Coffee and Adrenal Fatigue

I have a love-hate relationship with coffee.  I love the smell and I love that it helps me focus for a few hours every morning.  However, I hate that coffee and adrenal fatigue don’t play nice and I hate that I could be making my symptoms worse.  Or, at least this is what I was told a few years ago.

After hearing how coffee and adrenal fatigue could be a potentially devastating combination, I decided to do more research and experiment on myself.  If you’ve been drinking coffee or some other form of caffeinated beverage every day for years, you probably understand how reluctant I was to stop drinking my morning coffee!

As it turns out, ditching coffee wasn’t too painful.  I had a headache for a few days and felt overly exhausted but things turned around fast.  I discovered good sleep again and felt a lot less dehydrated.  Overall, I believe ditching the coffee for a few weeks helped my adrenal fatigue, but I also felt like I wasn’t addicted in the first place.

If you’re a moderate coffee drinker, you could enjoy better sleep, less anxiety and eventually more focus if you ditch the caffeine.  For those of you who drink a LOT of coffee, especially in the afternoon, it’ll be tough at first but you’ll probably notice the most positive changes.

But, continue reading to find out more about how coffee and adrenal fatigue are related!


Coffee and Adrenal Fatigue – The Facts

If you’re struggling with adrenal fatigue, you know how hard mornings can be.  You couldn’t fall asleep the night before because your mind was racing.  Something woke you up at 2 AM and you couldn’t get back into that restorative deep sleep your body craves.  The alarm goes off and you groan and cringe…ugh, another day!

Because you need to get to work, get the kids off to school, or start doing whatever it is you need to do each day, you drag yourself out of bed and head straight for the coffee.  The first cup goes down well and you feel pretty normal – finally!  But, caffeine is a drug that only lasts so long; like any drug, the effects wear off and you’re often left feeling even worse than when you woke up.

Coffee, or caffeine in general, stimulates your nervous system and signals your pituitary to activate.  If you read my blog post about the HPA-Axis, you already know that the pituitary is what signals your adrenal glands to fire. How exactly this HPA-axis works is still a bit unclear, but this is the basic functionality.

Adrenal Adaptability

So, your first cup of coffee has stimulated your pituitary, which in turn has caused your adrenals to secrete cortisol and adrenaline.  This is what gives you that boost of alertness and focus.  But, the more coffee you drink each day, the longer your body is set in this ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Your adrenal glands are pretty resilient.  Exposure to caffeine stimulates them to release cortisol, but when the caffeine wears off, the adrenals return to normal.  However, over time, the adrenals start to become desensitized to the effects of caffeine, which is why you can start with one cup of coffee but soon find you need two or more to get through your day.

Energy crashes happen when your body has had enough and refuses to respond to the effects of caffeine or other stimulants.  This typically happens after years of continuous coffee drinking.  You end up feeling more tired than ever, and sometimes you can’t even get up off the couch.

Avoid caffeine completely if you believe you have adrenal fatigue.

More Than Just Adrenals

Caffeine also inhibits the release of the neurotransmitter GABA, the one that puts your body into a state of rest and relaxation in preparation for sleep. And, because cortisol stimulates the release of glucose into the blood for energy, chronically high levels of cortisol from stress, too much caffeine and exhaustion can be damaging to the arteries.

Another issue with coffee and adrenal fatigue is that many people increase their consumption of coffee during stressful times.  (Think about how university students drink pots and pots of coffee to stay awake to study for exams.  Or, how police officers drink so much coffee to stay focused on their very stressful jobs!)  This behavior pushes the adrenals to the point where they can become overworked and dysfunctional.

Fatigue is your body telling you to rest.  You shouldn’t push yourself too hard or override that delicate messaging system with caffeine and other stimulants.  Listen to your body!

Coffee and Adrenal Fatigue As You Get Older

As we age, our bodies become more sensitive to caffeine.  Aging bodies also have less nutritional stores to help rebound to a normal state after drinking coffee.  Caffeine can cause a decrease in the amount of B vitamins circulating in your body.  B vitamins are essential for nervous and adrenal health. Low levels of B vitamins make it more difficult for you to respond to stress in a healthy way.

Is Decaf Okay?

While decaf coffee contains significantly less caffeine than regular coffee, it isn’t 100% free from caffeine.  Even small amounts of caffeine from decaf can present the same, albeit milder, effects of coffee and adrenal fatigue.  Plus, did you realize that decaf coffee is quite toxic?  The process of remove the caffeine from the beans adds chemicals to the coffee that can be very harmful to your health.

Other Sources of Caffeine

It won’t help to ditch your morning coffee and replace it with another caffeinated beverage.  Black and green tea, plus chocolate, all have caffeine in them. The higher the cocoa content in a piece of chocolate, the higher the caffeine.  This is unfortunate because dark chocolate is a pretty decent snack with its high antioxidant content!

Soda and energy drinks can have just as much, if not more, caffeine than the same amount of regular coffee.

Coffee and Adrenal Fatigue

Special Consideration for Women

When women complain of low energy, one of the first things doctors check for is their iron levels.  Did you know that coffee can inhibit the absorption of iron?  You may be eating enough to keep your iron levels normal but caffeine could be preventing it from getting into tissues that need it.

Women should also be more careful with their coffee consumption than men because our livers detoxify coffee using the same enzyme system as that used to initially metabolize estrogen during Phase I detoxification.  Since estrogen metabolism takes precedence, caffeine may not be detoxified and its effects may be more long-term.  Problems with slow caffeine detoxification include poor sleep, insomnia and anxiety.

Coffee and Adrenal Fatigue

Take Away

Is there a health impact of coffee and adrenal fatigue?  Potentially.  If you’re chronically stressed, drinking a lot of coffee will exacerbate your symptoms and could further fatigue your adrenals glands.  Women may detoxify caffeine slower than men because the liver uses the same system to detoxify estrogen as it does caffeine.  And, women who are not eating a whole foods, natural diet will likely experience more problems with coffee and adrenal fatigue.

Don’t quit coffee cold-turkey, though.  Caffeine-withdrawal symptoms are very real, and include headaches, extreme fatigue, brain fog and more.  Many of these withdrawal symptoms are similar to those you’re already experiencing with adrenal fatigue, so you could end up feeling a lot worse!  When I ditched caffeine cold-turkey, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck for about 4 days; things returned to normal after that and I slept better and felt more alert in general.

Instead, slowly cut back on your caffeine intake, especially after lunch.  Try to have coffee in the morning to mirror your natural cortisol rhythm.  Our cortisol is normally high in the morning and tapers off throughout the day to prepare for sleep.  If you drink coffee, drink it during periods of high cortisol (i.e. between 6 and 10 AM) because the caffeine won’t spike your cortisol as much as it does in the afternoon.



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