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Caffeine and Cortisol - a 30-Day Experiment

No Caffeine for Me!
Today, I began upon a 30-day experiment to reduce my cortisol levels by removing coffee from my diet. The goal is to see how it might be affecting my cognitive function and my belly fat.

Cortisol is a hormone that is related to stress.  At a very basic level, cortisol is created as a response to stressors in our environment.  Back when we were still chucking spears at deer and chasing down antelope, cortisol was helping to preserve our lives by giving us quick energy by signalling to our livers that it was time to engage in a process known as gluconeogenesis. This process is basically the breakdown of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, into glucose - one of the two monosaccharides (the healthy one) that our bodies use for fuel.

Picture this - you're walking across the street, enjoying the day, when suddenly some inattentive driver tries to turn and doesn't see you.  Your heart rate speeds up, and you get a little burst of speed to quickly sprint out of the way of that hazard to your bodily health.  That was the release of cortisol (and a host of other hormones, but we're focusing on cortisol for now), spurring the creation of glucose and the quick energy needed to make that sprint.  It's similar to what might have happened in the wild if your paleolithic ancestor came upon a wolf or bear while foraging and hunting.  And it's a great bodily response for a very specific cause.

The problem arises in this modern age, where we have lots less specific stressors like that, but a virtual plethora of general stressors.  Traffic.  Bad sleep.  Job worries.  A constant barrage of bad news from the media.  The list goes on and on.  And that constant barrage has the effect of keeping cortisol hanging around in our bodies instead of just releasing it when we really need it.

The negative effects of this constant presence of cortisol are many. One of them is decreased cognitive performance.  One of the effects of the constant presence of cortisol and other stress hormones is to injure or even kill hippocampus cells.  The hippocampus is the section of the brain that contains learning and memory centers. Another is the creation of more abdominal fat.  Among its effects, Cortisol causes excess fat to be stored at a higher rate than normal, mostly in the abdomen.  Abdominal fat can take the form of both subcutaneous fat, which is the fat you can see around your midsection, and visceral fat, a much more serious condition where the fat is located surrounding abdominal organs and can lead to insulin resistance (which is the cause of a number of effects in the human body such as heart disease, some cancers, and more).

All in all, not a good situation in which to find yourself.

So what does caffeine have to do with all this?  As a stimulant, caffeine increases stress in the body - creating conditions via its very nature that emulate the effects of sudden stress, and causing the release of more cortisol.

I don't have a huge problem with belly fat, but I have more than I'd like - I'd like to see a little more improvement in the visibility of my abs (what's the point of doing all these planks if you can't see the improvement?) in the all-important looking-good-naked category.  And as the link from Harvard said above, there are other concerns there as well.

So it's time to drop the caffeine from my diet, I think.  Being a father of two young kids, my sleep's not likely to get any better, as hard as I try.  But caffeine is something I can control a little more.  Either I take it in, or I don't.  So I won't, for 30 days, and I'll report back to you on how I'm feeling and looking.

Questions?  Comments?  What has your experience been with caffeine and these issues?  Post below!

Comments

  1. Great post Jamie!! very informative!!!

    Tim

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  2. I dropped coffee a few weeks back with no problem. I'm not a huge caffeine fan to being with and only really ever started to drink coffee because I needed the boost in the mornings after the twins were born, then it just became habit.

    Now...I don't even miss it. The first couple of days were hard, but I just replaced it with a nice tea (no caffeine) and was fine. Now I don't even do the tea.

    Get to those abs, Jamie! You can do it. Oh, and all that other stuff is important too.

    Good luck!

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  3. I've been considering reducing my caffeine consumption for the same reasons you expressed here. So I'm very interested in your results and will be following the blog. Good Luck!

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  4. Thanks! So far, Day one has been a success with a little bit of a headache from the withdrawals. I probably have a couple more days of this and after that I'll be able to concentrate more on the results.

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  5. That's going to be part of the trick for me: I actually LIKE coffee. I like the flavor and everything about it - except for the bad parts. So a major part of the challenge for me will be simply getting over the personal habit of coffee drinking. I mean, when you have a coffee cup as cool as this one, it's hard to give it up. :)

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  6. Thanks, Tim! If there's anything you uncover let us know here!

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  7. Good Luck with this! I stopped drinking coffee about six weeks ago and while there are some days where I miss it, most of the time I'm fine.

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  8. I'm pretty sure that the worst of it is going to come on weekends, where I love to have a cup of coffee while playing with the kids. Like I said above to Dawn, I think the habit will be worse than the withdrawal symptoms. Thanks for the well wishes!

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  9. The whole effect of Cortisol and hormones in general on our bodies really interests me, so I'm looking forward to tracking your journey. Good luck Jamie.

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  10. Thanks! I'll keep you posted.

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  11. [...] Caffeine and Cortisol a 30-Day Experiment | PaleoMental: Today, I began upon a 30-day experiment to reduce my cortisol levels by removing coffee from my diet. The goal is to see how it might be affecting my cognitive function and my belly fat. Cortisol is a hormone that … Continue reading – Readmore [...]

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  12. [...] Caffeine and Cortisol a 30-Day Experiment | PaleoMental: Today, I began upon a 30-day experiment to reduce my cortisol levels by removing coffee from my diet. The goal is to see how it might be affecting my cognitive function and my belly fat. Cortisol is a hormone that … Continue reading – Readmore [...]

    ReplyDelete
  13. [...] Caffeine and Cortisol a 30-Day Experiment | PaleoMental: Today, I began upon a 30-day experiment to reduce my cortisol levels by removing coffee from my diet. The goal is to see how it might be affecting my cognitive function and my belly fat. Cortisol is a hormone that … Continue reading – Readmore [...]

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  14. [...] Caffeine and Cortisol a 30-Day Experiment | PaleoMental: Today, I began upon a 30-day experiment to reduce my cortisol levels by removing coffee from my diet. The goal is to see how it might be affecting my cognitive function and my belly fat. Cortisol is a hormone that … Continue reading – Readmore [...]

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  15. [...] PaleoMental Feeding Your Body and Mind with Diet, Exercise, and More Skip to content HomeAboutLinksWhat is “Paleo?”Your Author ← Caffeine and Cortisol – a 30-Day Experiment [...]

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  16. Jamie, great post.

    How did it go? I am curious. Last year I went super strict Paleo for two months and got a six pack. However, I also went on a week long backpacking trip (eating Paleo) and ran 2 ultramarathons...so I am having a hard time figuring out the biggest factors in the success. Was it the dropped coffee, booze, or added extreme activity???

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  17. The results were...inconclusive. The problem with this particular experiment on myself was that I wasn't controlling all the possible input factors such as stress, sleep, etc. So I had no way of really knowing what was affecting me in this regard. I didn't really see any changes. I talked about it more here.

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  18. Not the full truth - Cortisol levels are not raised for everyone who indulges in caffeine..

    If you already have a caffeine dependence, cortisol levels were only raised after the first 9:00AM caffeine dose.


    Scholarly reference to support my statement (which I noticed your article is missing):
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2257922/

    ReplyDelete

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