Drinking coffee is a tradition globally widespread and able to bring people together in different occasions and places. Vancouver is a city that welcomes individuals from all over the globe, whether tourists, immigrants, or international students. Getting together to enjoy a “sip of coffee”, to get to know new friends or to discuss business has become a “universal custom” among the coffee shops in British Columbia. Although Vancouverites are crazy about health, many of them still have the habit to overindulge in it. In my last post I briefly mentioned that caffeine could trigger stress and, therefore, impact body energy level.

In today’s post, I’m going to explain the physiology of stress and alert you of how some choices we make, including drinking excess caffeine, can negatively contribute to stress-related symptoms.

The human body is a wonderful machine that works to maintain homeostasis (equilibrium). For example, an unbalanced diet and excess intake of caffeine, alcohol and animal protein can reduce the blood pH, increasing the risk of inflammation and osteoporosis. To gain a more accurate picture in case of low pH, your body activates some mechanisms in certain organs to neutralize this acidity; otherwise, our health would be compromised by the appearance of diseases. Similarly, stress response is another intelligent mechanism that the human body has to help us deal with the adversities of everyday life.

We are provided with several mechanisms; among them there is an “apparatus” (adrenal glands) that help us to deal with stress. Let me explain it in more detail. Back to our ancestors’ time, imagine yourself walking through the jungle with an empty stomach; looking for something to eat and suddenly, a giant lion comes your way. What would you do? Fight-or-flight? Well, how would you be able to run or fight without available glucose (energy) in your blood? (Remember how hard it should’ve been for our ancestors to get their food, to run after their prey… There weren’t any Starbucks in the neighbourhood or 24/7 supermarkets with prepped meals available lol…).

Now, the physiology of stress comes into play. Our body has two small glands that sit on top of our kidneys, called adrenal glands. These minuscule glands secrete epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine and cortisol, along with other hormones. Suddenly, when an external threat appears, (as the lion from the story above) or any other dangerous and challenging situation like internal worry, mal nutrition, dehydration, exposure to toxic chemicals, social pressure, or even extreme exercise, epinephrine will rapidly respond to these stressful events by increasing your heart rate and rushing blood to our muscles and brain. In addition to that, cortisol will mobilize glucose reserves (glycogen) in our liver and muscle. You might be curious about the reason we have this reserve, I guess. This reserve provides us glucose during the night in order to maintain our vital functions (heart beat, and respiratory function for instance) besides supplying energy in emergencies like in the example of the lion in the jungle.

Have you ever had your blood glucose tested before a “fight” for a spot in the parking lot, or an argument with your loved one? You’d probably have to retake this exam, for certainly your blood sugar would be higher, triggered by stress, or have you felt like running away before a public speech? These are examples of how stressful situations can alter your blood sugar, thus, supplying immediate energy by mobilizing glycogen.

Now you might be thinking how fortunate we are for being born with these incredible anatomical and physiological “apparatus”, right? I’d say yes. However, the concern is we are overloading our bodies, which is not able to catch up with so many “lions” in our modern days. Despite of all these amazing mechanisms, we have been exceeding its capacity to maintain homeostasis (equilibrium). And that’s when symptoms of stress such as low energy, headache, upset stomach, frequent cold and infection, insomnia, and respiratory problems may occur.

In addition to that, excessive cortisol might also be responsible for some extra fat deposits around the belly. At this point, you might be thinking that this hormone is not beneficial for you; however, cortisol is not a villain though. In reality, cortisol is secreted as an anti-inflammatory hormone besides being involved in the protein, carbohydrates and fat metabolism. The challenge is how to mediate stress and prevent adrenal burnout.

As I mentioned earlier, caffeine in excess can spike blood sugar by the release of cortisol. Instead of giving you real energy, caffeine will stimulate the adrenal glands to secrete this hormone, and from now on you are aware of stored glucose being released into your bloodstream. Consequently, you’ll feel tired again in the next 2 hours craving another cup of coffee (due to the rapid rise and fall of glucose). Glycemic levels up-and-down is like a blood sugar roller coaster, a really dangerous “entertainment “ we’ve been exposing our bodies to.

Moreover, excess caffeine can dehydrate your cells, activating those stress mechanisms mentioned above.

Did you know that for each cup of coffee would be needed to ingest 3 cups of water in order to balance the cellular hydration level? As an orthomolecular nutritionist, I’d suggest pressed-cold juices with vegetables and green apples in the morning to replace coffee, or green powders. These vegetables will supply your cells with nutrients that will give you vitality, real and lasting energy. Another options are tonic drinks with adaptogen herbs, which will help your body to cope with stress by bringing it back to normality. Don’t be surprised if you see around downtown Vancouver a food truck offering adaptogens drinks. A cup of Tea is another good option to get when going out with friends to a coffee shop. You can find many good options in Vancouver, a city where half population is Eastern. Particularly, I love Chai tea (a blend of a delicious aromatic Indian spices and herbs).

In addition, Vitamin C plays an important role in the synthesis of collagen, but is also an essential vitamin needed by the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. A poor diet lacking nutrient-dense foods may interfere negatively with the hormone synthesis, consequently, affecting the way your body responds to stress.

Individuals that have been through recurrent stressful events in life tend to premature aging; this is because Vitamin C is displaced to attend the demand of cortisol synthesis under stress.

Now you know that North American has the habit to over consume caffeine and how it can negatively impact your health. Nutrition, among other aspects, plays an important role in our lives, especially, when it comes to prevent and cope with stress. Learning how to make good choices is the key to be successful in a healthy lifestyle, whether in Vancouver, or in any other part of the globe.

I hope you all enjoyed today’s post, and watch out for lions! 🙂

Bianca Salles
Bianca SallesNutricionista Orthomolecular
Bianca Salles é nutricionista ortomolecular e reside em Vancouver há mais de 4 anos.