Does Coffee Increase Cortisol Levels?

In America, over half of its population are avid coffee drinkers. Americans love their coffee and it’s evident in the number of coffee shops, both big names and neighborhood coffee shops. Aside from the usual freshly brewed coffee, Americans have come to love the various coffee concoctions and gourmet style coffee-based drinks.

Outside of the United States, coffee is a favorite morning drink in the United Kingdom, Australia, and several European countries, particularly in France and Italy. They love their espresso and its caffeine boost.

As one of the most consumed hot beverages around the world, coffee has its fair share of negative feedback. Some people still believe that coffee can cause heartburn, but there is no conclusive evidence that shows this is the case. Others say it can cause dehydration, but this lacks evidence, as well, despite several studies.

Another common attack against coffee is that it increases cortisol levels in the body. Let’s find out if this is true or not.

What is cortisol, anyway?

Does Coffee Increase Cortisol LevelsMany people are easily swayed into believing something is true if they are not familiar with the facts. They might have heard about cortisol, but are not entirely sure what it means. To give us a better understanding, let’s consider what cortisol is and how it affects our body.

According to WebMD, cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal gland. Cortisol levels can increase when the pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). When this happens, cortisol is needed to manage stress.

Normally, cortisol levels rise during the early morning hours and are highest about 7 a.m. They drop very low in the evening and during the early phase of sleep, but if you sleep during the day and are up at night, this pattern may be reversed.

Aside from managing stress, cortisol has important functions like helping the body use glucose in the blood and converting fat into energy for the the body to use. Due to this nature of cortisol, it is important to monitor cortisol levels, as excessive levels of cortisol can lead to obesity, anxiety, depression and heart-related problems.

No wonder people are concerned over the issue whether coffee raises cortisol levels and how caffeine affects one’s health.

How does cortisol work?

When we are stressed, cortisol acts to manage it. Here is a step-by-step guide on how cortisol works when the body needs it.

  1. An individual is faced with a stressor.
  2. A complex hormonal cascade ensues, and the adrenals secrete cortisol.
  3. Cortisol prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose, supplying an immediate energy source to large muscles.
  4. Cortisol inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored, favoring its immediate use.
  5. Cortisol narrows the arteries while the epinephrine increases heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster.
  6. The individual addresses and resolves the situation.
  7. Hormone levels return to normal.

Studies showing the effect of cortisol in the body

Cortisol is an important hormone that helps manage stress, but how does this relate to coffee? It turns out that caffeine can affect the levels of cortisol in the body; however, it is noteworthy that the effect of coffee is not detrimental to one’s health. In fact, when the body is introduced to caffeine for a prolonged period, the change in cortisol level is almost neutral.

In one of the studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health, researchers tested cortisol response of participants to a caffeine challenge after a series of caffeine consumption. During a four-week period, the 96 participants abstained from coffee for the first five days. On their 6th day, caffeine was introduced and their cortisol level was recorded. The cortisol level showed a significant spike. However, after their second caffeine intake on the 6th day, the cortisol level increased, but it was not as robust as the initial reaction to caffeine after a five-day abstinence.

The researchers concluded that caffeine increases cortisol secretion in people at rest; however, cortisol responses to caffeine are reduced when participants consume coffee on a daily basis.

There is a strong relationship between elevated cortisol levels and obesity. In particular, cortisol may increase fat storage around the abdominal area. According to an article by Christine A. Maglione-Garves et al. on the University of New Mexico website, when the body is exposed to chronically high levels of cortisol, the tissues can be altered, causing circulating fat to be deposited deep in the abdominal region. This can further lead to high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar levels, which increase the risk for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

In addition to promoting excess fat storage, cortisol can have catabolic – muscle breakdown – effects on the body. According to a study published in 2009 in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, although high doses of caffeine may be able to slightly raise concentrations of testosterone, which has a muscle-building effect, during resistance training, it can also cause moderate increases in cortisol levels, resulting in a lower testosterone to cortisol ratio. This effect could potentially counteract any anabolic — muscle building — effects of caffeine combined with resistance training.

Should I still drink coffee?

It’s a personal choice. If you ask me, I will still enjoy my cup of joe every morning and one or two more during the day. Why?

First, based on the studies mentioned earlier, caffeine can increase cortisol levels at rest. Meaning, if this is the first time you drink coffee, then, you will surely feel a sudden jolt, a sudden boost of energy.

Remember a time when you were in a stressful condition, you had increased energy, concentration, and focus. When you drink coffee, the caffeine content sends a signal to your brain and, in turn, signals your adrenal glands to release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Caffeine tries to be a stressor to keep your body awake for any action.

This is the reason why coffee in the morning has a stronger effect than when you drink a cup of coffee in the afternoon. Afterward, the effect of caffeine diminishes. Therefore, the increase of cortisol levels is not an alarming situation.

Second, coffee has several other benefits. Aside from keeping you awake, which is the most common notion towards coffee, a cup or two of freshly brewed coffee is good for the liver. It helps reduce the risk of liver cancer and other liver-related diseases.

Coffee is also rich in antioxidants that can help fight aging and reduce the risk of some cancers and Alzheimer’s disease.

However, always keep in mind that anything in excess is dangerous for your health. Imagine drinking 6 to 8 cups of coffee per day. That kind of chemical overcharge is not helping your body benefit from the healthy nature of coffee. Keep coffee consumption to, at most, 3 cups in a day.

In addition to this, remember that health experts recommend that we drink freshly brewed coffee and keep it as black if possible. If you need to add sugar, use a natural sweetener. If you want a better tasting coffee, try cold brew, because it has a milder and sweeter taste than hot brewed coffee.  Avoid adding too much sugar and keep away from excessive add-ons like syrups and whipped cream. These condiments are the main culprit for why coffee becomes unhealthy. Do not fall for myths. Always read up and do your research and enjoy your cup of coffee, today!

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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