What you’re getting yourself into
A look at the pros and cons of caffeine, and whether you can juggle it alongside a carnivore diet.
The world’s second favourite drug isn’t an easy one to quit cold turkey. For many, the weekly grind would be unimaginable without some of that sweet nectar to shake off a fraction of the cobwebs shrouding the brain every morning.
Unfortunately, carnivore has a tough rule book. When you’re abiding by the letter, all plant foods have to be omitted, and caffeine suffers the ignominy of being sourced from the wrong kingdom.
So that could be the end of the article. But I have just recently finished a piece where I’ve attempted to make the case that carnivore doesn’t have to be followed with flawless precision. I might as well continue that momentum by weighing up whether coffee offers enough to merit bending the rules.
This diet isn’t about dogma. There is no trophy for following it to the letter. This is one that you should be looking to mold to meet your particular needs.
The Benefits Of Caffeine
Caffeine gets linked with a whole cluster of health benefits, like being neuroprotective and defending against depression, but there’s one effect that we’re really after. The primary use for caffeine is reinforcing whatever behaviour you’re trying to pursue. Whether that’s slogging through an hour of deep work on the laptop, interacting with humans, or lifting a heavy weight and putting it back down.
It does that by increasing the production of dopamine and acetylcholine, neurotransmitters that encourage you to engage in reward-seeking behaviour and reduce the discomfort of the effort you’re putting in.
This effect is amplified by its antagonistic nature with adenosine, the tired chemical that relentlessly rises through the day before it inevitably eggs you on into slumber.
In the context of the carnivore diet, caffeine can be an invaluable way to fire yourself up and break past the mellow slumber of ketosis. Because there is a slight issue with how relaxed you can get with all those ketones massaging your brain and giving you sweet hits of GABA. The perfect mental state in most contents, but problematic when you’re trying to summon enough demons to break your deadlift PR off the ground.
Caffeine remedies that by shifting you into a more sympathetic state and priming you for action. More explosive strength, more focus, a better commitment to effort. It’s the ultimate ergogenic aid, as long as you respect the fact that it’s an addictive neurotoxin that becomes unsavoury when over consumed.
The Dangers Of Caffeine
Let’s delve deeper into the idea of caffeine as a neurotoxin. The reason some plants have caffeic acid is not because they want animals to boost their productivity and V02 max. They generally aren’t huge fans of being eaten, and caffeic acid gives them a way to neutralise their foes. To insects, they can be lethal at high concentrations, or cause sterility.
In lower doses, like in the nectar of a flower, caffeic acid can give the insect a quality buzz and incentive to revisit that flower and spread its pollen further.
Humans can take a bigger punch than your average Coffee Berry Borer, and remain standing and fertile. But we can still have adverse reactions, build up a tolerance to its beneficial effects, and experience withdrawal symptoms.
The most obvious issue is going to be the way caffeine triggers your fight or flight response. This isn’t inherently a problem, as I’ve already discussed it can be used as a force for enhancing performance, but this does make it liable to trigger people who don’t deal well with being overstimulated.
Increases Anxiety – For people with anxiety, and panic disorders, caffeine can send you over the edge. Some of that anxiety worsening effect is due to the way caffeine reduces GABA receptors, which would otherwise exert a calming influence.
Lowers Sleep Quality – The fact that caffeine comes with a quarter life of 12 hours means that the stimulating effects can linger into the evening and disrupt your shuteye. Caffeine can prolong sleep latency, lower sleep quality, and total sleep time. So even if you’re still getting to sleep three hours after drinking a cup of coffee, that caffeine is still going to slash your deep sleep and leave you the worse for wear.
Raises Blood Pressure – Caffeine raises both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, although the effect is reduced by building up a tolerance to the drug.
Acid Reflux – Caffeine can damage the stomach lining and trigger the release of gastric acid, which can make it problematic for people that already suffer reflux and GERD.
Mineral Loss – Caffeine is a natural diuretic, and that means overconsumption can result in the loss of key minerals like zinc, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Parathyroid Function – A high dose of caffeine can obstruct the release of the parathyroid hormone, which can manifest as tingles in the extremities, dry skin, and brain fog.
Dopamine Junkie – Caffeine stimulates dopamine, which might feel good and necessary in the short term, but going back to that well too often can lead to your dopamine baseline running low. This spells low mood, and low motivation.
Are You Addicted To Caffeine?
The last point about dopamine is a crucial one, because the effect of caffeine on your main reward chemical means that coffee consumption can easily bubble up into a raging addiction. Especially when you use coffee to prop up a dysfunctional sleep regime, inadequate nutrition, and an unwillingness to get uncomfortable in the gym.
In such a situation, you’re likely to be pulled into a spiral where you have to take a big hit of caffeine to wrestle out of the daily stupor, which creates a tolerance to the drug, and negatively affects sleep quality, leading to you needing even more caffeine the next day.
If you attempt to quit cold turkey at this point, you’re likely going to be treated to some splitting headaches and zombie energy. This is a classic symptom of withdrawal from an addictive drug.
This doesn’t mean caffeine is inherently addictive. It just has the potential to be addictive, and you need to view it from your own individual context, and assess whether you could go a day with caffeine without losing your will to live. If you can’t, then you need to dose down. Not necessarily cold turkey, but in progressively smaller amounts, and restricted to the very beginning of the day.
How To Dose Caffeine
The right amount of caffeine is the minimal amount needed to get a sufficient stimulus. In other words, the minimal effective dose. Because overdoing the caffeine will hurt you primarily on two counts.
Sleep – The quarter life of caffeine is 12 hours, meaning if you ingest 400mg at 10am, and try to sleep at 10pm, you’ll still have 100mg of caffeine rampaging around your bloodstream and hurting your chances of falling asleep and moving into revitalising deep sleep.
Tolerance – Caffeine exerts much of its stimulating effect by blocking adenosine, but the body will look to override that by increasing the number of adenosine receptors. Meaning you’ll need more and more caffeine to get the same result, and going cold turkey will be an incredibly brave decision.
So I’d strongly recommend drinking your last cup of coffee at least 12 hours before bedtime, sticking to 1-2 cups a day, and have at least one day in the week where you abstain altogether.
As for the dose of each coffee, you won’t be able to regulate that too carefully unless you’re using caffeine powder. There is a huge disparity amongst different coffee chains, with a Costa coffee containing five times as much caffeine as a Starbucks.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend getting the medium cappuccino at Costa, which is a staggering 325mg of caffeine. If you’re in need of a hit like that, you definitely need to start detoxing and paying attention to sleep hygiene.
A mug of instant coffee would be more in the region of 100mg, which is more in the region of an acceptable caffeine dose that isn’t going to wreck you post bedtime.
None of this is to say that you should, or shouldn’t drink coffee on carnivore. Personally, I’ve gone cold turkey a few times, and not seen enough of a positive change to stay away from it. And with my hectic lifestyle, working six days a week, I end up needing caffeine on days where I lose some of my edge.
Which is why I start every morning with a delicious mug of black Amazonian coffee.
It’s very much your decision to make, because carnivore isn’t one of those diets that doesn’t work if you don’t adhere to the rules 100% of the time. You can very much drink coffee, and still be carnivore.
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