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Is Coffee Bad for You? The Definitive Guide to Java

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I've loved coffee ever since I knew it existed. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother sneaking me sips of coffee with half-and-half from a paper cup, so it's no surprise that I started drinking it on my own when I was 12. By 15, it was part of my morning routine. The habit followed me to college, where I thought nothing of drinking six (or more) cups a day, and this pattern continued into my 20s.

As a young adult, when I began working in hospitals, the ever-shifting hours found me relying on caffeine to get through the day without losing focus. I struggled with occasional insomnia. Logically, I knew that caffeine can disrupt sleep, but I chose to believe stress was my problem. (This side effect might not be so shocking, but there are some other pretty surprising facts about caffeine.) Every few years, I'd try to quit or cut back because it sounded like a good idea. But it never stuck.

When I hit 30, not only did I grow into the family shrimp allergy (what a foodie buzzkill), but my body also decided it could no longer handle the mass quantities of coffee I'd grown accustomed to. My sleep—and therefore, work performance—suffered, and I felt edgy all the time. It wasn't until I had heart palpitations that I finally saw my doctor.

While she gave me the name of a cardiologist, she also recommended I try some lifestyle changes first: Restorative yoga, psychotherapy, and—surprise, surprise—less caffeine. So rather than making 32 ounces of java in the morning before work, I made 16. Then I started ordering a small size at the café instead of a medium, and I cut myself off after noon. Now, I'm secure in my routine of 24 to 32 ounces a day, striving to hit the 16-ounce mark eventually.

Now, to all you java connoisseurs, let me be clear: This is just my personal experience with coffee, and everyone reacts differently to the drink. Coffee isn't objectively "bad" for you—it actually boasts some pretty awesome health benefits. That said, too much coffee can negate its perks. First, the pros and cons:

The pros: Small to moderate doses of caffeine (20 to 200 milligrams) can make you feel more alert, focused, energetic, and upbeat. Neuroprotective benefits like decreased risk of Parkinson's disease have also been noted, and a 2014 study showed that caffeine may even enhance short-term memory. When consumed before exercise, caffeine has also been shown to boost performance and endurance and may also help you burn more fat while you work out. It's also an important means of social connection, as hanging out while enjoying a cup of coffee (espresso, cappuccino, take your pick) is a big part of so many cultures.

The cons: A "larger dose" of caffeine (about 200mg, which is less than a tall Starbucks brew, BTW) can cause symptoms like jitters, heightened anxiety, GI discomfort, changes in heart rate, and sleep disturbance. Also worth noting: Coffee is often a vehicle for sugar, so if a daily mid-afternoon coffee run always includes some sort of pastry, that caffeine fix could become a big source of empty calories. Then there's caffeine dependence: Low-grade withdrawal symptoms such as sleepiness, headache, and lethargy are common, but even flu-like symptoms can occur. This can obviously disrupt your overall daily function, but also go unnoticed as feeling sleepy or groggy could be written off as lack of sleep or stress. It's an easy cycle to slip into, but a tough one to escape.

Don't worry, though: We aren't suggesting you give up your favorite house brew. But here are some tricks that can hep you enjoy coffee and indulge that caffeine fix the right way:

Don't have (only) coffee for breakfast.

Though you can certainly enjoy coffee at breakfast, it's probably not best for your stomach to have only coffee. Instead, aim for a balanced morning meal that includes a nice amount of protein and healthy fats. (Read: Greek yogurt with berries and chia seeds or an egg white omelet with veggies.) It will do a much better job of helping you get your day started on the right foot and keeping you full and focused until lunch.

Watch for signs that you're overdoing it.

If you start feeling anxious or unable to focus, or if you find that you've been having trouble sleeping or experiencing stomach problems that weren't there before, you might need to cut back.

Know your daily serving size.

Most healthy people can safely consume 300 to 400 milligrams per day, which is about four cups of coffee. (Not four triple-shot grande macchiatos, OK?) If you're pregnant or trying to conceive, cap it at 200 mg per day. The half-life of caffeine (aka the time it takes the body to clear half the caffeine consumed) averages three to seven hours, but can vary person to person. And outside factors like certain medications, smoking, or even your weight can vary that time.

Form a strategy for cutting back.

If you (or your doctor) decides it's really time to cut back, coming up with a real strategy is important. Otherwise you'll be tempted the first time you walk past a coffee shop with fresh-brewed dark roast. You could go cold turkey, but gradually cutting back may spare you some withdrawal symptoms. Either way, make a plan you can realistically stick to. A few ideas:

  • Switch your order from a large to a medium. A couple weeks later, make it a small.
  • Choose gentler caffeine sources like green tea and matcha—just don't let the bag steep too long.
  • Set a caffeine curfew for when you'll cut yourself off for the day. Base this on your bedtime and listen to your body.
  • Stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can cause fatigue, so have a glass of water before making a coffee run and you may find you feel better without it.
  • Get into a sleep routine. Going to bed and waking up around the same time every day will help your body and brain adjust so you wake up feeling more energized—and less desperate for caffeine.

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