The Clash of The Titans: Caffeine vs Cortisol

“I am completely useless in the morning until I’ve had a coffee.”

Sound familiar? Not to worry you are most definitely not alone!

Now before you all turn away at the prospect of being advised to ditch your daily cup of rocket fuel I must concede that there are benefits to regularly imbibing those bitter beans, although there are caveats. All these potential positives are related to organic, pure coffee that hasn’t been filtered, is served black and most definitely without sugar or sweetener. The other consideration to bear in mind is the quantity drunk (most people have taken consumption to the extreme which is where one of the major pitfalls lies) and then there’s the reason you’re drinking it (unable to function without it versus a pleasant little boost during the day). Anyway let’s get cracking and all will become clear.

I thought it easiest to quickly nip through the most widely touted benefits in a sort of true or false manner rather than waffling in prose so here goes…..

  1. It improves energy levels & makes you smarter: OK so the energy thing is relatively self explanatory, caffeine is a stimulant so of course it peps you up. The increased cognitive functioning however shines more of a light on what is actually happening in the body. When ingested the caffeine travels into the blood from where it winds its way to the Brain blocking the inhibitory neurotransmitter Adenosine. This allows other excitatory neurotransmitters (Noradrenaline/Norepinephrine & Adrenaline/Epinephrine – these are the same thing but have different names depending on your international locale) to have increased action. This consequently increases the firing speed of neurons and thus the transmission of messages by the nervous system. Bottom line? We have more energy, improved mood and sharper mental acuity.
  2. It helps you burn fat: This is linked to the stimulant effect as caffeine is shown to increase metabolic rate, research has also highlighted that lipid oxidation (the breakdown of fat) is specifically increased thus releasing fatty acids into the blood stream to be utilised as fuel. However this effect tends to be short lived and will actually be inhibited/reversed by the sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response) in the long term.
  3. It improves physical performance: Again in the short term caffeine will make us run faster, jump higher and chuck that extra 5kg kettle bell over our heads (if you want to….) but this is again because it stimulates the production of Adrenaline through triggering our fight or flight response. Doing this repetitively is hugely stressful for the body and can lead to Adrenal Fatigue/Exhaustion if abused over a long period.
  4. It protects you from neurodegenerative disease: Several studies claim that caffeinated coffee drinkers have a lower risk of developing both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Currently these results are all observational however, confirmation of this trend through clinical trials is required to cement this as fact.
  5. It decreases the risk of cancer: Some research seems to indicate that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of developing liver and colorectal cancers but again more studies are needed to confirm this link.
  6. It decreases the risk of heart disease and stroke: This is more firmly founded in fact but it hugely dose dependant. A maximum of 2, 8oz, black coffees a day is seen to provide a small amount of protection but this massively decreases with even the smallest increment in excess of that. There is also the added caution that if you already have high blood pressure then caffeine consumption is not advised as it may exacerbate this.

Overall although there is some factual basis for a number of these statements, in comparison to a diet full of nourishing whole foods and good levels of physical activity, coffee doesn’t really cut the mustard in my book.

On to the other half of the equation for a bit now.

Cortisol is a hormone, known affectionately as ‘The Master Hormone’ because if Cortisol is about it will override the influence of anything else. One of its main actions is the governance of our Circadian Rhythm AKA our sleep/wake cycle so when it gets out of whack we end up with issues such as insomnia (both sleep maintenance and disturbance) mid-afternoon energy crashes and other things including central weight gain.

Now the thing about Cortisol is it is also produced as part of our stress response, this fight or flight thing that I keep eluding to. When put in a less than desirable situation our caveman instincts kick in to help us survive. This initially comes from the release of Adrenaline which for the first few minutes or so supes up our heart rate, opens up our lungs and basically just diverts all our energy and focus into not dying. Adrenaline however is a flash in the pan kinda guy, all big and brassy but out the door leaving the dirty dishes in the sink for someone else to see to. Cortisol on the other hand is more of a steady sort, he takes longer to pitch up but once he’s there you ain’t getting him out the door until the party is good and over (I’m talking about a good 18 hours or so!). This is bad news for us with our modern, constantly stimulating style of life as we continuously produce this hormone which keeps us in a state of over alertness and stress all the time.

As a quick aside have you ever noticed that you’re more likely to get bloated or constipated when things are really hectic? That right there is one of the actions of Cortisol. Because you don’t need to waste energy on digestion when you’re legging it away from a tiger now do you? And sadly for you, your body can’t tell it’s the late bus/work deadline/sick child etc etc causing you the stress rather than a tiger….

Anyway we all know that stress is not a good thing in our lives, in fact stress is linked to the onset of pretty much every chronic disease as well as depression and oh that one we mentioned earlier; sleep disturbance.

To tie them together Cortisol levels should fluctuate over 24 hours, peaking in the morning and gradually decreasing throughout the day, reaching its lowest point at midnight (ish). This is beautifully displayed in the diagram below for you.


So that pep and vigour you bounce out of bed with in the morning? That’s because your Cortisol levels are quite rightly at their peak giving you boundless energy and generally awesome morning thoughts. And when you feel tired and ready for bed in the evening? That’s your Cortisol levels falling away and letting you calm down ready for a nice relaxing snooze. Fabby.

However, way back at the beginning of today’s journey we mentioned that many of us lack that bit of pep in our step first thing in the morning, resulting in a well worn beeline for the coffee jar. As we have just seen caffeine is a big inducer of that stress response so the reason we feel we need that coffee first thing is because we are masking the fact that our Cortisol levels have got a bit muddled and we are now relying on coffee to kick us into action.

This tends to be a chicken and egg case.

We started with the morning coffee because maybe we didn’t get enough sleep and felt tired, this caused our body to simulate a stress response by releasing Adrenaline and Cortisol which then, over time, meant our circadian rhythm got skewed, our Cortisol peak moved later in the day and thus the cycle was born. Some people are also far more sensitive to the effects of caffeine and will suffer the ill consequences of this to a greater extent, possibly finding they also become agitated, fidgety or experience mood fluctuations in addition to sleep and energy issues.

I will quickly elaborate on the other side of long term high Cortisol in terms of its metabolic effects as although it is not strictly what I wanted to talk about today it is rather important. Plus like most things it all links together.

So initially we’ve seen the suppression of less than vital processes such as digestion as a necessary part of our survival, but then in the long term we see other things including an increase in fat storage and sugar cravings due to fluctuating energy levels. So when we further confuse this with caffeine induced peaks we’re up, then we’re down, then we’re up again and our body just doesn’t know what to do so we reach for that sugary, fatty snack to quickly spike our blood sugar levels. Our poor overtaxed body then has to balance these and so produces Insulin.

Remember how I said Cortisol was the ‘Master Hormone’ though? The circulating high levels mean that the normal amount of Insulin is ineffective, in fact we have to produce 3 times the amount of Insulin to balance our blood glucose in the presence of Cortisol! Ever heard the phrase ‘Insulin Resistance’ AKA Type II Diabetes? Well that’s it right there. And this is how stress becomes one of the main contributory factors towards the increase in diabetes and obesity rates…..told you it was a baddy!

So what do we do? Well first of all you can chuck that coffee out of the window! OK I am joking, that cup is not going to kill you but if you know you are particularly stressed, have high blood pressure, diabetes or pre-diabetes, any form of anxiety/sleep related issues or are just generally carrying a bit of extra weight then I would sincerely suggest you consider bringing your caffeine intake right down.

More importantly however is making a conscious effort to bring your Cortisol levels under control. We live in a world where stress is unavoidable but it is how we deal with that stress that will make the difference. I have (of course) got a couple of pointers to get you started, these are by no means exhaustive but they’ll definitely stand you in good sted for the time being:

  • Take time to actively relax: regularly practising disciplines such as yoga, meditation or mindfulness will not only help in the short term but also provide techniques you can utilise in the long term.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough good sleep: I highlight the good part as this is really important! Checking your emails until the moment you pass out, sleeping fitfully for 5-6 hours then going again doesn’t count! Employ good sleep hygiene (no screens for at least an hour before bed, not eating too late and no electronics in the bedroom) eat foods rich in Tryptophan (turkey, chicken, oats, organic eggs, chickpeas, almonds and bananas are some examples) and try an Epsom salt bath to boost your Magnesium levels.
  • Exercise: physical activity aids in the production of Serotonin and Dopamine which are both involved in your sleep cycle and mood regulation. There is also the added bonus that you are expending energy which will help you feel tired at a suitable time of day.
  • Keep your blood sugar stable: peaks and troughs are stressful for the body as they require quick reactions to balance them. Avoid quick, sugary fixes instead opting for meals and snacks balanced with good quantities of protein, healthful fats and complex carbs to keep your energy levels on an even keel.
  • Ensure you’re getting your micronutrients: Vitamins and Minerals are vitally important cofactors in our metabolic reactions so low levels mean we don’t harness the energy available in our food as effectively. Eating a diet rich in colourful fruits, veggies, grains, pulses and organic protein whilst also avoiding processed foods, excess alcohol and toxins will keep your levels up.

I will also leave you with the idea that not all caffeine is related equal. Matcha green tea is a great alternative to coffee and makes a fabulous latte whilst also being a potent antioxidant. So whilst you’re getting your morning buzz from the caffeine content (it is a less aggressive one however and so is far less taxing on the Adrenal Glands) you will also be bolstering your body’s toxin fighting defences. If you can eschew the caffeine altogether opting for herbal teas, chicory coffee or good old water then go for it, you can have an extra gold star 🙂

Personally I am a sucker for a good coffee so despite many attempts it is not something I wish/am able to completely remove from my diet. However by employing all the other ideas I have just gone through I ensure that my body is optimised in every other way to counteract that delightful little daily treat. Life is all about balance after all and as I have said before deprivation is not the game I’m in. As long as we are conscious of these things we are in control, you know if something is helping or hurting you and other than giving you the information and tools to recognise this I can do no more.

Oh well maybe I can……how about a super smoothie to sub in for that morning boost? Or a power ranger bar to get you through that mid afternoon slump? Or if you need something to help you switch off in the evening maybe my gorgeously creamy Golden Milk will tickle your fancy…. 🙂

Go on, give them a go, I dare you 😉

Good Morning Matcha Smoothie

Power Ranger Bars

Golden Milk