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Coffee is the second largest legal trade item in the world next to oil. This fact alone shows us humanity’s love for coffee and the powerful effect of this beverage. There is no doubt that coffee is as enjoyable as it is addictive. As one of the most popular recreational beverages in the country it is important to understand its benefits and drawbacks to people’s health.

Roasted Coffee Beans

Looking at the history of coffee creates the context in which we can study and further understand this drink. From its discovery by Ethiopians to its present worldwide status, coffee has been fraught with controversy in medical communities. While some early doctors claimed it to be the ultimate cure all, others blamed it for being the source of all illness. Early Arabian physicians cautioned people of its powerful effects and cringed at the thought of it exiting their controlled pharmacopoeia to enter the cafes of everyday people. As coffee entered Europe, vintners and brewers saw it as a threat to their livelihood and had their private doctors make claims that coffee was extremely detrimental to one’s health.

Some physicians, such as Sir William Harvey, credited with the discovery of circulation, were big fans of coffee. In regards to coffee he said that, “This little fruit is the source of happiness and wit.” On his deathbed he bequeathed his 56 pound stash of coffee to his friends at the London College of Physicians to make toasts in his honour. One of the most significant contributions to our medical knowledge of coffee was Dr. Sylvestre Dufour’s isolation of the caffeine molecule as the primary active ingredient in coffee. He was also the first to observe that coffee helped some people but not others: it is neither universally good nor bad, but beneficial when appropriate. Unfortunately, we have not advanced very far beyond these two discoveries. We don’t know much of what coffee does beyond its caffeine component, and we don’t know why it works well for some but not others.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) offers a great insight in its classification of herbs and their use in relation to people’s specific constitutions. It affords us a new way to look at coffee as a medicinal herb and how to apply its use in the most beneficial way to particular individuals. At this time, coffee is nearly non-existent in Chinese Medicine pharmacopoeias, and the little writing there is about coffee is mostly prohibitory, discussing only coffee’s ill effects and none of its possible benefits.

Since analysis of the medicinal properties of herbs in TCM is largely a process of experience, it is not surprising that the TCM view of coffee is faulty and incomplete. The history of coffee shows that China has had little experience with it. Though coffee was grown in India since 17th century and thoroughly described in Ayurvedic medicine, it wasn’t grown in China until 200 years later. Only in very recent years has it been widely available and used. Given the lack of empirical knowledge of coffee in TCM, it is important to re-evaluate coffee as a Chinese herb. This is possible by looking at discoveries that have been made in Western medicine about the functions, contraindications, and benefits of coffee and translating these into TCM terms.

The Rubiaceae family of plants, to which Coffea belongs, is a traditional source of several Chinese medicinal herbs, including gardenia fruit (栀子), oldenlandia (also called hedyotis; 白花蛇舌草), morinda (巴戟天), rubia (茜草根), and uncaria (钩藤). Each of these has been characterized in the Chinese system as to nature, taste, and therapeutic actions; coffee has been analysed as a medicinal herb in the same way.

It should be kept in mind that, when used as health products, herbs are given in a certain dosage range to get the desired effects. Herbs in the form of seeds and beans are typically given in dosages of 6-18 grams in one day. Though everyone has their favourite preparation, a cup of coffee is typically made from 6-9 grams of the ground beans. So, 1-3 cups of coffee is about the correct range. Many Westerners consume more (and use mugs that contain 2 or 3 cups each), so the effects in those cases, which could include some adverse effects, are not necessarily the beneficial ones typically encountered in the dosage range under consideration here.

Coffee enhances the function of the Central Nervous System and increases cognitive performance by intercepting a chemical called adencine which slows down nerves and causes sleepiness. In addition, diuresis is increased due to increased blood flow to the Kidneys. Coffee increases the body’s capacity for work and exercise by 15-20%: increasing the heart rate and acting as a mild analgesic. Coronary blood flow and metabolic rate are increased as well as smooth muscle being relaxed. From this information we can begin our translation of coffee into TCM.

Coffee is yang in nature. It creates heat as it moves, invigorates, and disperses. Western medicine cautions coffee use for people with anxiety, arrhythmia, and insomnia which are easily translated into a caution (or even contraindication) for those who suffer from Heart Heat. Coffee definitely moves Qi and Blood. Its ability to increase the metabolism has applications to combating Dampness with its dispersing nature. It both ascends Qi, giving us a lift of spirit, and descends Qi in its actions of diuresis, increased peristalsis, and bronchiodilation. These last two functions show coffee’s connection to the metal element: it acts on the Lungs and the Large Intestine.

Like many other powerful herbs in the TCM pharmacopoeia, coffee has a dark side. Study’s show that more than 5 cups a day can raise LDL cholesterol (Stagnation, Phlegm, or Damp. However, another study showed that heavy coffee drinkers consume 24% more saturated fats which could be the underlying cause of the increased cholesterol). The rise in cholesterol was worse when boiling the coffee which, from a culinary perspective, shouldn’t be done as it ruins the taste of the brew. One to two cups is enough to relax the lower esophageal sphincter and stimulate gastric secretion (Stomach Heat).

On the flip side, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that coffee can be beneficial if less that 4 cups (approximately 400mg of caffeine) per day are consumed. An international study shows that coffee drinkers suffer from asthma 25% less than non coffee drinkers. This is further confirmed by a Study at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) that showed a 15% increase in breathing capacity after drinking coffee. These facts reinforce the idea the coffee can descend Lung Qi. It reduces the risk of colon cancer as it moves Qi and Blood in the Large Intestine. Coffee also decreases alcohol induced liver cirrhosis by 80% due to an unknown ingredient. This reconfirms the idea that coffee powerfully moves blood and enters the liver as well as the large intestine and lung.

The current consensus is that coffee depletes the kidney essence. However, some new information indicates the assumption might have been made in error. Coffee contains anti-bacterial compounds that slow tooth decay (at the expense of yellow teeth). Recent studies have shown that coffee can help prevent Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease. Since tooth decay, Parkinson and Alzheimer are related to a lack of kidney essence and marrow, it would be better stated that coffee actually nourishes the essence as it greatly benefits the CNS. It also has been shown to benefit Type 2 diabetes due to a chemical unrelated to caffeine: another indication that kidney’s benefit from coffee

Coffee is currently the largest source of anti-oxidants in the American diet which, sadly, says more about the American diet than coffee. These anti-oxidants, though decreased in darker roasted coffee, act as an anti-inflammatory when taken in low doses. However, in large doses, coffee acts as an inflammatory. This last insight is interesting in terms of the temperature of coffee: cool in low doses, but warm in higher doses. Similar to other herbs, some properties are dependant on quantity and preparation methods

Sir William Harvey would be interested to know that the debate about coffee’s effects on the cardiovascular system rages on. Many studies show that coffee’s effect on hypertension is all over the map: some people blood pressure increases, in others, it decreases, and in some there is no change. This brings us back to Dr. Dufour’s 17th century insight that coffee affects different people in various ways. This could be explained by a recent study showing that certain people are genetically programmed to break down caffeine slower, but doesn’t add much insight in terms of how to prescribe coffee from a TCM point of view.

Although many of the effects of coffee are attributed to its caffeine component, there are over 300 other alkaloids in coffee that have effects unknown, one of which is responsible for its benefit to the liver. Decaffeinated coffee has some of these benefits, but most decaf is made by soaking the coffee in methylene chloride. This solvent is believed to be toxic but is largely untested. Residual amounts of methylene chloride remain in the coffee, but only in 25 parts per million, not enough to worry the FDA.

All of this new information helps us re-evaluate coffee’s role in TCM. With a renewed intelligence about the functions of this powerful herb, practitioners of TCM may be better able to guide their clients about healthy ways to imbibe coffee to help many of the major diseases described here as well as other minor imbalances.

In conclusion, as we continue to enjoy our high quality coffee, further discovering and describing its effects from our own experience, we will be better able to present it as an herb with greater wisdom. By engaging in this 500 year long debate about coffee and health, we increase our collective knowledge, and, if we do this after imbibing a moderate amount of coffee, we will increase our cognitive capacity to do so.


Coffee From A TCM Perspective
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