Most people don’t think of coffee as an herb. However, if we define an herb as a medicinal plant, then coffee is not only an herb but also one of the most popular in the world.
More than 500 billion cups of coffee are drunk annually, and more than 75 million people make their livelihood from it. Perhaps the reason that coffee is commonly dismissed by the herbal world is because of our culture’s overuse of this medicinal substance.
It’s rare to hear of an herbalist recommending coffee for someone’s health, probably because 50% of the U.S. population is already self-dosing. Instead, herbalists are more likely to recommend against drinking coffee due to its side effects in susceptible people. But there’s more to coffee than a jolt of energy.
Coffee can improve cognitive function, protect against neurodegenerative disease, prevent type 2 diabetes, support heart health, and more. Though we often hear talk of “coffee beans,” what we use is actually the seed of the plant.
|Botanical name:||Coffea arabica, Coffer robusta, Coffea liberica|
|Parts used:||roasted seeds (commonly called “beans”)|
|Plant properties:||stimulating, diuretic, blood mover, laxative, blood sugar regulator, bronchial dilator, vasoconstrictor, antioxidant, cardio protective, inflammatory modulator|
|Plant uses:||fatigue, constipation, insulin resistance, stimulating digestion, improving cognition, symptomatic asthma, headaches, heart health, inflammation|
|Plant preparations:||roasted coffee beverages, caffeine extracts, culinary|
About 1,000 years ago, legend has it, a goat herder in Ethiopia noticed his animals were more rambunctious and frisky after eating the berries and leaves of a small shrub.
Testing it out for himself, the goat herder felt more energized—and thus the fascination with coffee began. The Arabs are credited with figuring out how to roast coffee beans and then brew them into a delicious beverage. For centuries the Arabs controlled the flow of coffee beans to other parts of the world, until coffee plants slowly but surely were smuggled out of controlled plantations and cultivated throughout equatorial regions of the world. There is also a dark side to coffee’s history.
Suggested Read: How To Use Coffee – A Brief Guide
As the demand for coffee grew, profit-driven governments and entrepreneurs slashed down native forests and destroyed numerous indigenous cultures to make room for coffee plantations. Millions of people who were once independent subsistence farmers were forced into coffee cultivation, leaving families and entire countries vulnerable to the rise and fall of coffee prices.
Starting in the 1990s, awareness about the negative economic and environmental impacts of coffee began to rise. Organizations and cooperatives were created to ensure a fair price for farmers.
Today coffee is the largest fair trade product in the world. Fair trade is the only ethical choice when buying coffee. “Shade grown” and “organic” coffees are further sustainable choices, adding layers of environmental protection by plantations maintaining biodiverse forests and growing coffee without pesticides.
Types of Coffee
From year to year, coffee beans produced from a single coffee shrub can vary dramatically. As an herbalist, we found this especially interesting and further proof that nature can’t be standardized.
Decaffeinated coffee is often wrongly thought to be completely caffeine free. In fact, while it has had the majority of the caffeine taken out of it, it may still have up to 3% of the original caffeine content, which can adversely affect people who are sensitive to caffeine.
Historically, caffeine was extracted from coffee by soaking the beans in chemical solvents like benzene, a known carcinogen. These days, dichloromethane and ethyl acetate are used to decaffeinate coffee.
Proponents of this method claim that very little solvent remains on the coffee beans. However, concerns about these chemicals aren’t just about the end product, but also about what we introduce into the environment in the process. If you want to avoid known carcinogens and the creation of chemical waste, then look for coffee that has been decaffeinated using water or carbon dioxide instead of harsh chemical solvents.
Medicinal Properties and Energetics of Coffee
The simplest way to describe the medicinal benefit of coffee is to say it’s a stimulant. It stimulates energy, circulation, digestion, and even urination.
Coffee acts by affecting the central nervous system, suppressing the parasympathetic “rest and relax” nervous system and bolstering the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system. The most obvious effect we feel after drinking coffee is more energy—it’s no wonder we especially love this beverage upon waking in the morning. In essence, coffee wakes things up and gets them moving. Physiologically, heart rate increases, as does circulation, diuresis, gastric enzymes, and peristalsis.
The stimulation of gastric enzymes, which are an important factor in the digestive process, and peristalsis, the natural movement of the colon, are one reason that many habitual coffee drinkers rely on their morning cup to get their bowels moving. Coffee is high in antioxidants. In fact, it may be the number one source of antioxidants for many people in the United States.
1) For Fatigue And Depression
People love coffee for its taste and for the comfort of a warm morning ritual. Some people say it’s the best part of waking up. If you’ve ever enjoyed a morning cup of coffee, then you know exactly how this feels.
Many people depend on coffee to help them fight fatigue and increase their energy. Many studies have shown the positive effects of coffee for people who work the night shift, work exceptionally long hours, or do monotonous work throughout the day. In the short term, coffee can provide a relatively safe way to stay awake and increase alertness.
That morning cup of coffee makes many people happy, and research says it may have a long-term effect on happiness as well. Epidemiological studies have shown an inverse relationship between coffee, tea, and caffeine consumption and levels of depression.
2) For Your Brain
Numerous studies have shown that drinking coffee benefits cognitive performance. One interesting study on the effects of caffeine and extroversion showed that while caffeine improved reaction time and the speed of encoding of new information in everyone, people who identify as being more extroverted showed more improvement in terms of serial recall and running memory tasks.
This study validates what many herbalists already know: everyone is different, and therefore each person needs personalized recommendations rather than a silver bullet “cure.” Studies also show that drinking coffee decreases the risk for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, two of the most prevalent neurodegenerative diseases.
One study found that drinking “3–5 cups per day at midlife was associated with a decreased risk of dementia/AD [Alzheimer’s disease] by about 65% at late-life.”
While researchers don’t know the exact mechanism of action, they hypothesize these results could be due to coffee’s antioxidant content or its positive effects on insulin resistance.
3) For Detoxification
Studies have also shown regular coffee consumption supports the health of your liver, which is a powerful organ for detoxification. One study showed that its beneficial effects on the liver were especially helpful for people who drink alcohol.
Another study showed that even decaffeinated coffee consumption is correlated with a decrease in abnormal liver enzymes, leading researchers to theorize that caffeine is not the only medicinal substance in coffee.
There have even been studies showing coffee to be beneficial for people with chronic hepatitis C infections. Coffee mildly increases the kidneys’ rate of filtration, thus increasing urination. However, people quickly create a tolerance to this effect. It was once widely believed that coffee caused dehydration, but this is no longer thought to be the case.
4) For Insulin Resistance, Inflammation and Heart Disease
Clinical trials have shown that both light- and medium-roast coffee reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in humans. Researchers hypothesize that the antioxidants in coffee may be the reason it has positive effects on many chronic diseases that are linked to oxidative damage (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and liver cirrhosis).
Coffee has numerous benefits for preventing insulin resistance or mitigating the negative effects of this inflammatory metabolic disease. People who drink three to five cups of coffee a day have a significantly decreased risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
Some studies show as many as seven cups of coffee a day to be beneficial, although many people would experience adverse effects, such as anxiety or jitters, when drinking that much coffee daily.
Several studies have shown that inflammatory heart disease, often strongly tied to type 2 diabetes, is decreased in people who regularly drink coffee. Coffee has been shown to improve endothelial function, reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death in women, and reduce coronary heart disease in women.
It’s long been thought that coffee can increase blood pressure. Clinical trials have had conflicting results on this effect, which may point to an individual susceptibility.
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