Coffee: an herbalists journey to her truth regarding the coveted bean
This article is my opinion based on my experiences. My intention in writing about coffee and women's health in particular is to inspire you to make choices that feel right for you. It is my hope that by sharing the impact coffee has had on my body will inspire new approaches for balance and wellness choices that align with you.
I never drank coffee until my late 20s when I started my herbal business. The Bialetti percolator gradually claimed me. The ritual of grinding the beans, listening for the rush of steam boiling inside the aluminum vessel as I pre-warmed my mug with hot water became a good enough motivator to get out of bed.
I would sit with my prized cup of french roast each morning and plan my day. The rush of caffeine seeped into my nervous system creating excitement, anticipation to get the day going. “Kidney sweats” began, what I refer to as the adrenal system’s response to stimulants moving my natural flow of water outward whether to urinate or dampen my underarms.
This ritual continued for five more years and only recently did I realize coffee is what I most looked forward to each morning. It is what motivated me to get out of bed and knock off my “to do” list.
I enjoy my life very much and have a great passion for my work as an herbalist. Coffee has been a major player in building my business, and I am only just beginning to acknowledge this fact. Shame aside, I admit, the creamy bitter beverage has been an ally in this very “woody, growth” phase of my life when the success of my business depended on me to show up fully day after day even when I was tired or would rather do something else with my time. I allowed and even demanded coffee to be my teammate.
“America Runs on Dunkin,” a well known slogan for the business of keeping people productive to serve the one of the greater forces driving America: capitalism. Now, I never drank Dunkin’ coffee because it tasted more like pond water, but I absolutely understand the phrase because it was my truth for years. I naturally have lots of energy and fire in me already, Pitta element as Ayurvedic medicine would say. However, there were many times when what I really needed was balance and rest, instead of putting the Bialetti on the stovetop.
The seduction of coffee grew and last year I graduated to a very expensive espresso machine from Seattle, WA. I could now make Americanos, Cappuccinos, Cafe Au Lait, anything I wanted. Yet, my intuition also grew stronger and began screaming at me to stop drinking coffee. Yes, even decaf. Ugh, I know, stinky right?!?
The little voice became louder and louder until I had a health condition that brought me to the Emergency Room barely able to walk because of so much pain in my lower abdomen. Fortunately, a CAT Scan and ultrasound showed nothing abnormal about my digestive system. But, the doctor did find a 3 inch wide fibroid inside my uterus. Did coffee cause this? While there is no “evidence based” research to prove that coffee gave me fibroids, my body says quite clearly, “Yes, it certainly contributed.”
Let’s call the fibroid “my little plum.” They are the same size, after all. From here, I’ll take you on a journey to coffee from a Five Element Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective then we’ll swing back over to my story.
Learn more about fibroids from a Western Medical perspective here and the various treatment protocols, which in my humble opinion, aren’t very appealing:
Hormones: Birth Control Pills, Hormonal IUD, Ring (these convince your body it is pregnant all the time and also lower the sex drive and can dry up the vagina)
Surgery: either laparoscopic or abdominal depending on where the fibroid is
Embolization: Cutting off blood supply to the fibroid by inserting material into the vein. And who decided putting plastic into our veins was OK?!
While the woman is under anesthesia, filling her uterus with boiling water to destroy the entire wall so she never has a period or can get pregnant. Hmmm...that one is not listed anywhere online, but my OBGYN told me about it. Let me think...um...no.
Hysterectomy. (most women in the 1970s-90s opted for this because it was the only procedure available then).
In TCM fibroids are seen as stuck blood, stagnancy, excess heat caused by excess cold/damp congestion. They are estrogen dependent and can develop if there is a hormone imbalance. Hormones are mysterious (to me) and control much of our body’s functions. They get out of balance from stress, diet high in estrogenic foods, lack of pelvic Qi flow, liver congestion or all the above.
Excessive estrogens also known as xenoestrogens are now found in our environment due to the industrial production of plastics which are then used as containers for food. Xenoestrogens mimic the body’s natural estrogens and fill up the receptors, leaving more natural estrogen to roam free with nowhere to go in the body. If the liver is already working too hard, it may not be able to process all the excess estrogens.
Estrogenic foods are coffee, soy, chocolate and animal products, especially red meat and cow dairy. Non-organic foods may contain higher amounts of hormones.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, mustard greens, kale, collards all aid the body in elimination of excess estrogens through the colon. Pomegranate does this as well. See DIM supplements.
Back to coffee...do I believe it caused my little plum fibroid. Not entirely, the body is far too complex to point at one culprit, but it certainly did contribute. Coffee’s energetic qualities are yang, moving, hot, action oriented, stimulating, anti-depressant, motivating. These can all be very medicinal when taken at the right time for the specific person. But, like anything, it can cause imbalance if used in excess, especially if the person is heading toward or already depleted (yin deficiency). Coffee is a stimulant, thus it pulls on the adrenal system (kidney/bladder in TCM). It is also very bitter, when sugar is not added. Bitter is a grounding, cooling taste that aids secretion of bile through the gallbladder to stimulate digestion. Think bitter greens, radicchio, burdock, dandelion. But, how many people drink black coffee without cream or sugar (cold/damp qualities)?
Coffee is extremely heating and inflammatory to the joints, stomach, intestines, and disrupts hormones by overheating (overworking) the liver. When the liver is taxed, everything else is disrupted. Read that line again.
When I was in herbalism school my teacher attempted to burn in our brains: “Over time, coffee strips your body of its natural cycles and digestive intelligence.” Everything originates in the gut, so when your digestion is off, a whole slew of other issues may arise.
This stuff is not meant to be drunk every day, in my opinion. Every person is different, so you know what is best. I suggest exploring your reasons you give yourself for why drinking coffee every day is fine. Does it feel required for your job? Do you need a boost to get an exam paper written? One cup probably isn’t going to harm you once in a while. But, the issue I’m concerned about is caffeine addiction. Remember those headaches from withdrawal? I felt like I was dying when I quit coffee. I had a migraine for 3 days! How could something that is making me so sick be supportive to my overall health and longevity?
Why do we do it if it’s so bad for the body’s rhythms? Everyone has their reasons! Mine were clearly connected to the story of “getting shit done,” keeping up with the workload, the drive of capitalism, the pressure to constantly do do do do do. Admittedly, my self worth was wrapped up into how much I could produce and serve others.
Positive sides of coffee AKA Excuses & Justifications:
It tastes, SO GOOD.
A little frothed milk, mmmmhmmmm.
Such a treat!
I’m only having one cup per day.
It’s local, I am supporting a small business.
It aids my winter blues.
I’ll stop some day, no big deal.
My boyfriend and I love the ritual each morning of sitting down with our cup.
Downsides of coffee AKA Reality Check:
It makes me anxious and sweaty
My heart beats rapidly
Loose stools (not assimilating nutrients from food)
Belly ache on an empty stomach
Inflammation in my intestines
Joint pain primarily in my wrists which felt like it could become arthritis
Severe headaches if I don’t drink a cup each day
This drink became my main focus on getting out of bed - shouldn’t I be driven to life for reasons other than coffee?
It controls my natural cycles
Liver heat and congestion leading to hormone imbalances and fibroid
Underlying irritability and rushing everywhere
PMS symptoms: anger, frustration, irritability, headache
Losing touch with who I am and my own natural rhythms, needs, wants
In October 2020, due to the reality check, I quit coffee. Why? Haha, look at the downsides list above which far outweigh the positives. Bottom line: I was EXHAUSTED. Not like, I’m tired, I didn’t sleep last night. I was sleeping 8 -9 hours every night, but deep down, beyond my surface day to day operational levels, I knew I was wiped out.
A person who sleeps as much as I do, eats a healthy diet, exercises every day, drinks herbal teas, gets regular body work, and practices self care, should not have huge bags under her eyes and feel a deep fatigue down to her core. Coffee allowed me to act from a false surface level energy that was draining my adrenals (kidney yin reserves) faster than it could restore.
In TCM, the kidneys (our essence and reserves) hold the life supply of energy (jing) and the bladder is like a pilot light that ignites that energy to accomplish various activities. The Eastern traditions of medicine say each person is born with the amount of jing they have for their entire life, so best not to burn the candle at both ends. It is very difficult to restore jing and many believe it is not possible to rebuild it at all.
I believe we can restore jing, and I also understand where the other view is coming from because we are not getting younger, these bodies are impermanent. I am now (and always) on a healing path with my own body by taking a break from treating others for the winter months. This retreat is revealing many treasures which I plan to share some day.
My morning brew is dandelion root tea and Chinese herbs to assist my body in removing excess damp heat, improve blood circulation and detox the liver. I refuse to let coffee hold power over me. For the first month I pretended it didn’t exist by taking it out of my house. For the next month I released that rigidity and have come to a neutral place with coffee. Sometimes I take a sip of my boyfriends (he is now only drinking decaf). But, I don’t feel the seduction anymore. I let my body guide me toward the light of healing and she is clear and convicted. My mind still has its moments of trickery like, “It’s Christmas, you deserve one cup of decaf!” I did imbibe that morning, but it wasn’t the same. I did not feel the power over me anymore. It was a choice. It was delicious and I haven’t had a cup since.