Could coffee cause stress, hormonal imbalances and period problems? We asked a nutritionist…
Coffee has to be one of the most debated drinks out there. While some research shows it can spike anxiety, other studies highlight it as a key way to sustain cognitive function into later life. New research suggests it’s great for our gut, but those who have had one too many cups might have experienced more adverse effects on their stomach.
There’s one element of drinking caffeine that is crucial to understand though – and that’s the impact it has on female hormones.
“It’s an interesting subject really because caffeine exists in different compounds and sources, and drinks will have different effects depending on what else you find in that drink,” says hormonal specialist and nutritionist Holly Dunn.
While coffee doesn’t directly impact hormones such as oestrogen, it does have a huge role to play in our stress response – and that has a big effect on the rest of our bodies.
Does coffee make you stressed?
“Caffeine works by blocking the effects of an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain called adenosine. This results in increased neuronal firing in the brain and an increase in the release of other neurotransmitters like dopamine (one of your ‘happy’ hormones) and noradrenaline (which makes you feel alert). That stimulates your sympathetic nervous system response – that’s your stress response,” says Dunn.
Interestingly, not all caffeine is made the same. “Matcha tea actually has more caffeine in it than a standard cup of coffee. But it also contains an amino acid called L theanine which actually has quite a calming neuromodulating effect on the brain. So it actually has a sort of an opposing effect to caffeine,” she says.
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There are benefits of caffeine spiking your stress levels – like enhancing performance and output. “Stress hormones play a really important role in helping to release glucose into the bloodstream and helping to raise our heart rate and increase blood circulation and all sorts of things that can improve focus and training,” adds Dunn.
“But the strong interrelationship between our reproductive axes and our stress axes means they really affect each other. Any sort of over activation of your stress hormones is going to have a knock-on effect on your sex hormones.”
How does stress impact female hormones?
“Stress hormones send signals to the hypothalamus in the brain, which is essentially the command centre of the hormone systems,” explains Dunn. “It works like a smoke detector, sensing everything in the body like your energy profile, how much glucose is in the system, levels of insulin and how much stress the body is under.”
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If the body senses too much stress, it can impact “the cascade of hormones that trigger ovulation and the hormone psychosexual cycle,” adds Dunn. That includes blunting the female reproductive hormones that cause ovulation and periods – resulting in anovulatory cycles (where no egg is released but you still have a period) or hypothalamic amenorrhea, in which you no longer have period cycles.
Coffee and nutrient absorption
That can be compounded by the fact that drinking drinks such as coffee with meals can impact our absorption of nutrients. “Caffeine is, in certain senses, an anti-nutrient. So it has the ability to bind to minerals like iron, zinc and calcium and reduce their bioavailability – that’s the ability to be absorbed in the digestive tract. And for women, that can be a problem,” explains Dunn.
For instance, iron already tends to be low in women who are very active or very stressed. “Every single part of our biology is dependent on our nutrient status. Nutrients are involved in cellular energy production and hormone production and it’s all linked. I think we should just be careful about these other factors – like caffeine – that will reduce our ability to absorb some of these very critical micronutrients.”
Our relationship with caffeine
We can’t ignore the fact that the real problem with coffee might be our relationship with it. It’s so often used as a substitute for breakfast or seen as a crutch for overly stressed people to continue being hyper-productive.
“I absolutely see coffee used as an appetite suppressant and to override our natural energy levels. Most of us have probably said at some point, ‘I’ve just had a coffee so I can power through’. We like that it makes us productive at the expense of our circadian rhythms,” agrees Dunn.
It’s the compounded nature of stress that causes problems with our hormones. Being stressed isn’t a problem in and of itself, and probably won’t cause you hormonal issues. But continuously high-stress levels that are raised further with caffeine – and then being so wired we can’t properly recover with sleep – is another.
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“Our hypothalamus can also really sense levels of ghrelin – your hunger hormone – in the bloodstream. Ghrelin can be really high, say through intermittent fasting, for example, or skipping meals because you don’t have time. The hypothalamus is just going to recognise that as another sort of intermediary.”
The thing is, when we’re well and relaxed, coffee can be great for us in both the short and long term. Excessive consumption of caffeine (more than the recommended 400mg), using it during times of high stress or using it as a substitute for food and sleep is when it becomes problematic.
“We shouldn’t focus on the negative of caffeine, and if someone’s in the right place, it can be great,” says Dunn. But for women who already have hormonal imbalances, irregular periods or are highly stressed, it might be wise to think a little harder about your consumption.
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