A Traditional Medicine Perspective on Coffee: Is it Healthy? Pros & Cons
- Published on: 14 February, 2017
- Last update: 03 November, 2020
We have been talking A LOT about Traditional Chinese Medicine’s concept of the “liver” meridian this week! Since this organ system is so relevant to women’s reproductive and emotional health, I wanted to touch on ways to minimize the effects of common ‘liver triggers.’
And yes, coffee is one of those! It’s such a touchy subject because there are different pros and cons reported from several schools of thought. Plus, let’s face it – people get attached to their morning cup of joe!
On the one hand, it’s a traditional beverage with a long history of being enjoyed by billions of (healthy) people! The pros include purgative qualities that promote intestinal peristalsis, the presence of chlorogenic acid (which protects against diabetes and obesity), and more.
On the other hand, the stimulation we get from coffee can sometimes be akin to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” The invigorating and purgative actions for the most part stem from the taxation of the kidney meridian, which would include the adrenals. It has to pull the energy (Qi) from somewhere to give us that burst.
In the case of coffee, I’ve come to the somewhat universal conclusion that “everything is a medicine in small amounts.” The poison is in the dose! This mirrors many things in life: going crazy at a party once in a blue moon can be a major stress reliever, but partying every weekend can be destructive.
Since a majority of my readers drink it daily and don’t plan to stop, I figured it would be helpful to give you guys information about its energetic properties. This way you’ll better understand the actions of the substance (and why certain things happen such as the jitters or anxiety).
I also wanted to give you a simple reminder to mitigate any negative effects: DRINK WATER before and after your morning mug – about 4 additional cups throughout the day. Because coffee is such a “yang” (warming) substance that stimulates the liver meridian, you want to use pure water to ‘cool’ it down.
What is the “liver meridian” anyway?
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the concept of the “liver” is unique and complex. Western medicine sees the liver as the physical organ itself – a meaty mass that sits on the right side of the belly.
But in TCM, the word “liver” refers to an entire meridian: a diverse organ system (including the liver & gallbladder) that governs everything from digestion and the breakdown of fats, to the smooth flow and balance of hormones. This makes sense, because when we go back to Western biology, hormones are indeed metabolized by the liver!
Before we go any further, you want to read this post on Liver Stagnation in order to gain a better understanding of what I mean. I also recommend this post, which goes into some nice detail about the 5 organ/element theory that is the basis of TCM. Lastly, this post covers the 3 most important things we can learn from TCM, and explains how the 5 flavors of food nourish each of the 5 organs/elements. That’s a great reference to have, as you would already have some hints about coffee thanks to its strong bitter flavor!
If you don’t have time to read those posts, I’ll summarize here: the liver meridian is the “governor” of your body. It stores and promotes the flow of blood during menstruation, metabolizes and balances your hormones, governs your ability to plan and make firm decisions, and evens out your emotional state to prevent mood swings.
A liver meridian that is experiencing “stagnation” or sluggishness will cause symptoms such as anger, frustration, mood swings, depression/anxiety, menstrual cramps, PMS, bloating, poor digestion that worsens with stress, headaches, neck/shoulder tension, and trouble sleeping soundly. You may also experience brittle nails.
“Liver fire” is what happens when “heat” (akin to energetic frustration) gets ‘stuck’ in the liver meridian with nowhere to exit or flow. It’s basically an advanced version of liver stagnation that has gone on for too long without proper lifestyle changes. See symptoms on the chart below. This is a person who should definitely avoid “yang” (hot) herbs such as coffee.
Properties of Coffee According to TCM
Taken from my favorite Chinese Medicine book, Healing with Whole Foods:
“Coffee is warming, stimulating, and diuretic. It has a bitter/sweet flavor and is a purgative. Through the ages, the stimulant quality of coffee has been used to wake people up after sleep as well as from alcohol intoxication and narcotic overdose. It has also been considered a mental stimulant. As a folk medicine, coffee has been prescribed in the treatment of snakebite, asthma, jaundice, vertigo, and headache. When a rich, greasy, heavy diet is eaten, coffee helps stimulate the user through periods of sluggishness from toxic overload. Coffee also purges the bowels in individuals who are commonly constipated from such a diet.”
In the Chinese medical-dietary system, the green bean of coffee would be classified as an herb that regulates liver Qi. By vigorously “dredging” (stimulating and dispersing) the stagnated liver Qi, a strong (yet temporary) sense of mental and physical vitality is experienced. This vitality is similar to what one would experience if we lived in a perfect world and had perfect liver Qi! 😉
The early use of coffee beans around the world to regulate menstruation is consistent with the Chinese medical approach of correcting reproductive issues by dredging stagnant liver Qi (which is why I’m ALWAYS relating menstrual problems to this organ/meridian!)
When the coffee bean is roasted, it retains its basic medicinal properties, but transforms from a cooling herb to a warming herb. That is why we need extra water and calm, cooling foods to balance its fiery effects.
As I mentioned, coffee can actually help regulate liver Qi. On top of that, it also purges the gallbladder. The liver (and gallbladder) regulating properties of coffee explain its ability in studies to protect against the formation of gallstones and alleviate constipation. This action has been attributed to chlorogenic acid and other antioxidant constituents.
The problem arises here: when liver Qi is “dredged” or stimulated, its natural tendency is to flow upward. But when the gallbladder is purged, its natural tendency is to move downward. Thus, consumption of coffee has a blended upward and downward action. Healthy individuals will experience this as a balanced action, but individuals with certain health problems may experience either an excessive upward or excessive downward reaction.
An excessive “upward” reaction (especially in those with “liver fire”) would be ‘heat’ that was previously trapped flowing up to the heart causing anxiety or jitters. An excessive “downward” reaction would be diarrhea.
The taste of coffee, although obviously bitter, is also somewhat sweet. This means it acts on the ‘spleen’ meridian which includes the stomach and digestive system in TCM. This sweet taste is associated with a tonic effect, which would assist assimilation and digestion. This explains why so many cultures drink it after a meal as a digestive!
Again, since balance is a running theme here, this too can cause problems for some: coffee’s liver Qi dredging effect is strong, whereas its stomach tonic effect is much weaker. A person with severe liver Qi stagnation AND poor digestion (known as a weak spleen meridian) may have an adverse experience. For these people, released liver Qi can impinge downwards on the body causing the gastrointestinal distress and diarrhea I mentioned earlier.
What’s the verdict? Healthy or not?
As I always say, everyone is different. My general conclusion is that a very small amount of coffee can be healthy, and even medicinal. As we discussed, it dredges the liver Qi to regulate and improve stagnation. It also purges the gallbladder and gently tonifies digestion.
However, while coffee dredges the liver Qi, it does not necessarily ‘smooth’ or ‘soothe’ the liver Qi – especially when heat is already present since it’s such a hot herb! Therefore, if you drink too much, you may release that stagnated Qi and heat without proper direction or flow.
If you’re a person who experiences anxiety, sweating, jitters, shortness of breath, diarrhea, or ringing ears after drinking coffee, you may want to stop or cut down and drink plenty of water. Excessive amounts of coffee, for anyone, will agitate the liver yang and rob the “kidney Qi” to give you that burst of energy, which can lead to the Western concept of adrenal fatigue.
Because I don’t experience much of these symptoms, I personally enjoy 1 small cup in the morning. American mugs tend to hold WAY more than I can handle, so I don’t even fill mine halfway! This modest amount serves as a valuable therapy for stagnated liver Qi without stressing out my adrenals. If I ever start to feel the jitters, I take time off from drinking it and follow my Liver Qi Stagnation tips to bring things back into balance.
I hope this helped you decide whether or not coffee should be part of your morning routine! At the very least, I’d love for you to leave here reminded of the importance of moderation and hydration. 😉 Cheers!