Coffee- Is it Helping or Hindering Your Performance?

Ohhhh Coffee. Ever the controversial subject, and hands down the one thing that I get the most pushback and side eye from clients for. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or are a high performing individual with a demanding job, coffee probably has a pretty regular place in your routine. And by pretty regular, I’m willing to guess there is somewhat of a co dependent relationship going on.

When determining if coffee is a good fit for you, there are many aspects you can look at including its impact on your gut health, weight, and inflammation levels in your body. Today, I want to look at coffee through the lens of performance, and help you decide if it is helping or hindering yours. 

Wait, coffee can hinder your performance!? Well yes, that’s why I’m writing this. For some it can help, for others, it can really backfire. Which person are you?! Read more to find out 

How Coffee Helps with Performance 

Coffee definitely has its perks! (ba dum chaaa) 

Its main perk… caffeine! Caffeine increases our energy, engages our focus and puts us on high alert. 1 cup of coffee has approx 95 mg of caffeine, which means that when you drink it, you can crank out a ton of work pretty efficiently. Coffee can also act as an appetite suppressant– less time eating = more time working. 

Coffee also has antioxidants called polyphenols which boost productivity in a more round-about kind of way. Some research shows that polyphenols in coffee can help support blood pressure, blood sugar and heart health. Balanced blood sugar and blood pressure increases the amount of sustained energy and focus you have throughout the day, enabling you to work efficiently and for long durations. Antioxidants are also critical for reducing oxidative stress within the body (think cells that are rusting and losing function). Higher antioxidants levels which help fight free radicals also reduce inflammation in the body. Less inflammation leads to more cognitive clarity thus supporting your performance. 

How Coffee Hinders Performance

With all the positives coffee can bring, hearing that it can actually be hindering performance comes as a big surprise, and a bit of a blow. People are serious about their coffee routine. Even though there are many people who do well with coffee, the truth is that there are quite a few biological mechanisms and genes which show that coffee may not be as helpful as you think. One person’s superfood may be your kryptonite so it’s important to understand how coffee may be affecting you.

Caffeine triggers a number of different hormones in the body which can all have downstream effects. The ones I want to discuss today are our stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline and Cortisol are our short and long term stress hormones produced by our adrenal glands. They trigger our fight or flight response which is really handy in short term situations, but not as great for prolonged periods of time. Drinking coffee everyday (esp those drinking more than 1 cup), can trigger long term production of cortisol which has a number of different negative impacts, including its ability to disrupt sleep patterns. On top of cortisol dysregulation, coffee also inhibits the absorption of the organic compound Adenosine which is meant to calm the body.

Now, I don’t need to go into detail about the consequences of poor sleep. We know that poor sleep (esp 2 or more nights) can severely impact your cognition, executive functioning and ability to manage stress. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle too. If you sleep poorly, coffee seems like the perfect antidote. But what happens when coffee is the cause of poor sleep? I can’t tell you how many times clients swear that their coffee consumption has nothing to do with their sleep, but somehow every time we remove it, their sleep drastically improves. One question to sit with is… if you don’t know what your energy levels are without having coffee, can you really say you have good energy?

So why can some people drink coffee right before they go to bed and have no issues? This comes to genetics. The enzyme responsible for the metabolism of coffee is gene CYP1A2. If you suspect you may have a variant of the gene, it’s worth it to get tested! Whether you are a fast coffee metabolizer or not, it’s half life is about 5-6 hours so it’s generally best practice to not have any coffee after 11 AM.

So we know that elevated levels of cortisol directly impact our ability to sleep, but there are other impacts as well like our ability to manage stress, energy levels (even with sleep), and hormone imbalances.

If you are someone who carries extra fat around their midsection, that’s a sign that there is some cortisol dysregulation going on. If you get 10 hours of sleep but still wake up exhausted and rely on morning and afternoon coffee to power through your day, there is likely cortisol dysregulation. If your workload hasn’t changed but is all of a sudden feeling overwhelming and stressing you out, likely there is cortisol dysregulation.

How do you reverse it? Cut out coffee (and other highly caffeinated beverages).

While I spent a lot of time focusing on work related performance, it’s important to note that coffee can have the same impact on fitness performance too. Cortisol (the stress hormone that coffee triggers) is catabolic, meaning that it breaks down muscles to use for fuel. If you’ve struggled making gains in the gym, this could be a huge factor why. Elevated or depleted levels of cortisol also lead to blood sugar dysregulation. Chronically high levels of blood sugar can cause insatiable cravings and impact which foods we crave. If our body is in stress, it wants the quickest form of energy possible: cue refined carbs and sugar. It can also trigger binge eating episodes by inhibiting the neurotransmitter GABA which helps keep us calm. These factors not only lead to weight gain, but generally affect our health performance.

So what now?

Ultimately, it comes down to your bio individuality! No food can be labeled as totally good or totally bad for you (except vegetable oils but that’s a subject for another day). If you don’t know, it’s always worth it to give it up for a month and see how you do. More often than not, people find their energy levels and mental clarity actually increase. 

If you’re not ready to part with your morning bev, remember quality matters too! It could also be worth investing in a high quality coffee that provides more benefits and less side effects.