A Nutritionist's Take on Caffeine

I’m in Hawai’i this week, specifically in Maui. I’ve had the privilege to see a place where produce grows in abundance and life is a lot slower. As you can probably imagine, the coffee here is a dream. I took a tour of Kula Beans’ coffee farm on Tuesday. They’re a small grower in the country, making small batches of exquisite beans. I’ve had the idea of an article about caffeine on my mind for a while because it’s a frequently asked question in my practice. Let’s dive into how it works and if it’s actually okay for you.

a personal addiction to routine

I had my first coffee experience staying in Bosnia-Herzegovina for a summer. I think I was fifteen, and it wasn’t the weak drip coffee we have in America. That country’s signature coffee is a thick but short Turkish coffee, so it’s wildly strong because you actually drink the grounds as part of the delicacy.

Needless to say it’s delicious, but it certainly wasn’t what fragile pubescent hormones needed. Since I started drinking coffee I’ve only had a few successful stints of a caffeine-free life since. I have had successful periods of giving up coffee in favor of tea, tough. When I don’t drink something caffeinated in the morning, I will most certainly have a headache by noon.

The first time I stopped drinking coffee was in college after an endoscopy that ended with a severe gastritis diagnosis. When I eventually reintroduced caffeine, it was matcha tea. If you follow my instagram, you are probably familiar with the frequent postings of my matcha latte recipe that promotes gut health.

I realize now that I’m older it’s the act of a morning routine more than drinking caffeine I need, yet my caffeine addiction definitely does exist. And we’ll talk about the connection between caffeine and routines below.

Caffeine isn’t all bad though and it doesn’t have to wreck your hormones and GI tract. As a whole the use of caffeine gets mixed reviews by the health community. It’s truly a grey area in nutrition, so like my post A Nutritionist’s Take on Peanut Butter, I’m bringing you the clarifying science.

this is a coffee tree, seen at kula beans’ farm in maui, hawai’i

this is a coffee tree, seen at kula beans’ farm in maui, hawai’i

how caffeine works

Adenosine (a neurotransmitter) is released in the body to tell us when we’re tired. Caffeine blocks adenosine from acting on the brain to keep us feeling more awake.

So here’s where we talk about morning routines. The cues of a morning routine that involve brewing coffee can be enough stimulus for the brain to prepare itself (neurotransmitters and hormones) for caffeine intake. The caffeine dependence cycle can begin with mere routine before the caffeinated beverage even hits our insides.

why caffeine affects everyone differently

Everyone has a different tolerance to caffeine. In part, tolerance is due to our unique genetics. But, adrenal status is the other part we have to consider when discerning tolerance.

Overworked adrenal glands can lead to HPA Axis Dysfunction (commonly called HPA-D or Adrenal Fatigue) and caffeine can make an individual extremely jittery or even more tired than before the caffeination stimulus.

Caffeine tolerance refers to how the intake of caffeine influences our blood pressure, heart rate, and if it makes us jittery. Caffeine dependence refers to its addictiveness (it’s technically a drug) because the brain learns to depend on its intake and prepares itself for its effects based on habits.

caffeine and stress

Cortisol is THE stress hormone. It’s the infamous fight-or-flight response hormone. When it’s too high it can compromise brain function, slow metabolism, breaks down muscle, and elevate blood pressure levels.

Cortisol is necessary for everyday function, though. Cortisol spikes in the morning to act like a wake up signal. When functioning optimally, this hormone tells us when to chill out or stop doing something that makes us stressed out. Cortisol can decrease inflammation, too, because it’s released as a response. So if we do an intense workout, the release of cortisol goes toward repairing muscle tissue tears.

Contrastingly, when cortisol levels are too low we can get anxious, overly emotional, and super tired. If we keep cortisol levels chronically elevated, we eventually deplete the ability of our body to respond to normal stress and low cortisol can occur.

Caffeine intake can stimulate the body to release cortisol, so for someone with irregular cortisol levels it might be ill-advised to consume a lot of caffeine. So just like we build a tolerance to caffeine, we can build tolerance to the effects of cortisol release. But, there isn’t significant research to say caffeine is inherently bad for cortisol. Like most things in life, focus on moderation of stress and caffeine intake.

Irregular consumption of caffeine is more likely to cause large fluctuations in when and how much cortisol is released. If we drink caffeine regularly, our body will overtime mitigate the cortisol spike from being huge.

should you drink caffeine?

If you have hormone and adrenal issues, I firmly advise caution. If you seem to keep a balanced life and body, caffeine in moderate amounts shouldn’t be a problem.

After drinking caffeine, look for these symptoms of HPA-D as signs you might not want start your day with caffeine:

  • jitteriness

  • diarrhea / loose bowels

  • anxiety

  • mood swings

  • hunger

  • fatigue

  • brain fog

coffee or tea?


I have no qualms about coffee when it’s organic and certified mycotoxin-free. Because coffee is such a popular crop, it has become one of the heaviest pesticide-sprayed crops grown on the planet.

Like most foods, the health of coffee depends on how it was grown and how it was prepared. I like to make cold brew at home to reduce acid or make it hot with my french press. Drip coffee can become carcinogenic because of excessively high brewing temperatures, losing all of its beneficial nutrients along the way.

Benefits to a good quality, organic coffee include high antioxidant levels, and some studies as a result show promise in reducing diabetes risk.

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There are a plethora of caffeinated teas on the market and the nutritional status of each depends entirely (again) on how it was grown and how it was prepared.

Benefits to a good quality, organic tea can include antioxidants, l-theanine (a calming amino acid), and epigallocatechin gallate (ECGC) to promote a healthy metabolism.

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