By Ashley Litecky Elenbaas, MSc., RH(AHG)
Photo by Tori Leigh
Coffee seems to be a hot topic among wellness professionals, including herbalists. Many of us are asked, is coffee a healthful daily tonic or is it a pesky beverage causing wide-spread adrenal fatigue? The answer to this is just as complex as coffee itself. As one of the most popular beverages in the world coffee is often misunderstood.
Just as any substance carries with it the power to heal or destroy, coffee is no different. Taken as a substitute for proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise coffee can have a negative impact on our health. Yet, coffee taken as a sacred brew like its original use in the Sufi monasteries in Yemen, it can improve concentration, endurance, and creativity.
As a clinical herbalist many people ask me if I think coffee is a good or bad thing. I usually respond with a lengthy description of the complexity of a single plant, its inherent energetics, actions, and how it really depends on the person. I am not sure if people really like that answer but it is what feels to be the most authentic and true as I am a plant lover and a people lover so it is not a one-size-fits-all discussion.
While we herbalists are trained to look at all plants through an objective lens of traditional use, chemistry, plant actions, energetics, and palatability let’s be real, many herbalists also have opinions about each plant, coffee included. I’d like to present a few reasons why I love coffee and a few different ways to view its use.
1. Ooh oh that Smell - Coffea spp. is an evergreen shrub in the Rubiaceae family and has its origins in tropical regions of Africa and Asia. It is a beautiful plant with waxy ovate opposite leaves and produces an abundance of white aromatic flowers. When I visited a coffee farm in Costa Rica back in 2012 the flowers were in bloom and they exuded a complex fragrance that reminded me of jasmine, orange blossoms, geranium, and a faint whisper of espresso. The smell is simply intoxicating. It is said that sailors could smell the blossoms of the coffee plantations two miles off shore. I have also seen the aroma of a fresh pot of coffee stir even the soundest sleepers. We herbalists love plants that draw us in, excite our senses, and invigorate our imaginations.
In many cultures and traditional religious practices, scent is used to illicit a connection with the divine. Think of frankincense and myrrh wafting in a Catholic church, ceremonial sage being burned before a Native American healing ceremony, or copal sticks carrying their scent through a medicine lodge in the Amazon. Both coffee flowers and the scent of brewing coffee contain magic, memory, and the promise of a forth coming ritual.
As ritual and pattern loving creatures I think the daily practice of brewing coffee fills our ancient need for ceremony and is a way of demarcating a change of consciousness. As a morning ceremony drinking coffee marks the shift from the dream world into waking life. For those who don’t resonate with drinking coffee, using coffee flower oil after bathing is a wonderful way of marking your passage into a new day.
2. Chemistry in Every Cup – We all know that plants contain a complex array of chemicals. Coffee is no different and contains over 1000 active components. While many of us think the positive effects of coffee are due to specifically to its caffeine content, this is simply not true. Caffeine is just one of many chemicals that make coffee what it is. Caffeine is a natural simulant and is known to improve memory and the speed with which our brains process information. A few Finnish studies have shown that caffeine can slow down the degradation of brain cells in those with Alzheimer’s disease. For ladies, French researchers led by Karen Ritchie at Montpellier University, suggests that there was a 'significant relationship' between higher caffeine intake in women without dementia and 'lower cognitive decline over time.' This isn’t to say that we should all order a triple shot espresso everyday but rather another indication of the complex work of caffeine on the brain.
Another lesser known alkaloid found in coffee is trigonelline, a bitter tasting chemical that gives coffee part of its characteristic aroma. Trigoneline is hypoglycemic, hypolipidemic, neuroprotective, antimigraine, sedative, memory-improving, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-tumor and it has been shown to reduce diabetic auditory neuropathy and platelet aggregation. During roasting trigonelline partially degrades to produce two important compounds - pyridines and nicotinic acid. It is important to note that a very dark roast will only a fraction of its original trigonelline content but yields more nicotinic acid. Nicotinic acid or also known was vitamin B3 (niacin) has been shown to decrease unhealthy triglycerides, improve cardiovascular performance, and can protect against liver damage.
One last bit about coffee chemistry is the presence of polyphenols which act as anti-oxidants in the body. There are several studies citing the health benefits of polyphenols found in coffee and their anti-carcinogenic effects as well as a protective effect on oral health. Just be sure to brush your teeth after you enjoy your cup of joe as the dark tannins can stain the teeth.
3. Stir It Up – Energetically speaking, roasted coffee beans as with most of our roasted roots and seeds, are warming, drying, and stimulating. As a clinical herbalist I am not only interested in matching plant actions to a person, but also plant energetics to a person. From this perspective roasted coffee beans are a perfect match for our slow and wet types. I think of this as the classic Kapha type or earth/water person. Maybe they have a phlegmatic constitution with lots of mucus production, lethargy, weight gain, and need help getting some spring back in their step.
Another interesting way to look at this plant is through the doctrine of signatures and its growing conditions. Through observing where and how a plant grows we can get a sense of its character and the adaptive qualities it possesses. In this way we can imagine that a person who matches these environmental features may learn from the plant how also to positively adapt to these surroundings.
Coffee thrives in wet/moist tropical conditions, typically along the equator, in high elevations, where there is plenty of sun with periods of shade, and has over 900 predatory insects that pose a threat to its health. The coffee plant is a bit fickle and likes very particular conditions with very particular kinds of light but is also a tough cookie and has many chemicals that it naturally produces to ward off insects.
Using the signatures of the plants growing environment we could say that this plant would be a good match for someone who is naturally damp, is not a big risk taker (likes the middle road/equator), thinks highly of themselves (grows in high elevations), can be a bit fussy and fickle in terms of their environment, and has a hard time with boundaries and self-protection (has many natural predators). I think of coffee as a great plant for the slow to stuck types who need help getting mobile, taking risks, traveling, trying new things, and stepping up their creativity. Coffee also has so many self-protective phytochemicals and therefore we could think it is usefulness in helping people create better boundaries from predatory people and situations.
On the flipside we can see that this plant is probably not the best match for the thin, mobile, dry, windy, and fire types as it may exacerbate all of these qualities and leave them feeling anxious, scattered, dry, and depleted. This is yet another example of how a plant can be a medicine for one person and a poison for another.
So, that’s it! These are the three pretty wonderful reasons why I love coffee and three topics that could send a table of herbalists into a few lengthy discussions. Whether you are a coffee person or not I hope you learned a few new things about this magnificent plant and you can see why to sip or not to sip is a complex question.
Daniel Perrone, Carmen Marino Donangelo, Adriana Farah “Fast simultaneous analysis of caffeine, trigonelline, nicotinic acid and sucrose in coffee by liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry.” Food Chemistry (Impact Factor: 3.26). 10/2008; 110(4):1030-1035. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2008.03.012
Zhou J1, Chan L, Zhou S. “Trigonelline: a plant alkaloid with therapeutic potential for diabetes and central nervous system disease.” Curr Med Chem. 2012;19(21):3523-31.
Davies, Emma. “Chemistry in Every Cup.” The Royal Society of Chemistry,