Mmm, coffee. We adore the stuff. We also know it’s easy to overdo — and in excess, its risks outweigh its benefits. Discover the impacts coffee has on your body, and get tips for right-sizing its role in your life.

We are big fans of coffee. We dig its flavor, its aroma, its health benefits, its feel-good buzz. We also know it’s easy to overdo, particularly when we’re rushed, stressed and depleted — which is precisely when all that caffeine is most apt to do us biochemical harm.

In this week’s episode of The Living Experiment, we look at both the upsides and downsides of coffee, explaining how it affects both your body and brain from the moment you take a sip.

We suggest ways to fine tune your coffee selection and habits, and offer our thoughts on the pros and cons of the burgeoning “butter coffee” trend. Finally, we present some experiments to help you make more conscious coffee decisions in your own life.

“Coffee” Episode Highlights

  • How caffeine is metabolized by your body (and a tip for enhancing the duration of its effects) (5:05)
  • Why coffee has the title of “single greatest source of antioxidants in the American diet” (7:55)
  • Research that links coffee with reduced risk (or delayed onset) of Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes (9:50)
  • How genetics affect your caffeine metabolism rate, and implications for how beneficial or harmful coffee may be for you (11:00)
  • The relationship between low-grade, chronic stress and heart palpitations or “jitters” while drinking coffee (12:35)
  • From the Experience Life magazine article, “This is Your Body on Caffeine” — a timeline of what happens in your body over the 12 hours after you drink coffee (13:40)
  • First 10 minutes: Stimulation and alertness (14:30)
  • 30-45 minutes later: Peak energizing effects, slowing ability to absorb dopamine, and increased urge to go to the bathroom (15:20)
  • 1-5 hours later: Release of adrenaline, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, and break down of caffeine by the liver (16:20)
  • Caffeine intake and trouble getting to sleep (18:15)
  • The interaction between stress, coffee, and appetite (21:10)
  • How oral contraceptives and smoking affect your body’s ability to process caffeine (22:50)
  • After 12 hours: Withdrawal and headaches that pass within a few hours if you drink enough water (25:05)
  • The butter-coffee and “Bulletproof” trend: What it is, the theory behind its potential benefits, including impacts on cognitive performance, blood sugar, and energy levels (25:30)
  • Why subbing coffee for food is not a sustainable weight-loss or health-improvement solution (28:00)
  • How a strategic whole foods eating plan can help you achieve better results (34:45)
  • Decaf —  choose organic or skip it entirely (37:20)
  • Social and environmental issues around coffee and whether fair trade, organic purchases make a difference (38:30)
  • Challenging our current crazy coffee culture — jumbo drinks with five shots of espresso and several pumps of artificial flavors and sugar syrups or artificial sweeteners added to the mix (39:50)
  • The high cost of using coffee to power sleep deprivation, or to overcome our natural ultradian rhythms (42:15)
  • If you’re not already drinking coffee, should you start? (43:40)
  • Regulating your caffeine intake to manage anxiety and avoid panic attacks (44:45)
  • Suggested experiments for the week (47:25)

Take a three-week break from coffee and all caffeine to assess your relationship with it and its effect on you.

  • Habitually consuming caffeine desensitizes you to its effects.
  • For athletes looking for a performance boost, try reintroducing caffeine shortly before competition to get its full cognitive and physiological performance-enhancing effects.
  • Evaluate how obligated you are to add a sweetener or fat source to your coffee. If you don’t like it without those additives, either you aren’t drinking good coffee, it’s not prepared well, or you don’t actually like coffee as much as you like your coffee condiments.

1) The next time you go into a coffee shop, order a “small,”  not a grandé, venti or super-jumbo-big-gulp.

  • Put your attention on the experience of consciously tasting and savoring that small-size cup (and notice how few people order a “small” anything anymore).
  • Avoid adulterating your coffee with all sorts of added flavors (caramel shots, etc.).
  • If you like having “cream” in your coffee, have real cream (preferably heavy vs. half-and-half); pass on the fat-free, skim or low-fat milk, and bypass the weird chemical substitutes.
  • You probably won’t see heavy cream as an option unless you ask; many places stock it for whipping cream, and don’t put it out for customer use unless requested.

2) Experiment with different ratios of cream to coffee.

  • Try adding a little more fat than you normally would, and then cutting back on sugar (if you normally add it). See how it impacts your enjoyment and satiety.
  • Choose better coffee — better sourced, better roasted or better prepared. It may reduce your desire to add sweeteners and flavors.

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  • A summary of coffee’s medical pros and cons from Dr. Mark Hyman, plus directions for whipping up some “butter coffee” if you want to try it.
  • From Experience Life magazine, “A Healthy Grind”, about the risks of excessive coffee intake and the benefits of coffee in moderation.
  • “This is Your Body on Caffeine” — a 12-hour timeline of coffee’s effects on your body and the caffeine content in common caffeinated consumables.
  • Insights from Diana Rodgers’ Sustainable Dish about the importance of considering fair-trade, environmental and other social-justice issues when choosing coffee and other commodity crops like bananas and chocolate.
  • Our “Pause” episode, about your body’s ultradian rhythms and how to work with them rather than power through them with caffeine or other unhealthy tactics.