We have all heard the many attributes and reasons for drinking tea, but coffee seldom comes to mind when we are referring to herbal infusions. Coffee is, in fact, America’s most widely consumed herbal beverage, and it is actually an herbal concoction as well. The average American drinks 28 gallons a year, and uses more than 10 pounds of coffee beans. Hundreds of years before Maxwell House, people all over the world were enjoying the wonderful aroma and properties of the fruit of the coffee tree.
Coffee does much more than just wake us up in the morning. The botanical name for most of the coffee varieties consumed today is Coffea Arabica, Coffea Liberica and Coffea Robusta. Early primitive African tribes discovered the stimulating effects of this beverage, but it was not served steaming hot as we enjoy it today. It was originally made into a wine derived from the fermented juice of the ripe cherries. It was not until A.D. 1000 that the Arabs learned to boil coffee beans and serve it piping hot.
During the fruit-bearing season, a coffee shrub or tree is a beautiful sight. Because the coffee fruit ripens in succession over long periods of time, the tree limbs are dotted with bunches of white flowers and green and red berries. Coffee plants are evergreens, and under the best circumstances may live to bear fruit for 100 years or more—growing to a height of 15 to 40 feet.
Coffee as a Medicinal Herb
We know that at some point in folk medicine, coffee was known to cure many ailments: it helps treat colds, flu, allergies and asthma. Coffee enemas have been prescribed for asthma and cancer. It even improves athletic performance, can prevent kidney stones and helps with jet lag. It is reputed to relieve pain and combat depression, and for the seriously obese, it promotes weight loss. One cup of instant coffee, 1/2 cup of brewed coffee, or a 12-ounce cola can relieve pain faster and more effectively than plain aspirin or ibuprofen. Caffeine has no pain relieving ingredients, but it is a mild antidepressant. Caffeine is a common ingredient in aspirin and other modern analgesics used to combat migraine headaches and others types of pain.
Coffee is America’s most popular medicinal herb, but few modern herbalists include it among their favorite healing herbs.
Several years ago, Joe and Terry Graedon, authors of The People’s Pharmacy received a letter from a woman who had asthma. She began wheezing, and reached for her inhaler, but she couldn’t find it. She remembered reading in their book that caffeine is chemically similar to some asthma medications, and she quickly gulped down 3 cups of coffee. Within minutes she was breathing easier. The caffeine effectively widened the air passage in her lungs, allowing her to breath easier and more deeply. If an asthma sufferer feels an attack coming on and doesn’t have any medication on hand, coffee can be a lifesaver. Because coffee is only 40 percent as potent as theophylline (a popular asthma drug) a person would have to drink many cups of coffee to get the same effect, and for this reason we don’t recommend using it in place of medication on a regular basis.
Sports Performance Research
Attention athletes: coffee can improve physical stamina and athletic performance. It has been proven during scientific studies that athletes with caffeine in their systems improve their stamina by 40-50%. Drinking a cup of coffee before exercise could help increase weight loss during the activity, say researchers in Australia. A team at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra also found that athletes who had a relatively small intake of caffeine before exercise could continue for up to 30 percent longer than those who had not taken the stimulant, and perform up to 3.5 percent beyond their normal capacity.
The researchers suggested that substances in caffeine triggered the muscles to use fat to fuel exercise instead of the usual carbohydrate stores. Caffeine has long been used to enhance sports performance and is included in numerous sports supplements and energy drinks. In tests the researchers found that drinking a cola drink or coffee helped cyclists keep going longer than those who were given only water.
But, Be Aware…
Caffeine, the stimulant in coffee varies from cup to cup depending on how it is prepared. A cup of instant contains about 65 milligrams, a cup of drip or percolated has almost twice that much, and a cup of espresso can exceed 350 milligrams. The problem with caffeine is that it is very addictive. Regular drinkers develop a tolerance for the beverage, and find that they must increase their intake to maintain the same level of stimulation. As with so many herb topics, the media regularly updates the public about the many health problems linked to caffeine and coffee, but they seldom discuss the many benefits.
As with all herbs, individual reactions to caffeine vary, but over time, large amounts (8 or more cups a day) can cause caffeinism, a condition with similar symptoms to anxiety neurosis. The symptoms might include nervousness, irritability, insomnia and heart palpitations. Once you are addicted to caffeine, suddenly eliminating or decreasing your daily consumption often results in headaches that may last for days. These symptoms can be minimized by a gradual weaning to minimize or prevent these discomforts. One way is to switch from caffeinated coffee, mixing increasing larger amounts of decaf with decreasing amounts of regular coffee over a period of several weeks until you are drinking 100% decaf.
Because coffee is America’s most popular herbal medicine, the media will constantly debate about its safety. Public health experts agree that for most adults who are not pregnant or nursing, and do not have gastrointestinal problems or high blood pressure, osteoporosis and who are not taking medications containing caffeine, coffee is considered to be generally safe in limited amounts (2-3 cups per day). If you are under a doctors care, we recommend a consultation regarding the proper amount of coffee to be consumed daily. If you experience insomnia, stomach distress or anxiety reduce or eliminate your caffeine intake, and contact your physician immediately.
Wendy Evensen is the owner of Sadie’s Herbal Garden, an online store featuring hundreds of herbs, handmade soaps, lotions and more. Visit www.sadiesherbalgarden.com where you can also download free herbal tips and articles.