confusing and contradictory long before this current situation, but now it’s more important than ever to understand the impact that it can have on your body. With headlines simultaneously touting the benefits of caffeine and raising alarm signals about the ill effects of this natural stimulant, what should you believe?

The answer, like so much else in this world, somewhere in between. Moderation is the key. One or two caffeinated beverages a day isn’t likely to cause much harm to women – unless their bodies are highly sensitive to it or their adrenal health may be in question. One of my daily morning rituals is to enjoy a cup of coffee with coconut creamer before I begin my work day.

But that adrenal caveat is an important one to pay attention to these days, when so many women are finding their systems taxed to the limit due to an abundance of stress. When your adrenals are drained, caffeine can make already uncomfortable symptoms worse.

The comfort of coffee

In our culture, coffee is so much more than a quick “pick-me-up.” In the morning, it may be the bridge between home and work. It’s that way for me. I can’t get into work mode until I’ve enjoyed that one cup of hot coffee while relaxing in my kitchen or outside in the yard. And having coffee is often a social event any time of day. It’s a reason to meet with friends or linger after a satisfying dinner for continued conversation and connection.

As previously closed businesses begin to open and we’re all craving connection with friends and families, a quick coffee date might become a more frequent occasion again. And coffee can easily be picked up to-go and enjoyed outside (where many people are more comfortable as we ease back into socializing).

Holding a warm cup can also be a great source of comfort, and if coffee is your “go-to” warm beverage, the caffeine might add up quickly. For many women, the surprising news is that the very cup of comfort in their hand could be disrupting the delicate balance of adrenal function.

Caffeine, stress and the adrenals

We all know that caffeine is a stimulant. It’s actually a psychoactive stimulant, which means that when ingested it increases neuron firing rates in the brain and stimulates both the sympathetic and central nervous systems. In some ways, it mimics our instinctual ‘flight or fight’ response to stress.

With 200 mg of caffeine (the amount in a small coffee) your body will begin to push out stress hormones – the hormones that send the message to be on alert, think fast and act fast! It makes sense doesn’t it? After all, this is the reaction many people are looking for when they reach for their ‘cuppa Joe’ first thing in the morning! Caffeine makes your pupils open wide, intensifies your breathing, prompts your heart to beat faster, and signals your liver to release sugar and fatty acids into your blood. The question is do you really need all that all day long? If your answer is “yes!” – then you really should think about your adrenal health.

When caffeine is used too often, or at the wrong time of day, it can cause disruption with your regular cortisol rhythm. Caffeine causes your body to think it’s in a state of emergency – and so your body gets to work releasing the hormones to keep you prepared! Ultimately, these unnecessary hormones are going to work against you (maybe even make your symptoms worse). These symptoms (often unbearable fatigue is one of them) might make you reach for even morecaffeine. You might get stuck in an up and down cycle that’s bound to eventually make you more tired, more wired, and more unbalanced.

We have to remember that the adrenal glands have a variety of functions; one is that they also help maintain levels of sex hormones as a woman transitions through life. They play a critical role, particularly during the perimenopausal years as ovarian function tapers off. These small glands can only do so much, and if they are constantly being called on to produce stress hormones, then keeping the sex hormones in balance may be compromised. Those extra caffeine boosts might very well be affecting your hormonal balance, which can lead to a whole range of other uncomfortable symptoms.

Caffeine and Insulin Resistance

Women are often very surprised to learn that there is data proving caffeine is a highly active metabolic agent which impacts both adrenal imbalance and insulin resistance. It is very common for women to have both – and it’s so important to address both to ensure your body moves back into balance!

When you are under stress (whether real or perceived), higher cortisol levels will cause more glucose to be released. When this happens, your pancreas increases its insulin output to help get all that glucose into your cells. Studies show that in women who are already insulin resistant, the caffeine will exaggerate their insulin and glucose response. So, a morning cup of coffee may explain the dip in energy and fuzzy thinking you experience in the afternoon! If you reach for more caffeine (and the carbohydrates that often accompany a cup of coffee) for energy the cycle will start all over again.

The relationship between caffeine and insulin sensitivity can be confusing – there are so many factors that impact the reaction. Men and women vary significantly in their reactions. Other factors include whether caffeine is ingested alone or with food, what health challenges the body is experiencing, and if the caffeine is paired with carbohydrates.

But regardless of other factors, it’s clear that too much caffeine may be the exact opposite of what your body needs.

What about tea?

Many types of tea do contain caffeine, but research is showing that tea does not affect insulin in the same ways as coffee. It actually suggests that tea has the opposite effect, helping reduce blood glucose. So a hot cup of tea could be a much better choice if the goal is comfort or relaxation. Herbal tea is an even better choice!

A brief pause can help

Whenever I suspect that caffeine is impacting a patient’s health, I suggest they try eliminating it completely for a day or two. That way, I can complete the 24-hour test that I use to evaluate adrenal function. With all the stress resulting from COVID-19, I am recommending this test more and more often.

Sometimes, this suggestion makes women panic just thinking about missing their morning coffee. I’ve had countless women burst into tears at the mere idea of it! But I try to remind them that it’s not forever — but it’s necessary to gather the information we need to help them feel better.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that caffeine is a highly addictive substance, and removing it abruptly can cause both physiological and psychological difficulties. It’s no good for healing the adrenals if we’re causing even more stress!

You don’t need to quit all coffee immediately if that’s an issue for you. Instead, decrease slowly – maybe have one cup of coffee in the morning instead of two, or skip the mid-afternoon energy drink.

Be gentle with yourself, and remember that healing takes time – but with a little awareness and a commitment to ease up on caffeine dependence, you can reach a nice balance – which is, after all, the ultimate goal!