I, like most people, have had a near lifelong love affair with coffee and chocolate.
And, as with all affairs, these relationships have an expiration date.
I remember being in middle school and coercing my father into letting me have some “coffee” with him in the mornings. He’d mix a teeny amount of instant coffee into a mug with hot water and milk, he would then add a little sugar to make it more palatable to my young taste-buds. I’d sit and watch the morning news with my father and drink my “coffee”. Thus, a 20+ year habit was born and further rooted and nurtured by my husband’s amazing coffee.
Quitting, at the behest of my acupuncturist, felt like the memories with my father, and enjoying something delicious that my husband made, were being taken away from me.
I compromised and drank decaf coffee and tea exclusively for over a year; however it was recently “suggested” by my acupuncturist to quit all decaf coffee and tea (and chocolate!) altogether.
This was a more difficult transition than simply quitting the caffeinated stuff, as you can imagine. All of those memories, sentiments, the nostalgia, yet… I have health issues that are negatively impacted by the ingestion of coffee, black tea and chocolate. It was a no brainer: hold on to the past, or help myself right now and for the future me.
It has been a struggle for me, yet what’s more of a nagging issue are these questions: what do I do when I cannot have something in the morning so that my morning still feels like it’s off on the right foot? What about not having my afternoon piece of dark chocolate? After transitioning to a variety of herbal teas and my new favorite tea, I assure you that this is all very doable. It may take some time for you to find what works for you in the morning, and beyond, but your patience will be well-rewarded: clearer and brighter skin, fewer energy swings and dips, better sleep, clearer mind, less anxiety, and the wisdom of energy management. All in all, my life is immeasurably better without the reliance upon a daily boost physically and emotionally.
What’s in this series?
- A brief overview as to what coffee and chocolate do in the body from a Chinese Medicine perspective.
I like to know why I am asked to do things, and since I’m a Chinese Medicine practitioner, I want to share with you what I am thinking in terms of the possible answers to the question: “why would MY practitioner ask me to do something like give up coffee and chocolate?!”
Stay tuned for future posts in this series, including:
- My <<nearly-pain-free>> way to quit coffee.
- An exclusive recipe offering for the only healthy alternative to the bitter brew that I happily drink daily.
1: What is the issue with coffee and chocolate?
Coffee is warming, bitter, and moves Qi and Blood, and has both upward and downward actions in the body. In small doses though, coffee appears to be cooling whereas in larger doses it is heating, yet coffee is also roasted which inherently makes it a warm beverage. It is a paradoxical herb in that way, and its actions seem to also depend on what imbalances an individual presents with (as few of us are energetically balanced)!
Chocolate is warm, sweet and bitter, and penetrates the Kidneys and Spleen. The compound theobromine acts similarly to coffee and caffeine in the body in that it creates a false sense of energy, restlessness, sleeplessness and so on.
The good news on Coffee and Chocolate:
Coffee is very high in antioxidants. It been shown to reduce the risks of liver cirrhosis in those who drink alcohol. There are numerous studies citing the role that coffee may play in preventing colon cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. In cases of acute constipation, Dampness, or impeded digestion due to overindulgence, coffee can be used to great benefit. As with everything, the “poison is in the dose”.
Chocolate is rich in flavonoids that are beneficial to heart and brain health.
The not so good news:
Coffee is grown with a lot of pesticides, so unless you are buying organic, you are also ingesting a bunch of pesticides. Coffee has also been shown to negatively affect women’s menstrual cycles, exacerbating PMS.
Chocolate’s flavonoids are beneficial at such high doses, that you would need to eat 8 bars of dark chocolate to receive such benefits. The added sugar, milk, fats, and so on added to make chocolate palatable can negate a lot of the beneficial aspects of the cocoa itself, and add weight to the body. (Here’s a nice way to enjoy chocolate that is free of added sugar and fats.)
On an ethical note: for both chocolate and coffee, if you are not buying fair trade, you are not ensuring that the farmers and workers are part of a system that promotes positive standards such as: healthy working conditions that are safe, education, environmental protection, and community building. You can use your money to help affect positive change in the world!
2. How the Chinese Medicine Organ Systems are affected by Coffee and Chocolate:
Not everyone is going to care about how a food or beverage affects their bodies and minds, but I’d wager that if you are reading this post, you are not one of those people. You want to feel “more”, you want to be able to do and be more of your true self. We all attempt to “correct” imbalances through the foods and drinks that we crave, which proves the wisdom of our bodies. The catch, of course, is in learning what we need to do based on our cravings. Coffee and chocolate are two common substances that get (and keep) us moving, and in a world that demands so much movement and action, it’s no wonder we are so reliant upon these plants.
When a person drinks coffee (decaf, or regular), the Qi and Blood in the Liver gets what’s called “dredged”: the stuck energy (Qi) is strongly released and you feel a sigh of relief, and a boost of energy because the circulation (Heart Organ System) of the body is kicked into high gear with this sudden release of Qi and Blood. It’s similar to when a slow moving river is dredged of its detritus, the flow of the river seems to suddenly increase.
Side-Note: Qi Stagnation occurs when we sit all day for work, don’t exercise enough, feel stuck in our lives/life situations, feel resentful over something that happened in our lives, repress our feelings/emotions, and/or choose to not creatively express ourselves in the ways that bring us joy. It is expressed through frustration, irritability, moodiness/mood swings, and alternating constipation and diarrhea, to name but a handful of a very long list of possibly symptoms.
What coffee does not do is ensure that this stuck energy/Qi remains unstuck and cleared of debris (this is called regulation), it acts as a sort of dynamite in the Liver but does not act as a clean-up crew for the long-haul. In order to keep that energy moving, because other measures are often not taken into consideration, a long-term habit is formed because who wants to have Qi Stagnation feelings?!
In both cases of coffee and chocolate, the dark color indicates that the Kidneys are affected. And in both cases, bitter is part of the flavor profile. Bitter releases digestive enzymes, and this may be the only antioxidant-rich bitter-tasting food/beverage that is ingested for many people who have a habit of ingesting coffee or chocolate regularly.
(If you are looking for a “bitter” alternative that isn’t a food, there are a great many digestive bitters on the market. You can take them before a meal, to help prepare your digestive system for food, and you can take them after a meal to “calm” an overly indulged tummy.)
With coffee’s strong upward action, we get our morning boost and our brains and circulation (the Heart Organ system) on the move. In this way, coffee does increase our focus/attention, and enhances the functioning of our central nervous system (thereby blocking any signals that we are sleepy and we need to rest, which is the Kidney Organ System’s purview). Coffee also has a strong downward action, and it affects the Liver’s partner: the Gallbladder, as well as the Kidneys, Urinary Bladder, and Large Intestine.
In Chinese Medicine the Gallbladder functions as a sergeant, implementing the General’s orders so that the vision that the Heart (Emperor/Empress) and Liver (General) have of the world can be executed. In this sense, the sergeant helps to fulfill decisions, and provides the courage to follow these decisions through. From a physical standpoint, the Gallbladder digests all that is heavy and oily, namely: fat. The coffee acts to release bile from the Gallbladder, thereby giving the digestive system the courage it needs to process a heavy meal, and thus it “soothes” digestion.
- For someone with an imbalanced Heart Organ system, coffee or chocolate in any form may aggravate the condition, bringing on things like insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, and/or palpitations. It is also known that the acids in coffee can destroy the villi in the small intestines which affect nutrient absorption. (The Small Intestine is the Heart’s husband organ.)
- For someone with an imbalanced Spleen/Stomach Organ system, coffee or chocolate can aggravate the digestive system, resulting in sensations such as burning in the stomach, nausea, loose stools or diarrhea, fatigue after the initial rush of energy, and so on. On the other hand, coffee/chocolate can stimulate gastric secretions, which accounts for the aforementioned “digestive” abilities of coffee in particular.
- For someone with an imbalanced Kidney Organ system, coffee or chocolate will inevitably make you feel more tired, exhausted, drawn thin, worn out; you may even have to urinate a much larger amount, due to coffee’s downward and stimulating action. This may be used to one’s benefit to help eliminate excess Dampness in the body.
- Someone with a tendency towards Lung/Large Intestine Organ system imbalance, coffee or chocolate may increase breathing capacity, yet it aggravates the downward direction, resulting in loose stools and the urgency to defecate.
A special note for the ladies with insufferable menstrual cramps and other reproductive issues: because coffee and chocolate are stimulants and (coffee in particular) vasoconstrictors, the vessels in the uterus become constricted which reduces uterine blood flow that resists new blood flow. This means that you will end up with more cramping and PMS related issues, and succumbing to those intense premenstrual cravings can, and will, make everything worse! Even though I will still have one or two small cups of decaf coffee per week, my cramps and PMS have been dramatically improved within a couple of months of switching from 3-4 cups per week of coffee (and daily chocolate) to 1-2 cups per week of coffee (and no chocolate). I am no longer up at 3am with horrible cramps, sitting in a hot Epsom salt bath, crying because of how much pain I am in. (And that was an improvement from how bad my cramps were before working from a holistic standpoint!) I’ll save the deeper explanation of what happens between these Organs, as well as a deeper look into the menstrual cycle, for another time. If you want an overview on the menses, especially PMS, per Chinese Medicine please refer to this series of posts.
3. Have you asked yourself where coffee and chocolate source the energy in our bodies from? Does it truly come from the coffee/chocolate, or are these substances simply the catalysts?
Here it’s important to touch upon where the body’s sources of energy originate: the Kidneys (as mentioned as the root source, battery reserve, of energy in our body), Spleen (because it transforms food into our vital energy), and Lungs (from the breath that we draw in).
Our Kidneys are our deepest batteries of life, like the wellspring of lava flowing in the depths of the ocean, providing essential heat and the life-spark that fuels all other life. By asking an Organ (the Liver, for example) to release stuck energy we are asking that the Kidneys provide energy that is not there to other Organ systems. What we are doing is draining our personal bank account for a quick fix, potentially draining ourselves in the long run.
When we remove the false source of energy, it can be frightening to see just how tired we are, to learn what activities drain us the most and to have to change our lives to accommodate our true energy levels.
Coffee and chocolate are so seductive because they give us a boost when we “need it most”, yet because these substances tap our most essential energy reserves, by asking the energy reserves to release energy that is not otherwise present, they leave us more depleted than before. In short: coffee and chocolate can take more from us than they give us, like a bad relationship or job.
In time, you will recover and notice that you wake up in the morning without as much mumbling and grumbling, with a clearer head, and more of a spark in your life.
You’ll have energy that lasts all day instead of in bursts coaxed by external sources.
You’ll feel nourished by life, and instead of forcing your energy outward, it will flow smoothly and calmly – like a river in a rich and verdant land.
If you are tired of draining your well-spring, there is a (nearly) pain-free way to quit, stay tuned for the next post on two ways to quit coffee!
Some of the sources I referred to when writing this series of posts:
- Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods Revised Edition
- Ni, The Tao of Nutrition – 3rd Edition
- East West School of Planetary Herbology Professional Herbalist course materials
- Bensky, Materia Medica – 3rd Edition
- Kamwo’s Herb App
- TCM ClinicAid App