Ori Hofmekler, author of The Warrior Diet, The Anti-Estrogenic Diet, Maximum Muscle Minimum Fat, and the upcoming book Unlocking the Muscle Gene is an expert on how to improve your health with foods. In this interview, Ori shares his insights about caffeine.
As a general rule, caffeine is not perceived as a healthy supplement. It's something that is typically avoided, especially the use of coffee, which has other issues.
It's true that caffeine should be avoided by women who are pregnant because it's been shown to cause complications in pregnancy. For example, one 2008 study found that just two cups of coffee ingested during pregnancy may be enough to affect fetal heart development and reduce heart function over the entire lifespan of the child.
But there appears to be instances where coffee may be of therapeutic benefit, which Ori addresses in this interview.
Selecting Quality Coffee is Key
Ori is a self-proclaimed coffee enthusiast, and has researched coffee extensively. He feels many of the warnings against the use of caffeine are well-warranted, because in and of itself it can be quite toxic. However, like so many other natural topics, when it comes to the whole food, in this case the coffee bean as opposed to the isolated caffeine, the converse is oftentimes true.
I want to interject here that this is an area of particular concern for me because most coffee produced today is heavily contaminated with pesticides. It's actually one of the most heavily sprayed crops grown. So, when we speak of coffee here, let it be understood that we're talking about organic, pesticide-free coffee.
Other issues that can come to bear on the end health effects of the coffee are the way it's dried and roasted.
"Basically, if you have a quality coffee bean, even the roasted one, you get multiple nutrients and flavonoid antioxidants. You can detect the quality of the coffee by taste and smell...rancidity can be detected immediately. A coffee that doesn't have a good aroma or taste is most likely stale and useless."
Coffee that is labeled and sold as an organic food in the United States must abide by U.S. standards for organic coffee production. To qualify, the crop must have been grown using at least 95 percent organic fertilizers and without the use of chemical pesticides for at least three consecutive years. The regulations also specify crop rotation methods must be used to protect the soil from erosion, and the beans may not be irradiated.
To ensure compliance with organic industry standards, look for the USDA 100% Organic seal. If you have trouble finding organic coffee in your local grocery store, check online, as there are many organic coffees available.
Another important caveat is to drink your coffee black, without sugar. Add sugar and you'll certainly ruin any of the benefits discussed below by overspiking your insulin and causing insulin resistance.
But first, let's take a look at the potential risks, and why coffee has gotten such a bad rap.
The Health Risks of Caffeine
A major "con" is that most coffee available today is rancid and packed from ground beans that cannot survive even a week before getting stale. This is because the rate of rancidity increases dramatically once you grind the beans. So, much of the bagged coffee you find in your grocery store is an already degraded product with rancid oils inside.
All that will give you is the caffeine. It won't provide you with healthful nutritional co-factors. So one of the first principles in using coffee is to grind the coffee beans of your choice fresh, making sure they are organic and pesticide free.
Ori expounds on the potential health risks, especially that from synthetic caffeine:
"Caffeine can cause a process in your brain called glutamate re-uptake inhibition. It actually inhibits the cellular re-uptake of glutamate, which is an excitoneurotransmitter essential for keeping you alert and ready for action.
Like other neurotransmitters, glutamate must be tightly regulated. Your body has a mechanism that reabsorbs glutamate from the intracellular matrix back into the cell.
Coffee inhibits this glutamate reabsorption. And when caffeine intake is too high and chronic, it can cause glutamate excitotoxicity.
Glutamate excitotoxicity is also caused by MSG.
MSG, when consumed in large amounts, creates glutamate toxicity, which causes brain cells' mitochondria to literally pop inside out…glutamate toxicity rapidly accelerates brain cell death...
But let's not panic. This is true only when MSG or caffeine intake is chronically high. If too much caffeine is being chronically absorbed, there is a high likelihood that similar to MSG, it could cause glutamate toxicity and related damage in certain areas of your brain."
Coffee-Induced Acidity—Is that Good or Bad?
Another reason why coffee has gained a bad reputation is because it's an acid forming substance. But some acid forming foods are essential to your health. They provide benefits that should not be overlooked, according to Ori.
"Acidity is a major problem," he admits. "Anything that chronically acidifies your body can cause metabolic acidosis, a condition which is a catastrophe to say the least.
When your body becomes overly acidic, due to an acid forming diet, you set yourself up to a total metabolic shutdown. Over acidification of your body wastes your muscle and bone tissues, and as the level of acid rises, cellular congestion occurs along with increased vulnerability to degenerative disease. Basically, when your body is acid, you're falling apart…
So there was good reason to believe that all acid foods may cause metabolic disorders and disease including cancer. The two things that cancer thrive on are acid and sugar. So you should avoid having too much acid and certainly avoid sugar. That's what the logic says."
But in real life, not all acid foods are bad...
In fact, some of the most beneficial foods are acid forming. These include protein foods and plant based antioxidants such as alagic acid, garlic acid, fulvic acid and humeric acid all of which are highly beneficial to your health.
So what do you need to do?
"First of all, eat whole foods," Ori says. "Do not ever eat protein isolate… protein isolate doesn't have the alkalizing mineral co-factors that are needed to balance the acidity of the protein. This means that you should stay away from all whey isolate, hemp isolate, or soy isolate. These are extremely acidifying. If you keep using them in large amounts unbalanced by alkalizing foods, you risk metabolic acidosis.
And once you start to increase your intake of protein, you've got to support it with plant food. Virtually all plant foods are alkalizing, that's besides glutenous grains and some nuts and seeds… If you support high protein intake with a high intake of fruits and vegetables and good selection of nuts like raw unpasteurized almonds for instance, you cannot go wrong."
The same rule actually applies to coffee!
If you drink coffee, just make sure your intake of raw fruits or vegetables is high enough. Essentially, a good diet is a balanced diet that includes all the major building blocks—fats, proteins and carbs—acidic and alkalizing foods must be balanced!
What Makes Caffeine Healthy?
Natural sources of caffeine include tea, coffee, and chocolate. These whole caffeinated foods are highly beneficial in Ori's opinion.
"Every time you get naturally occurring caffeine, such as in cocoa beans, coffee or tea, you get it from a nutritionally dense healthy whole food. And note that when you use the same food in a decaffeinated form such as decaffeinated coffee, or decaffeinated tea, you ingest "nutritionally deficient inferior" foods.
A tea without caffeine is useless. It loses all the antioxidant bioflavonoids in the processing. Same with decaffeinated coffee…it has zero nutritional value.
Research has shown that both whole cocoa beans and coffee have remarkable neuroprotective properties. There is emerging evidence that South American societies who drink freshly ground coffee from whole coffee beans have the lowest rates of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease."
More recent research, which Ori has written about in his upcoming book, has shown that coffee, which can trigger glutamate reuptake inhibition, ALSO triggers a mechanism in your brain that releases a growth factor called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).
And BDNF activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons!
"BDNF is a major subject of scientific research today," Ori says. "It's just going to revolutionize how people conceive the term rejuvenation. The old school is still about slowing the aging process…about reducing collateral damage…
But can we really stop aging?
… The new school argues that the body is much smarter than previously thought…and it has the capacity to literally stop aging. The body has a mechanism that can actually destroy damaged, sick or cancerous cells along with weak or damaged muscle fibers. These are then digested and recycled back into the tissues. BDNF turns on the mechanism that activates stem cells to rebuild the tissue.
This mechanism is real. It's just that it stays dormant for most people… you need to know how to activate it.
The good news is that coffee activates this rejuvenation mechanism in your brain. If you act correctly, you will keep your brain young by activating neuro-factors that regenerate neurons and recycle your brain tissue."
Caffeine May Also Help Rejuvenate Your Muscle
Interestingly enough, this neurofactor (BDNF) also expresses itself in your muscles. It does this by supporting the neuromotor, which is the most critical element in your muscle. Without the neuromotor, your muscle is like an engine without ignition… Neuro-motor degradation is part of the process that explains age-related muscle atrophy.
So in this respect caffeine may also help keep your muscle tissue young.
Other Health Benefits of Coffee
Coffee increases your metabolism by up to 20 percent, according to Ori's research. I've previously discussed the benefits of working out on an empty stomach, which mirror many of the benefits discussed here, such as triggering mechanisms that rejuvenate your muscle tissue.
According to Ori, coffee can actually be quite beneficial if consumed before exercise. Ori has experimented using it before training, and claims it works.
"Coffee before training allows you fast energy to initiate your workout. For people who train in the morning, having coffee before training is a great advantage," he says.
However, you do want to be careful and moderate in the amounts you drink. Coffee is a potent substance, and can affect your adrenal glands. So if you have an issue with decreased adrenal function, use care with coffee. As stated earlier, it also increases the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate.
Again, your body can handle this if it's whole, fresh, organic coffee, because it doesn't hit your system the way synthetic caffeine does. But you don't want to abuse it. Also remember we're talking about black coffee—no sugar added.
Ori recommends having just one cup of coffee or one shot of espresso in the morning or before training, and that's it for the day. If you exercise in the morning, have your coffee prior to your workout, not after.
Coffee Can Reduce Post-Workout Muscle Soreness
According to a study published in the March 2007 issue of The Journal of Pain, consuming the equivalent of two cups of coffee an hour before training can also help reduce post-workout muscle soreness by up to 48 percent.
To put this into perspective, studies using naproxen (Aleve) only achieved a 30 percent decrease in post-workout muscle soreness, and aspirin produced a 25 percent decrease.
The authors stated:
"A lot of times what people use for muscle pain is aspirin or ibuprofen, but caffeine seems to work better than those drugs, at least among women whose daily caffeine consumption is low.
… This finding may improve the quality of life of individuals who experience skeletal muscle pain after engaging in unaccustomed, eccentrically biased exercise."
Why Drinking Coffee After Exercise is NOT Recommended
When used before exercise, coffee will give you a good boost. However, it affects your muscles similarly to exercise itself. It increases the energy expenditure by your muscle while inhibiting the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin); the mechanism that increases protein synthesis in your muscle.
What that means is that coffee, similar to exercise, actually inhibits the inherent mechanism that builds your muscle. (You do not build muscle while exercising. Muscle building occurs afterward.)
"The mTOR cannot be activated when you drink coffee," Ori explains. "When you drink coffee before exercise, the mTOR is going to be inhibited by exercise anyway, but this inhibition is not a regular inhibition… Fasting, exercise and coffee inhibit mTOR in a way that can be compared to a spring being compressed in a closed box.
… It's a bit tricky, but exercise inhibits and stimulates mTOR at the same time. So when exercise and coffee inhibit the mTOR, as soon as you stop exercising, mTOR kicks back in with a vengeance. And when you eat a recovery meal after exercise, your muscle is biologically most prepared to accept protein and gain muscle mass.
That's why the timing of coffee is very important.
Before exercise, coffee will work with the exercise itself. It really inhibits the mTOR but at the same time, it stimulates energy production and fat burning. After exercise, it's the wrong time for having coffee—that's the time for a recovery meal, a good quality whey protein will do."
Can Coffee Help Cut Sugar Addiction?
Possibly… The reason why you get addicted to a food (any food really) but particularly sugar, is because your brain has opioid receptors. They're part of a primordial reward system that helps you detect, select and enjoy eating fresh foods over rancid ones.
Today, however, we live in a world of plenty, surrounded by processed foods that are typically loaded with sugar. Unfortunately, this has led our addictive opioid receptors—which primarily helped us select appropriate foods—to become addicted to the wrong foods. Interestingly, sugar binds to the same addictive receptors as cocaine and other addictive drugs.
Now, there are a few compounds called opioid receptor antagonists. That means once they occupy the receptors, they prohibit you from being addicted to something else. And coffee is an opioid receptor antagonist. Caffeine can bind to your opioid receptors and may attenuate the addictive impact of another substance.
"If you are addicted to sugar, for instance, and you really want to train your body gradually get rid of this addiction," Ori says, "using coffee would be a viable way to help yourself achieve this.
Train yourself to drink black coffee. Drink it sugarless on an empty stomach and you will see how, gradually, the cravings will dissipate..."
So, all in all, it appears coffee may have some valuable redeeming benefits, particularly to boost the benefits of your morning workout, as long as you get high quality organic coffee, ground your own beans to make sure it's fresh, and avoid adding sugar.
Other Helpful Hints for Drinking Healthy Coffee
If you use a "drip" coffee maker, be sure to use non-bleached filters. The bright white ones, which most people use, are chlorine bleached and some of this chlorine will be extracted from the filter during the brewing process and they are also full of dangerous disinfection by products like dioxin.
Also be careful about the container you use. You will want to avoid plastic cups as the BPA from the plastic will migrate into your blood . You also want to avoid the use of Styrofoam cups as that will leach polystyrene molecules. Your best bets include glass and ceramic travel mugs.