The Scoop On Coffee And Your Fertility
The Benefits of Coffee
“A day without coffee is like…just kidding, I have no idea what that’s like.”
We’ve all been there – cranky, half-asleep, unable to form sentences before our first sip of heavenly caffeine. But what is it about coffee that keeps us going? How does this magical drink transform us from April Ludgate to Leslie Nope (for my fellow Parks and Recreation lovers) in eight sweet, beautiful ounces.
This first answer you might have guessed: caffeine! A typical 8oz cup of coffee contains about 70-100mg of caffeine, depending on how strong or weak you like your coffee. As you probably know, caffeine is a stimulant, meaning it makes us feel more awake and alert. This is why so many people rely on coffee to get them going in the morning!
Caffeine also increases dopamine signaling, a neurotransmitter in the brain that affects mood, memory, learning, and motivation.(1) While studies have linked caffeine intake with weight loss, it’s unclear whether caffeine is actually boosting metabolism (i.e., helping us burn through calories faster), if it’s suppressing our appetite (helping to reduce our caloric intake), or if the increased dopamine signaling is simply motivating us to lace up our running shoes and get out the door.
Another reason our bodies love coffee? Phytonutrients! Phytonutrients is a fancy word for natural chemicals found in plants that benefit human health. Since plants can’t make tools to protect themselves from predators, they make chemicals. These chemicals often have antioxidant properties, but they can also fight bacteria, slow cell proliferation, and support the immune system. Caffeine may be the most well-known phytonutrient in coffee, but coffee also contains a potent antioxidant called chlorogenic acid that helps reduce inflammation and lower the risk for several types of cancer.(2) In fact, coffee intake has actually been associated with lower risk of total mortality.(3)
So, does this mean you should sip on an iced coffee all day, every day? Not exactly. (Although if you were to drink coffee all day every day, black coffee – as opposed to lattes, mochas, or Frappuccinos – would be the best choice!)
The Risks of Coffee
Just like with everything in nutrition, it depends on your unique biochemistry if something is good for YOU or not. While some people can sip iced coffees all day, every day and sleep like a baby at night, others have one accidental taste of their partner’s caffeinated coffee instead of their own decaf cup and can’t sleep a wink.
The half-life of caffeine is typically about 5-6 hours, meaning that if someone consumes 100mg of caffeine at 10am, they’ll have about 50mg of caffeine still in their system five hours later, at 3pm.(4) For a lot of people, this isn’t a problem. By the time they go to bed at 10pm, their bodies will have metabolized all the caffeine into its smaller components and excreted them through urine.
The enzyme in charge of caffeine metabolism is called CYP1A2. Unfortunately for some of us, there are variations in the gene that codes for this enzyme, coding for versions that are faster at metabolizing caffeine and versions that are slower. It turns out that around 50% of people have a version that is slower, meaning that caffeine stays in their systems longer and therefore has longer-lasting effects.(5)
Not only can slow caffeine metabolism affect sleep quality, but it can increase the risk of heart disease and hypertension, and in those already diagnosed with hypertension, it can impair glucose metabolism.(5) If you still feel wired several hours after your morning cup o’ joe, you might be a slow caffeine metabolizer. If you are interested in how you metabolize caffeine, along with other genetic markers, I love the StrateGene test by Seeking Health. I learned so much from getting mine done!
Mold in your coffee? Well, not exactly. But, mycotoxins in your coffee? That’s more likely. One of the realities of the coffee trade is that there is usually some amount of mold spores on green coffee before it is roasted. These mold spores can produce mycotoxins which is not something you want to be consuming on a daily basis. Mycotoxins are naturally occurring toxins produced by certain molds (fungi) and can be found in food.(6) Although roasting easily kills some mold and its spores, ridding the coffee beans of mycotoxins which have developed during improper storage of the beans is not so easy. Mycotoxins develop naturally and are surprisingly prolific, with one study finding over 50% of sampled beans to be contaminated.
And that’s bad news for the body- especially when it comes to a certain mycotoxin called ochratoxin A (also known as OTA). OTA has been tied to a number of serious health risks. The U.S. government considers the compound to be a possible carcinogen. It’s also an immunosuppressant, which means it hurts the body’s ability to heal or protect itself from disease.
So does this mean you have to swear off coffee forever? Probably not – unless you notice symptoms like we discussed above and/or feel better off of it, you can likely still keep coffee (in moderation) as a part of your intake. Keep reading to see my top tips and tricks to keep coffee as fertility friendly as possible.
Coffee During TTC
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and adrenal dysfunction are two common root causes of infertility and subfertility that can worsen with coffee consumption. Let’s start with PCOS.
PCOS & Coffee
PCOS is a hormonal condition in which women of reproductive age produce too many male sex hormones called androgens. High androgen levels can cause symptoms like acne, weight gain, excess body hair growth, and male-pattern baldness, but they can also interfere with the menstrual cycle, making it difficult to conceive. While it’s not clear what causes PCOS, factors like obesity, insulin resistance, and family history are all associated with an increased risk for development.(7) Oftentimes, treatment includes weight loss and improving the body’s response to insulin, but because women with PCOS tend to have dysregulated cortisol metabolism, these interventions can be slow-going.
Chronically high cortisol levels cause our bodies to start storing fat in our abdomen. In obese patients, fat tissue (also known as adipose tissue) releases a steady stream of inflammatory signaling molecules called pro-inflammatory cytokines. Not only do these cytokines initiate inflammation throughout the body, but their abundance can get in the way of insulin signaling, causing insulin resistance.(8) This means that more insulin needs to be secreted before our cells get the memo to start taking in some of that blood glucose. The result? High insulin and high blood glucose. Not only are these hallmarks of diabetes, but high insulin actually causes cells in our ovaries to produce more androgens, exacerbating the symptoms of PCOS.(9)
Where does coffee come into play? Caffeine raises cortisol levels, which can worsen this cycle of weight gain, insulin resistance, high androgen production, and subfertility. Caffeine can also worsen anxiety, specifically in women who have high levels of DHEA-S, an androgen precursor that suppresses the calming effects of a neurotransmitter called GABA.(10) So if you would describe yourself as an anxious person, caffeine might not be your friend.
Not every woman with PCOS will need to ditch caffeine, though, because again, it depends on your unique biochemistry. A simple way to find out how caffeine might be affecting you is to chart your intake and your symptoms through one menstrual cycle and see if you spot any patterns. My Fueling Fertility Tribe members use the free Kindara app to track cycles, BBT’s, and symptoms in order to take charge of their fertility.
Adrenal Dysfunction & Coffee
In our modern world of chronic, low-grade stressors – traffic on your morning commute, picky kids, demanding bosses, endless piles of laundry, a sink filled with dirty dishes – it’s not uncommon for people to have elevated or depressed levels of cortisol. This is not the same as serious medical conditions, such as Cushing’s disease (high cortisol) or Addison’s disease (low cortisol), but rather a state of “adaptive cortisol” as a result of stress-induced “no place for a baby” mode.
As you might’ve guessed, if you run on the high end of adaptive cortisol, caffeine intake can exacerbate cortisol levels, leaving you feeling wired and maybe a little anxious. However, after years of constantly triggering that cortisol response, your adrenal glands eventually stop responding properly to stressors like caffeine, and your cortisol levels tank. It’s kind of like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, only inside your body. If you’re chronically stressed, fatigued, and burned out, it’s time to check on your cortisol levels via a salivary four-point cortisol test (my favorite is the DUTCH test, which also takes a deep dive into your fertility hormones).
If this resonates with you, I highly recommend diving deeper with the Fertility Unlocked Program.
Find what is stressing your hormones and unlock your fertility
Coffee Tips & Tricks
Coffee is Not a Meal
If breakfast for you means your daily coffee and nothing else – or even coffee and a piece of toast or a piece of fruit, this is your number one priority to change in order to improve your body’s relationship with coffee. Drinking coffee on an empty stomach is a sure-fire way to keep those adrenals in “no place for a baby” mode and make PCOS worse. This is due to caffeine’s stimulatory effect on the adrenals which produces cortisol and forces your body to run on stress hormones. If you just aren’t hungry in the morning and all you can stomach is coffee then take these three steps to end the vicious cycle:
- Add heavy cream (Natural by Nature is my absolute favorite) and collagen peptides to your coffee for a week
- The next week add in a whole-food carbohydrate and protein along with your coffee within an hour and a half of eating (i.e., a banana and a hard-boiled egg)
- Work your way up to eating a balanced MACRO-trio meal along with your coffee within an hour and a half of waking – your fertility will thank you
Quality Over Quantity
We talk a lot about quality over here – whether it’s in regards to the quality of the sperm and egg that will become your baby, or the quality of your coffee, QUALITY matters. Not all coffee beans are produced equal, so whether or not you are drinking caffeinated or decaf, make sure that the coffee you consume comes from quality brands. My favorites are listed below.
1. Go Organic
Coffee is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in commercial agriculture.(11) While the roasting process eliminates most of the exposure risk for consumers,(12-13) farmworkers are exposed to dangerous levels of pesticides that can cause cancer as well as neurologic, metabolic, and respiratory conditions.(14) Several of the pesticides used on coffee plantations have been banned in the US and the EU for their long-term health impacts, but these bans don’t apply to imported products. Buying organic coffee not only ensures that your beans are 100% pesticide free, but it also supports farms implementing safer and more sustainable farming practices.
Shade-grown coffee is one such practice becoming more popular in the field of sustainable agriculture. On these farms, coffee is planted beneath a canopy of trees, oftentimes in an already established forest. These shade trees provide habitat for native birds who feed on insect pests, reducing the need for pesticides. They also harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.(15) What’s more, this mixing of shade trees with coffee shrubs creates a more diverse environment than coffee shrubs alone, which means more nutrients in the soil and better-quality beans. And, there’s no need for acres of deforestation! Some people even argue that shade-grown coffee has a richer, more complex taste because the beans take longer to ripen. Wins all around!
2. Buy OTA-Free!
In the EU, levels of OTA in coffee can be no higher than 5 parts per million, but in the US, OTA levels are not regulated.(16) Unlike pesticides and other molds, OTA is not entirely eliminated during the roasting and/or storage process, but its occurrence can be reduced through wet-processing the beans rather than dry-processing.(17) While the level of OTA in coffee is generally far below the 5ppm threshold, certain brands also test for OTA to ensure that the final product is free from any contamination. I’ve included a handy list of my favorite brands at the end of this post, most of which test for OTA.
Sidenote: this is also why I recommend drinking Dry Farm Wine instead of organic domestic wines. Use this link to get a bottle for a penny when you use code LETSGETREAL at checkout!
3. Avoid Chemicals and Additives!
Ditch the Keurig and bust out the French Press (glass) to limit BPA and other endocrine disruptors that impact both sperm and egg quality and follow my quick guide to the best cream and sugar options to reduce any unnecessary additives:
Say NO To:
- Artificial sweeteners like Equal (aspartame), Splenda (sucralose), Sweet One (acesulfame potassium), and Sweet n’ Low (saccharin)
- Sugary creamers like Coffee Mate and International Delight
- Sugar-free liquid syrups, which often contain zero-calorie artificial sweeteners
Say YES To:
- Liquid stevia with no artificial preservatives
- Raw honey, pure maple syrup, coconut sugar, or a monk fruit sweetener
- Heavy cream, half and half, or low-sugar non-dairy alternatives
Weaning off of Caffeine
You’ve likely heard of or maybe even experienced the formidable withdrawal symptoms that come from quitting coffee cold-turkey: headaches, nausea, fatigue, irritability, muscle pain, and trouble concentrating are the primary culprits. While caffeine is not an addictive substance, it does increase dopamine signaling in our brains, which can create caffeine dependency. When we’re suddenly cut off from our extra supply of dopamine, our bodies aren’t very happy, and we often cave to our caffeine cravings. If you’re still having trouble keeping to the recommended 8-16 oz of coffee daily, here are some recommendations to bring your intake down to a reasonable level:
- To maximize your chance of success, start slowly and take your time. Studies have shown that people are more successful when they gradually reduce their intake compared to quitting cold-turkey.(18)
- Don’t drink caffeine past 2pm. Since the half-life of caffeine is 5 hours (or longer if you’re a slow metabolizer), caffeine in the afternoon can disrupt our sleep and intensify our need for coffee the next morning.
- If you drink multiple cups of coffee per day, switch to decaf after your first cup.
- Gradually replace your full-caf with half-caf, and eventually go fully decaf. You could also switch to less caffeinated drinks like black tea or caffeine free herbal teas.
- Get plenty of sleep and drink lots of water! Feeling well-rested can reduce our need for caffeine in the first place, and dehydration is a common cause of headaches, fatigue, and muscle cramps.
- Go above and beyond by supplementing with magnesium, ginger, vitamin C, and ginseng to reduce muscle aches, nausea, headaches, and irritability.
Adding fertility-fueling saturated fats (like MCT oil, butter, or ghee) to your coffee can help minimize the afternoon crash that you can get from caffeine, thereby supporting the adrenals and possibly even decreasing your reliance on coffee.
But keep in mind, that just because you added collagen or fat to your coffee, does not make it a meal!
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