Why Coffee Impacts Women Differently (Hint: Hormones)

As a Briton, it was only when I met my American husband that I discovered the enthusiasm for a hot cup of joe. In my twenties, I struggled with various forms of coffee, but mostly with the type of mocha choca frappuccino (aka dessert in a cup), which bore little or no resemblance to the hellishly black morning elixir that became the elixir of life in my thirty.
Every evening my husband would set up his Mr. Coffee machine (a device that was completely alien to me) with a mixture of ground coffee beans and espresso. And every morning he woke up with freshly brewed ridiculously strong coffee while I sipped my cup of English breakfast teas with almond milk.
Then my turbulent love affair with coffee began.
It wasn't long, however, before I got into his coffee drinking habits. I started to love the energetic hum the caffeine hit gave me. I've always been a morning person and enjoy early starts. Even if I forced a caffeine lock at 12 or 1 p.m., I still had seven hours to consume my new drug of choice.
As a holistic nutritionist, I'm passionate about the quality of my body and have switched to a low-acid organic brand over the years that we both loved. I justified my addiction to coffee by listing all the antioxidants and polyphenol promoting properties of the black substance. I was able to refer to numerous studies that showed coffee drinkers lived longer and since this was my only real vice, I was able to validate the three or four large cups I drank a day. Until I couldn't.
I got health problems.
Last year I lost my period after an extreme work schedule that was interrupted by numerous cups of Nespresso (I lived in a hotel while working on site). My lab work showed that my thyroid was still in what conventional medicine considers "normal". But it wasn't working optimally. (I always look at blood tests through a lens of thriving, not survival.) This caused cortisol dysregulation, adrenal fatigue, lack of periods, low energy, no sex drive, and hair loss.
Low thyroid function, cortisol disregulation, and hormonal imbalances are all aspects of health that I consider in my clients. So I went straight to a protocol that included improving the quality of sleep, reducing my cardiovascular system, and a regimen to regulate cortisol. Adrenal promoting adaptogens and nootropics. But I didn't stop with coffee even though I would have told my customers just that.
The caffeine in coffee increases our levels of cortisol (our stress and energy hormone). When we have elevated cortisol levels, the production of our thyroid hormone slows down. A low thyroid hormone (or more specifically, when we cannot convert one type of thyroid hormone, T4, into its energy-building counterpart, T3) can lead to irregular or absent menstrual cycles due to suppressed ovulation. Other symptoms include weight gain, hair loss, and constant fatigue. Then, of course, we reach for another shot of “fake” energy-saving coffee and let our adrenal glands screech to submit.
My lack of periods lasted almost six months. While I have no plans to have a family, I understand the importance of having a well-functioning endocrine system to overall health. (I advise all my clients to prioritize and optimize their hormonal health, especially from their mid-thirties - the onset of menopause - to ensure an easier ride through perimenopause and menopause.
Even so, my love for caffeine continued.
I took a cocktail of nutritional supplements throughout the day to help regulate my cortisol, mostly to reverse the damage from my four-day coffee habit. I will never forget to trudge four blocks to the nearest coffee shop in the snow at 5 a.m. to get my hit before work when the vending machine at my NYC hotel was down.
What made me finally quit? Mostly vanity. After a routine teeth cleaning, I realized how sparkling my pearly white could be compared to the yellow-brown reflections my coffee addiction had caused. I also had a rather unattractive spare tire right under my belly button. (This is where fat is stored when cortisol levels are high.) Yes, even we health professionals can be more motivated by our looks than our health. But anything that encourages us to make healthy change is an asset to my book.
I finally decided to quit.
After that visit to the dentist, I stopped eating the cold turkey. In the first few days it wasn't bad. The exuberance of a new healthy habit lifted me, and even though I eliminated coffee, I still had caffeine in the form of green tea and matcha lattes.
Four days later it was a different matter. I suffered from classic withdrawal symptoms: eccentricity, tiredness, anxiety, sweating and wobbling. I had been a soldier since I got this far and the withdrawal symptoms subsided pretty quickly. What worked for me was having a coffee substitute on hand, as part of my love for the black stuff was tied to the coffee making ritual. I quickly became a connoisseur of herbal teas and adaptogenic matcha lattes.
The relapse.
My undo came about three weeks later when I was traveling to work. The only option in my hotel at 5am was coffee. I succumbed. And then I took this new habit home with me. For a couple of weeks I managed to make my early morning coffee the only one of the day.
But then the creeping started. I would have a few sips of the coffee my husband would make in the morning. Or I would indulge in the new pouring service that is offered in my coworking space. Or I would justify my java hit after lunch if I had an event that evening. I also still had at least one matcha latte a day, which meant my caffeine intake went back to my previous level.
This time the negative effects were evident. I've had extreme highs and lows in energy. I even got panic attacks before leaving the house, something I had never experienced before. Or maybe I had, but I was so used to my caffeine-induced cortisol ups and downs that I thought it was normal.
It was time to stop for good.
The fear got so bad that my husband put me heart to heart and told me to stop the caffeine forever. In our modern world, our bodies are exposed to such high levels of cortisol-inducing stress from external factors (careers, relationships, over- or under-stress, environmental toxins, constant attachment to technology, poor sleep, processed foods - the list goes on). and adding more stress from my runaway coffee habit was sheer madness.
So here I am back on the wagon and this time completely caffeine free. And I recommend you do the same. Because mental health, physical health, relationships, and career are far more important than this cup of Joe could ever be.
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