Coffee & Chinese Medicine Diet

Coffee & Chinese Medicine Diet

3 September 2018 by Caitlin Armit

But First… Coffee

A lot of patients ask me about whether or not coffee intake is a bad thing so I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss this from a Chinese Medicine perspective.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) classifies herbs and foods differently to Western Medicine. We look at many factors such as thermal temperature and thermal nature, cooking method, season, flavour, and associated organs and elements and then we apply this knowledge to a patient’s specific constitution and current state of health. Foods and herbs are not categorised into good or bad, merely appropriate or inappropriate depending on the circumstances.

What’s in a bean?

Coffee is yang in nature. It is warming both in its thermal temperature and thermal nature i.e. it’s effect on the body. The roasting process of coffee beans increases it’s warming properties.

Coffee moves qi and blood and has a dispersing quality both ascending (stimulating the mind and lifting the spirit) and descending (purgative, diuretic and increased peristalsis). Its flavour is sweet and bitter and is therefore associated with the spleen and heart organs.

Sweet flavour in moderation is a nourishing and tonifying substance for the Spleen and Stomach (the Earth element), which in Chinese Medicine relates to appetite, nutrient absorption and metabolism, and the ability to sort and distribute the useful products from the waste products.  On a mental/emotional level, the Spleen is also associated with worry, brooding and overthinking.

Bitter flavour is associated with the heart and to the other organs of the Fire element (small intestine, triple warmer / sanjiao, and the pericardium). It relates to emotional and mental health, specifically joy or lack of joy. When the heart is not harmonised people may present with speech disturbances, anxiety, depression, insomnia, agitation, manic behaviours and spontaneous sweating.

Coffee & Metabolism

Coffee stimulates bile flow and promotes bowel movements and can therefore be used to treat constipation. This could be a good thing if your digestive system is generally strong and resilient but has become ‘stuck’ due to lack of physical movement or emotional and mental stress but by no means should you be reliant on it for a bowel movement. If your digestive system is weak, perhaps from illness or poor diet, then coffee might only make your trips to the loo for a number two a little too frequent or urgent.

Coffee is also a diuretic. It stimulates blood flow to the kidneys which then increases the amount of water and salt excreted by the body as urine. For this reason, excessive coffee consumption can be dehydrating and harmful to your body. It’s also very acidic and is known for contributing to gastrointestinal discomfort for people with GERD and acid reflux (Stomach Fire in Chinese Medicine terms).

The warming nature of coffee also means that it can be drying and therefore potentially beneficial for someone with too much ‘damp’. The bitter flavour of coffee serves the same purpose. The damp pathogen accumulates due to a weak digestive system and/or a rich and greasy diet. It’s presence in the body is characterised by symptoms such as a sense of heaviness, oedema and swelling, sluggish digestion and greasy stools.

Coffee & The Mind

We all know that coffee is a stimulant that increases your heart rate and helps you to feel more awake. For this reason, it’s not good for people who are suffer from anxiety, arrhythmia or insomnia – conditions which may be diagnosed as Heart Heat in Chinese Medicine. On the flipside, the stimulating nature of coffee helps to reduce brain fog and lethargy – typically symptoms of ‘damp’ as discussed above.

For people who are ‘hot headed’ or tend to ‘run a little hot’ coffee can aggravate their symptoms. This is due to its warming and bitter qualities. In Chinese Medicine we call this Liver Yang Rising and symptoms may include headaches or migraines, high blood pressure, red face and/or eyes, profuse sweating, outbursts of anger, short temper and irritability or a sensation of rising heat to the head.

Interestingly, the bitter flavour can mildly help to clear heat symptoms from the body by promoting sweating and helping to regulate body temperature. In some hot climate countries, people drink coffee for this exact reason. But if you consume too much bitter in your diet, this can generate heat and dryness which damages yin and blood.

Coffee & your kidneys

Coffee has a very stimulating effect on stress hormones and a taxing effect on the adrenals. In Chinese Medicine terms, this means that it depletes the kidney qi – something that cannot be replaced, only preserved. Kidney jing is the qi that we inherit from our parents at conception and it determines the constitution and vitality of a person. Kidney qi (yin and yang) relates to fertility and reproduction, growth and development, brain function such as cognition and memory, bone and marrow, adrenals and hormones, ageing and death.

How much is too much coffee?

Coffee is not the problem. It’s the quantity and dependence on it which can wreak havoc on our bodies.

So many people are overworked and overstressed, sleep deprived and physically exhausted. We tend to reach for coffee multiple times in a day as a way of just getting through life instead of making lifestyle changes where possible to ease the load.

When utilised in small doses for acute problems such as constipation, sluggish digestion or mental fatigue, coffee can be great. Normally this is how herbs would be prescribed too – small dose, short term for a small problem. Taking large doses (e.g. 3 or 4 mugs per day) every day for a long period of time… well you would not do that with herbs or prescription medications so it’s also not appropriate to do it with coffee. It’s a band-aid solution for a bigger problem and it can be very addictive so if you’re having more than one or two coffees a day then you may need to reassess your diet and lifestyle choices for health and longevity.

A secondary but significant problem that goes along with coffee is the amount of sugar and dairy which accompanies it. Dairy is a ‘damp’ forming substance which makes our digestion sluggish and refined sugars weaken your Spleen qi and contribute to the accumulation of more damp. Check out That Sugar Film if you haven’t seen it already. Ditch the milk, the cream, the sugar and the syrup.



Categories: Brisbane Chinese Dietetics Blog | Digestive Health Brisbane | Sleep Centre Brisbane

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