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How Caffeine Affects Cortisol—Your Body's Main Stress Hormone

Hello, my name is Rae, and I was deeply into my coffee. I was the sort to demand four extra shots of espresso in my venti iced white mocha, claim "I can't function without my coffee" every morning, and declare it a "top knot, double shot kind of day" with relish. The details could fill a book, but the essence is clear.

My decision to give up coffee wasn't because my affection for it waned. Rather, it was the impact it had on me that changed. My fondness for its aroma, flavour, and the myriad of coffee-accompanied memories remain undiminished. What I couldn't stand was the way it sent my nervous system into overdrive, thrusting me into a fight or flight mode before my day even began. Waking up feeling ready to "take down a bear" wasn't exactly necessary.

Moreover, coffee stopped serving its intended purpose for me. I sought a boost to get me through errands, house chores, lawn mowing, garage tidying, and the countless other tasks of the day. Instead, it left me frazzled, anxious, and with a heartbeat mimicking a hummingbird's rapid pace. Concentration was out of the question—my focus was practically non-existent. By day's end, I hadn't achieved my goals, felt terrible, and was utterly stressed.

Reflecting on this, it raises the question: Does coffee exacerbate stress, or was it merely my stressful lifestyle? (Possibly both?)

Seeking clarity on coffee's effects, I consulted with my friend Dr. Mary Pardee, a Naturopathic Medical Doctor and Certified Functional Medicine Doctor.

Understanding Caffeine

Caffeine acts as a stimulant on the central nervous system, with its effects becoming apparent within minutes as it quickly enters the bloodstream. According to Pardee, its role as an adenosine receptor antagonist is crucial. Adenosine accumulation throughout the day increases our need for sleep, and caffeine blocks this process, tricking the brain into feeling more awake than it truly is. Given caffeine's half-life of five to seven hours, its presence can linger, potentially disrupting sleep.

However, caffeine's impact varies significantly from person to person due to genetic differences in metabolizing it. Thus, while some might drink a pot of coffee with no ill effects, others might find half a cup too stimulating hours later.

Does Caffeine Increase Stress?

Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system and may lead to increased cortisol release, keeping the body alert. This response, while normal, is not meant to be a prolonged state.

Coffee and caffeine are often used to enhance energy and performance. Yet, outside of physical activity, this extra stimulation can be perceived as stress, manifesting as anxiety or jitteriness for some. For me, this wasn't a pleasurable motivation, leading to my decision to stop drinking coffee.

While coffee itself doesn't cause stress, caffeine can elevate cortisol levels, potentially heightening stress perceptions. It's crucial to monitor your intake and how your body reacts.

Caffeine, Stress, and You

 If caffeine consumption concerns you, especially in relation to stress, consider reducing your intake. Chronic stress, exacerbated by caffeine, can have significant health implications.

After cutting out coffee, I noticed a dramatic shift towards more focus, calm, and energy. For those curious about their relationship with caffeine, a trial period of reduction might offer insights into its impact on stress levels.

Caffeine, the world's most widely used psychoactive substance, is a staple in many daily routines. My dependency on it for daily function, despite the ensuing stress, was a habit I needed to break. Ultimately, the decision on caffeine consumption is personal, and listening to your body is key.

Rae Repanshek is the creative copywriter for MUD\WTR

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