As much as I want to be immune to the fascination with the before-and-after transformations that are way too prevalent on Instagram, I'm not. I see them. And to be completely honest, I find some of them amazingly inspiring. Mostly, however, I find them terrifying, misleading and harmful.
There's one part of me that wonders how someone can create so many before-and-after photos. I've often wondered if I could do that myself, like over the span of a five-minute transformation that involved lighting and posture changes only. (Thankfully, someone else has already made that point!) What I find terrifying about it is not the dramatic transformations people put themselves through, but the way in which it is done. Often it is done through a mix of good lighting and then intensive training, low-carb, high-protein meals, moderate fat intake and then loads and loads of caffeine to keep the energy going when every other aspect of their lives is being pushed to its total limit.
See, a little stress on the body and on us as a whole is what triggers changes, and can be a good thing. A little stress on the body motivates us and lets us see progress and achieve goals. Small amounts of ongoing stress, when processed effectively, can be a tool to help us achieve physical, emotional and spiritual health that is sustainable and maintainable.
What happens when the stress gets to be too much?
Too much stress, however, is not a good thing. Whether it's from training so much our bodies don't have time to repair, getting less sleep than is optimal, emotional stress or the dietary stress of loading up on blood sugar fluctuating snacks, meals and high dosing caffeine -- we are working against our goals for long term, sustainable, disease-preventing health.
Sometimes the most dramatic changes in your physical appearance can come from the simplest, easiest, calmest, most soothing practices. It all comes down to a few mighty and powerful hormones, many of which are triggered by a lack of nutrients, lack of sleep, and excess of alcohol and caffeine.
"The Caffeine Ditch is something we can fall into, and have a tough time climbing out of. Don’t worry; I’ve got my rope ladder at the ready for you."
Is coffee really that bad for me? The answer may surprise you. No. It’s not that bad for you. There is, of course, a catch. The catch is that coffee is great, delicious and a treat when consumed once in a while, as an occasional indulgence. If, however, you are more closely related to zombie than human before you slurp back your morning brew, than my answer is yes, coffee really is that bad for you.
Caffeine causes a cascade of processes in our body to run amuck. Let’s look at some of them.
Caffeine and Hormones
Caffeine has a half life of 4-6 hours, which means it is kicking around in our body, predominantly our nervous system, for a long time. It affects the functioning of a whole cocktail of hormones including:
- Adenosine- This hormone helps calm the body. Caffeine inhibits its absorption. This is in part why we feel alert in the short term, but have sleep problems later on.
- Adrenaline- The hormone that fuels our workforce! Caffeine injects adrenaline into our system, offering a temporary boost, but what goes up, must come down, leaving us feeling fatigued and depressed. What do we do then? Grab a second cup. Sipping up more caffeine to counteract these effects leaves us feeling agitated and edgy.
- Cortisol- The “stress hormone” that is supposed to help us cope with long term chronic stress gets played out with caffeine consumption. Elevated cortisol is associated with weight gain, moodiness and over the long run it has been associated with heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Boooo.
- Dopamine- Caffeine increases this feel good hormone’s levels in the body (as does sugar), acting in a way similar to amphetamines. Yikers. Unfortunately, once it wears off, we are left feeling rather low, part of what leads to that physical dependence.
Caffeine and Sleep
We know caffeine keeps us awake. But that wakefulness doesn’t always fade away by the time we hit the hay. Once our stress hormones are activated, they tend to have their way with us. The affects of caffeine on our stress hormones can impair the mighty all-important restorative deep sleep cycles. This in turn affects our energy levels the next day and weakens our will to resist temptation, making us even more susceptible to more treats, and more caffeine and so the cycle continues.
Caffeine and Stress
Caffeine increases our stress levels, from perceived stress in our external world, to the stress response we have on the inside. Stress and caffeine can elevate cortisol levels, which in turn can lead to other negative health effects including accelerated aging, anxiety, and the carrying of extra weight. Increased levels of cortisol leads to crazy cravings for caffeine, fat and carbohydrates, and here we are in another depleting cycle.
How Coffee Can Actually Be Making Us Fat
(a.k.a. Long Term Effects Of Abusing Our Stress Hormones)
- Belly Fat / Muffin Top / Spare Tire: Belly fat, or what we call the spare tire, is associated with hormonal imbalances resulting from elevated insulin, cortisol and adrenalin levels. This is when no amount of time on the elliptical or no number of sets of crunches seem to make a dent.
- Fatigued adrenal gland function: The adrenal glands help us cope with stress. When we abuse them and run them out of juice, we experience anxiety, depression, PMS, headaches, chronic fatigue, emotional swings and other cranky-making-fun.
- Impaired mental health: Long-term abuse of stress hormones will impair thought, perception, memory and concentration. Essentially, you stop seeing and processing life as it is, and stop seeing yourself as you truly, beautifully are!
- Suppressed thyroid function: This can result in muscle stiffness, chronic exhaustion, morning nausea, hair loss, insomnia, weight gain, diminished sex drive, recurrent infections, depression, multiple food allergies/sensitivities, cystic breasts, and menstrual irregularities.
- Insulin resistance / Type II diabetes: When we abuse our cells by throwing heaps of insulin at them every time we eat, there will come a point where they say no (often referred to as insulin resistance), or need more than we can produce (what we’d call insulin dependence). The overall result is an inability to regulate blood sugar levels, a potentially deadly state without medical intervention or overhaul in diet and lifestyle.
- High blood pressure: Stress is not good for the heart, physically or emotionally. With a reduced ability to process it, we feel stress on a physical level more acutely, leading to high blood pressure, which in turn, is commonly associated with blood clots, heart attack and stroke.
- Lowered immune response: There is nothing worse for our overall health than stress. Again, the abuse of stress hormones impairs the function and efficiency of the immune system. This means that anything, from recovery from the common cold, post surgery recuperation, to dealing with auto-immune conditions is more severe, takes longer, and is tougher on our bodies.
What Do We Do?
Hopefully by this point, you've realized that this isn't just about fat. Fat is rather irrelevant except as an indicator that if we are carrying more than feels right to us, then we're not living optimally healthy. Each of us has our own sweet bod, and each of us is meant to look a way that is unique to only us. The goal is to work towards each of us feeling our very best.
It's not just the coffee that's the issue that we need to address. There is a whole collection of habits that can help. The first and most obvious is to try and cultivate a lifestyle that is not dependant on caffeine as your primary energy source. This means finding ways to fuel up on a cellular level with real fuel and nutrients, getting enough rest, doing work and cultivating relationships that nourish you, organize yourself for healthy eating throughout the week, exercise in a way that us sustainable, and ultimately kick the habits that have you knocking on caffeine's door.
You might just find yourself achieving your health, weight, sleep, and life goals in a way that is pain- and deprivation-free. Sure, you may not get those dramatic before-and-after photos, but if you wait long enough, what you will get is shockingly sustainable lifestyle practices that will transform not just your body, but your life.
Resources to help you make it happen!
- Stress Busting Latte
- Quitting Coffee + UnCoffee Recipe (video)
- Chai Mocha Latte
- Maeve's tips for ditching caffeine
- 5 Superfoods to Help You Quit Coffee (guest post on Mind Body Green)