Here we will discuss some home truths about sugar, coffee and caffeine including its origins, evolution of use, craving behaviours and, last but not least, herbal solutions for battling our pre-disposed need for stimulation.
We all seem to love something sweet and something stimulating. But are they any good for us? We have all heard about the concern about how much sugar we eat and drink. Some drinks contain up to 20 teaspoons of sugar. And what about caffeine? Highly caffeinated drinks such as coffee and ‘energy drinks’ are also controversial and their potential impact on our health are a hot topic.
I want to discuss some home truths about sugar, coffee and caffeine from its origins, to how it became a habit leading to addictive behaviours and, last but not least, some herbal solutions for balancing our pre-disposed need for stimulation.
Let’s start with sugar. Sugar has not always been used as a sweetener or preservative, it actually has a strong medicinal history. In Ayurveda, the sugar cane plant was used to treat skin and urinary tract infections in addition to relieving constipation and a low blood pressure. A paste made from the plant was also used to pack wounds and promote healing. Although it may seem somewhat obvious, sugar was traditionally used to sweeten foods, whereas now, sugar is seen as a valuable preservative increasing the shelf-life of foods that wouldn’t traditionally contain sugar. It is increasingly difficult to locate foods that do not have added sugars.
And what about coffee. The coffee bean, Coffea arabica, was traditionally recognised as a stimulating and diuretic medicinal herb but its unique roasted-bitter taste has fashioned it into one of the world’s most popular drinks. Caffeine is the most well-known component of coffee with caffeine being the primary pharmacologically active compound to which the majority of coffee’s therapeutic effects are attributed. Coffee is the world’s principal source of caffeine, accounting for 54% of our caffeine intake, and is the most widely consumed psycho-physiologically active substance in the world. Just try an espresso and see for yourself.
But, what has made these two plants so popular in our modern world?
A lot of it has to do with how they make us feel. All sugars are broken down by the body into glucose and fructose and are processed in the liver. Sugars are converted into glycogen or fat for storage, or kept as glucose in the blood as potential energy for use by our body's cells. Our body recognises ‘sweet’ and cannot immediately differentiate between un-natural and natural sources of sweetness. Sucrose is a carbohydrate also broken down into glucose and fructose. The body and brain processes glucose and fructose in different ways, and it may be this differentiation that is contributing to our modern sugar craving. When glucose is processed by the body it reduces blood flow and activity in the regions of the brain that regulate feelings of satisfaction, leaving us feeling ‘full’. Fructose, however, appears to have the opposite effect, increasing our natural ‘food-seeking’ behaviours. It may not be such a surprise to learn that the majority of added sugars and sweeteners now being used in our food and drinks industry are in fact fructose based, including the rather infamous ‘fructose corn syrups’. What this explains is why we are never satisfied after consuming high levels of refined sugars, whether it’s in foods or drinks. It appears to be a bit of a vicious cycle, where the more ‘un-natural’ sugar we consume, the more we crave. Sugar has actually been found to induce addictive behaviour. Specifically, sugar dampens the suppression of the hormone ghrelin, which signals hunger to the brain. It also interferes with the normal transport and signalling of the hormone leptin, which helps to produce the feeling of satiety and satisfaction.
One other important point of consideration are the links between sugar and the onset of metabolic syndrome. Sugar consumption raises plasma glucose, which can influence hypertension due to fructose increasing uric acid levels. It also influences high levels of triglycerides and insulin resistance through the synthesis of fat in the liver. Similarly, these increases in liver fat are also associated with the onset of diabetes. So, we can clearly see why there are so many current concerns over the increased levels of added sugars in food and drinks.
And what about coffee…?
The link between caffeine and its stimulatory effects has developed the belief that coffee influences human cognitive processes such as thinking learning and memory. Caffeine has a direct affect upon the sympathetic neurotransmitter known as adenosine found in the sympathetic nervous system. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors and, when uninhibited, adenosine reduces physiological activity, for example by reducing heart muscle contraction Therefore, when adenosine receptors become blocked by caffeine, a stimulant effect is produced. Caffeine also increases the rate of synthesis and turnover of noradrenaline, an excitatory neurotransmitter in the sympathetic nervous system. Noradrenaline is implicated in maintaining levels of alertness in the human brain.
Habitual coffee drinkers are chronically exposed to caffeine as a result of consuming the beverage at intervals throughout the day. Evidence exists that coffee consumption after periods of caffeine abstinence may increase its stimulant effects but that there is nothing to gain from habitual consumption. As a consequence, it has to be questioned whether habitual consumption of coffee is due to a psychological association between coffee ingestion and cognitive stimulation. What’s also worth remembering is that caffeine is a psycho-physiologically active substance with the documented withdrawal effects of fatigue and migraine, one significantly reported withdrawal symptom of coffee is the onset of hyperacidity in the form of heartburn and/or acid reflux. So, habitual consumption of highly caffeinated drinks may also be a result of avoiding the effects of the withdrawal.
So, what can we deduce from this? The motto, ‘everything in moderation’ comes to mind.
Can we combat our regular sweet cravings and what can use as an alternative to highly caffeinated drinks to help nourish our energy? Well, of course, there are herbal alternatives. This is where herbal medicine becomes the star of the show. There are some fantastic herbs that can help our body regulate our excessive sugar cravings and provide alternatives to excessive caffeine consumption. Here are Herbal Reality’s favourites:
- Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylancium and aromaticum): Cinnamon has a direct balancing effect on the blood sugar. Cinnamon impacts on insulin resistance through increasing the body’s sensitivity to insulin, so that we are more reactive to changes in blood sugar levels; constituents in cinnamon such as cinnamaldehyde mimic insulin and improve glucose uptake in the body. Cinnamon also decreases the amount of glucose that enters the bloodstream after a meal through its impact on numerous digestive enzymes slowing the breakdown of carbohydrates in the digestive tract. Cinnamon’s warmth improves overall digestive metabolism and nutrient absorption. It stokes a sluggish digestion, firing up our digestive ‘agni’.
- Licorice (Glycyrrizha glabra): is the perfect natural replacement for sugar without the added calories. The primary constituent, glycyrrhizic acid, is naturally sweet in taste and is responsible for the characteristic taste associated with this herb. Licorice is also a natural adaptogen that nourishes the adrenal glands, helping to support and sustain energy levels.
- Green Tea (Camellia sinensis): The therapeutic properties of this plant are attributed to its antioxidant capacity which protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. The presence of (epi-gallo-catechin-gallate) EGCG’s in the plant make it incredibly supportive to the cardiovascular system as a whole, protecting the integrity of the heart and blood vessels. Constituents such as caffeine, which is naturally present in this plant, works synergistically with compounds such as L-Theanine to increase serotonin, dopamine and gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. This significantly boosts mood without causing the characteristic ‘crash’ you may experience after drinking a strongly caffeinated drink. EGCG has also demonstrated the ability to reduce atherosclerosis and the build-up of cholesterol by reducing serum cholesterol, triglycerides and high density lipoproteins (HDLs), all of which can be an issue with excessive sugar consumption. Green tea is an excellent herb for improving overall metabolic rate without influencing ‘crashes’ in energy.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): is the perfect herb for encouraging endurance and boosting core energy levels. Ashwagandha is unusual in that it brings both energy and calm. It brings strength by helping you to rest more efficiently and helps you rest by making you stronger. It will enhance endocrine communication, strengthening the adrenal glands whilst also calming a hyperactive nervous system through moderation of cortisol, the thyroid and the reproductive organs. It is particularly useful in nervous exhaustion.