Coffee is delicious and fast-acting, puts a spring in your step, makes you want more and now science says it’s good for you, unlike virtually anything else with those qualities.
However, does it have nutritional value?
Because if not, it is a herb, with power to influence your metabolism but not feed it, a bit like beating a horse to make it run faster.
In which case, whether it is ‘good’ depends on the horse’s health. If the horse is young or healthy, probably it will run faster and no harm done (putting aside the question of cruelty to animals, of course).
If the horse is old, ill or decrepit then sure, beat it and it will run faster, but perhaps not for long.
However, there’s another question! (Actually, if you go right to the very foot of this page, you’ll find several other good questions posed by readers, with my answers.)
From the Chinese medical perspective, (which, if you’ve just arrived somewhat bewildered at this site, is what you get here), it has one main nutritional quality:
That ‘bitter’ taste gives it some value, although there are many foods, real foods, that provide the bitter taste with the added advantage of real nutritional value from the Western scientific viewpoint. For example, cabbage and, in my opinion, Brussels sprouts.
The bitter taste tends to occur in poisonous foods to dissuade us from eating them.
That explains why many of us don’t like Brussels Sprouts, especially when we’re children and our taste-buds are more sensitive.
Mark Twain said:“I don’t like Brussels Sprouts, and I’m glad I don’t like Brussels Sprouts, because if I liked them I’d eat them, and I’d just hate them.”
Mark Twain said:
“I don’t like Brussels Sprouts, and I’m glad I don’t like Brussels Sprouts, because if I liked them I’d eat them, and I’d just hate them.”
Well, no, actually he didn’t say that. He was talking about Spinach, but spinach is also slightly bitter, when steamed.
The bitter taste is, in Chinese medicine, essential for health. Why? Because the ancient Chinese lacked our modern scientific ways to assess nutrition, they classified foods into tastes. Then they discovered that if the foods you ate had too little or too much of any particular taste, you got ill. (What’s more, they could often predict HOW you would get ill.) The theory behind this is called the Five Elements.
You don’t need much real bitter-tasting food (as opposed to food that is artificially flavoured ) but you do need a little.
When you have the necessary balance of foods of all ‘tastes’, your Zang-fu organs function properly. In modern parlance, your metabolism works OK. That means you keep healthy and get ill less often.
Too much (or too little) of any food containing one particular taste and your zang-fu organs get imbalanced, leading to susceptibility to ill-health. We’ve seen that with the tendency to obesity in many people who eat too much food of the ‘sweet’ taste.
A food doesn’t always taste as you’d expect.
For example, some ‘sweet’ foods don’t taste sweet at first.
Grains, in the form of bread, often need to be chewed awhile before the enzymes in your mouth release the grain’s sweet taste. Try chewing a piece of wholemeal bread for a minute or so, without swallowing, and you’ll begin to taste sweetness.
For more on this see Nutrition.
But bitter tasting foods release their bitter taste quite early. That’s another warning that too much of them may be poisonous.
Quite possibly but not always!
Why not always? To understand, see what coffee is described as doing in Chinese medicine.
Of these, the main problem you don’t want to have is Qi Stagnation.
(Though even Qi Stagnation, being a necessary part of life, isn’t all bad – see my book on it.)
Because coffee depletes Yin enabling Yang to appear to increase, often you gets signs of Yang energy, such as
Well! … No problem if you are young and fit because you’ve got plenty of Yin and Blood reserves and the extra boost from it makes you able to lift more weights, run a little faster and so on.
It might increase your Blood pressure a bit but that may not matter much if you regularly take exercise.
Well, there’s the good news and then there’s the bad news.
The good news is that you’ll be able to do a little more, a bit faster. So if your mind is slowing down, you may become more alert.
The bad news is that you get these benefits by using up the fuel (your Yin and Blood reserves) faster. So the next day, or often later the same day that you took coffee, you’ll feel weaker, exhausted and though what you need most is good sleep, you may be unable to sleep properly.
For some people, either because they are particularly sensitive to it , or because they are older, some of these disturbances can continue for several days. So your sleep may be affected for several nights following the coffee you drank.
But Hey! Didn’t it taste good?
So you become irritable, grouchy and intolerant. In effect, you acquire Liver Qi Stagnation. That means you end up with the opposite effect from just the occasional coffee!
To understand why, read the page on Primary and Secondary actions.
This depends on
If your Kidney Qi (the main guardian of your Yin and Yang energies) is weak, then the less you take the better. This is because the drink will weaken your Kidney Qi. Signs of this include noises in your ears (tinnitus), jitteriness, restlessness, shoulder and head tension, tiredness without being able to sleep and a host of other such. For more, check Liver Yang.
The one upside is that you’ll feel like Superman (or Superwoman) for about 4 hours, before you can fly no more, your Special Powers wilt and you need to lie down.
If you are already hot, then because coffee is slightly warming, it may make you hotter. For example, if your circulation is usually excellent, with warm hands and feet and a tendency to overheat easily on exertion, coffee will probably make you feel worse.
If your defensive (Wei) Qi is weak, then it will make you sweat and if you are usually chilly, sweating may be the last thing you need to do.
On the other hand, if your Stomach Qi is weak, the slightly warming effect it has may help you digest your food.
Even better, because it helps to move Qi, you may find that it keeps your bowels moving.
Yes I do, but not often.
My problem is that I’m somewhat Kidney Qi deficient, more Yang deficient than Yin deficient – but both are deficient. So coffee seems like a great idea! As you’ll read below, at first coffee increases my Yang (which feels good) but then it depletes my Yin – not so good.
Soon after taking it, I feel wonderful, energetic, quick-thinking (this is MY perception of course: others might consider that I am even more dinosaur-like than usual!) I also feel hungrier and that I can eat anything without repercussions.
Later, as I begin to wilt, I feel pressure in my ears (due to a form of ascending yang, unregulated by Kidney Qi, especially Kidney Yin) which is very like the sensation you get as an aircraft descends and the air-pressure increases. I find myself pinching my nose and trying to blow air out. This clears it, only temporarily.
I may feel tension in my jaw.
Then I find myself slightly breathless, needing to yawn or take deep breaths. (Again, this is due to deficient Kidney Qi – mainly deficient Yin – not holding down the Qi that my Lungs try to descend.) I may find that frequent swallowing helps to clear my ears.
Meanwhile, my heartbeat has increased a little, I may feel a little warmer and find that my blood pressure has increased.
And the night after I drink coffee I sleep poorly. And the day after I take it, being someone from whom the years are now beginning to draw down my Yin and Blood, I am less alert, need to have a doze in the afternoon, and am more likely to get ill. And my tinnitus gets worse for a few days.
Also, I then find myself thinking, I’d just love another coffee!
Ah! Now, chocolate. Well, nearly all the above applies, because chocolate is also bitter in its raw state. However, if you take chocolate, you almost certainly take it with milk (‘milk chocolate’) or similar. So taken like that it has more nutritional value (from the chocolate and milk fat solids) and is therefore slower acting and less insidious.
But if that’s the case for chocolate, why doesn’t it apply to coffee? Well it does. So a latte coffee or a cappucino (which both contain milk) is less intense and does provide some nutritional value (in other words it provides the means to boost Blood and Yin) and slows down coffee’s’s Yin-depleting actions.
But coffee is still strong, even with milk added, so if you take it, do so only occasionally, as a treat, and then only after a meal and no later than 1pm.
(Why 1pm? Technical Stuff! … Because in the Chinese medicine ‘clock’, the Fire element, of which the Heart and Small Intestine zang-fu are main constituents, runs from 11am to 3pm, putting 1pm at its centre. Don’t understand this? Ah.. Well.)
Lots! But just consider this. Nowadays we have stuff hugely more potent than coffee. Some (social) drugs like ‘crack’ make coffee look slothful. Those drugs will have their own tastes and energetic effects, but they’ll be similar to coffee.
If so, they will boost yang far more. But how much yin will you have afterwards?
Long-term, regular stimulant drug users will become very yin deficient. They’ll look as if blood has been drained out of them.
Eventually, they’ll show signs of Kidney deficiency such as
Later, they’ll look withered. (Notice anything about that list? As you age, you will! In fact, in my opinion, to grow old fast, drink lots of strong black coffee!)
And they’ll probably be hooked on the stuff. That’s why there’s so much money to be made out of this kind of stimulant. Drug dealers know this.
Coffee suppliers may be far behind, but most still do well.
Particularly when their marketing corners you!
Coffee, supposedly, isn’t addictive, but I’m not so sure!
Down below, nearly at the bottom of the page, is a box where you can write comments (preferably constructive!) and questions, and see what others have said.
“Look here, Steward, if this is coffee, I want tea; but if this is tea, then I wish for coffee.” (Caption to a cartoon by GD Armour 23 July 1902: apparently frequently misascribed.)
We’re writing a page on tea but don’t hold your breath. It’s not a top priority.
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Thank you for your website. It’s a real treasure for me, it helped me a lot. About coffee, I would like to know if I drink decaffeinated coffee, do I have the same effects than regular coffee (weaken kidney Qi, disperse yin, etc…)?
Hi Don, Glad you like the site – thanks for your comment!
No decaffeination process is perfect. There will always be some caffeine left in the beans, but if there’s less of it, the effects will be less too.
The BBC has a good page on this here.
Tea and chocolate also contain caffeine, mostly at lower concentrations and chocolate contains fats and milk solids which slow caffeine absorption.
But if you need to avoid caffeine, take no coffee, even if it’s de-caffeinated!
Hello. Would it be appropriate to ask which tonics, herbs or other practices could help balance the energies of someone who does drink coffee in the morning?
What an excellent and inappropriate question!
As my article on coffee explains, coffee isn’t necessarily bad for everyone. In small quantities, occasionally, it may help Yang deficient people. However, taken too often it would unfortunately drain their Yin energy as well, in my opinion, and this you notice only in retrospect.
By the way, although people react to it in different ways and to different concentrations, here I’m talking about strong, black coffee, not much toasted, drunk as hot as possible.
This, homoeopaths have noted, often antidotes the effect of homoeopathic remedies, and can be used as an antidote to many poisons, particularly narcotics, when they cause drowsiness, intoxication, even loss of consciousness. The same goes for some forms of mental derangement and delirium, so it can be used to ameliorate or antidote the effects of morphine, narcotic mushrooms, too much tobacco, prussic acid and so on.
You can see from this that it has a stimulating effect.
After all, that’s why we take it!
Also, it’s bitter, and bitter tasting foods do several things.
– First, they signal that the food may be poisonous, so NOT TO TAKE TOO MUCH OF IT, if any.
– Second, they stimulate the Liver and Gallbladder to work more efficiently (and to understand what they do, at least in Chinese medicine, read pages on Liver function and Gallbladder).
– Third, they help your body to cool excess Heat, for example Stomach Fire.
Just to remind you, we’re talking about small quantities of a bitter substance or drug, in this case coffee. The story with large quantities, or small quantities taken frequently, is different – they are often poisonous. Although with frequent use, our bodies adjust to taking larger quantities, the poisonous effects still have be metabolised – by our Liver and Gallbladder! So, someone who habitually takes coffee each morning is probably erring towards the poisonous side of the drug.
So the question is inappropriate because if you know something is poisonous, why take it? In fact, DON’T take it!
But of course, we all do! Yes, even I, high in my ivory tower, like coffee. Very occasionally! But then I know perfectly well the ill-effects will eventually clear. Which takes us to the next question.
You can’t decide on which ‘tonics, herbs or other practices’ might help until you know how the coffee is disturbing you. If the effects are very mild, or apparently undetectable but presumed to adversely affect the Liver, probably small quantities of other bitter-taste foods would help/stimulate the Liver to cleanse the system.
If you’ve read our page on Qi Stagnation, or even the book “Qi Stagnation, Signs of Stress“, you’ll recognise many ‘practices’ that can help. The most obvious is vigorous exercise. Here, you’re not using coffee to stimulate you to greater efforts in the gym: instead the vigorous exercise in the gym is used to dissipate the ill-effects of coffee. (Homoeopaths will recognise what’s going on here: Like cures Like.)
And should you avoid anything? Well, of course, avoid anything which increases Heat or Liver Yang or whatever syndrome you get after coffee. Too much red meat, and fat, come to mind. Also, avoid hot spices, strong hot peppers, garlic, alcohol, and excess worry – to name a few.
And since I’ve mentioned homoeopathy several times, what does homoeopathic literature suggest for the excesses caused by coffea cruda or coffea tosta? Amongst others, Capsicum and Aconitum. As regards the latter, I urge you not to try it! It’s highly poisonous. Homoeopaths would prescribe it in ‘potency‘.
I love the article, thank you!
There is a decaf coffee made by Swiss water method without any chemicals and it removes 99.9% of caffeine.
I have been diagnosed with Kidney Yin deficiency and Qi deficiency so I drink decaf. I drink it without a milk. Hopefully I don’t add to much bitter taste to my diet. I also take special Chinese herbs.
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