Shannon Sexton, guest blogger
Coffee: Is it good for you or bad for you? Last month, the New York Times Magazine reported that by drinking moderate amounts of coffee, you may reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes, dementia, and certain types of cancer—and even, perhaps, live longer. Yet evidence also suggests that coffee can affect women’s estrogen levels, raise blood pressure, and trigger an increased release of stress hormones.
So how do you know if coffee’s right for you? Yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda, offers some interesting clues. For starters, Ayurvedic Lifestyle Consultant Larissa Hall Carlson, who teaches at the Kripalu Schools of Yoga and Ayurveda, says “every type of food can be a poison or a medicine,” depending on what your individual constitution is—and how and when you consume it.
Kathryn Templeton, the founder of the Himalayan Institute’s Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist training program and a graduate of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, agrees. “Although Ayurveda would never recommend that you supersize your daily cup of coffee, under the right conditions, at the right time, you can drink it in moderation.” Here are five Ayurvedic guidelines for coffee drinkers.
Know Your Dosha
Different mind-body types react to coffee differently, says Larissa, so it’s important to determine your Ayurvedic constitution and make choices accordingly. According to Ayurveda, our constitution is comprised of three doshas, or subtle energies: vata, pitta, and kapha, although one is typically dominant.
“Coffee can balance out folks who have a lot of kapha in their constitution”—the mind-body principle related to the elements of earth and water, says Larissa. Signs of excess kapha include water retention, weight gain, sinus congestion, a lack of motivation, and “a general feeling of being foggy-headed,” she says. If you fit the bill, drink one cup daily. Coffee’s hot, dry, stimulating qualities will counterbalance your dominant dosha’s heavy, wet, sluggish qualities.
People with high pitta (fire and water) or high vata (air and ether) in their constitutions, on the other hand, should be more cautious. “The rule in Ayurveda is that ‘like increases like,’” Larissa explains. “For example, if someone with high pitta is already overheating, emotionally or physically, the hot, pungent qualities of coffee will make them even hotter.”
Avoid coffee if…
…you have signs of a pitta imbalance, such as acid indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux, or skin rashes or if you’re often agitated, irritated, hypercritical, judgmental, or angry.
…you have symptoms of excess vata, such as dehydration, dry hair, dry skin, constipation, insomnia, forgetfulness, restlessness, or if you feel scattered, spacey, or frazzled. “Coffee will make these symptoms worse,” says Larissa.
Follow these rules for your dosha:
Vatas: If you’re not experiencing the symptoms listed above, take your coffee creamy and sweet, because it will have a grounding, nourishing effect on your system. Drink 0–1 cup daily.
Pittas: Sweeten your coffee with a high-quality maple syrup or organic cane sugar, but skip the cream, to counteract the beverage’s acidic qualities (assuming you are not experiencing the pitta imbalances listed above). Drink 0–1 cup daily.
Kaphas: Take your coffee black. Milk or cream can increase congestion and sweeteners can cause weight gain for kaphas. Drink 1 cup daily, but not more.
Get Your Fix Before 10 am
The best time of day to drink coffee is between 6 am and 10 am, when the “cool, heavy, earthy” qualities of the kapha dosha make us feel a little sluggish, says Kathryn. Coffee’s heating, stimulating qualities can counterbalance that sluggishness by stimulating the mind and agni (digestive fire).
Control Your Portion Size
“A little bit of coffee can be medicinal,” observes Kathryn, “but we often gulp it down in Dunkin’ super cups.” Overdosing on coffee can deplete the adrenals, dehydrate the system, and lead to other unpleasant side effects such as acid reflux or a racing mind, she says. Ayurveda doesn’t recommend more than one cup of coffee per day for anyone—even kaphas. If you need to curb your coffee habit, Kathryn recommends cutting your intake in half and drinking a cup of warm water first, to hydrate your system—and always drink it on a full stomach.
Modern Ayurvedic practitioners recommend drinking organic coffee only. Why? Because conventional coffee can contain pesticide residues that can form ama (toxins or undigested food) in the system, says Larissa. And according to Ayurveda, ama is the breeding ground for disease.
Try an Ayurvedic Morning Coffee Routine
When you drink coffee on an empty stomach—especially first thing in the morning—it increases acidity in your system. Plus, the jolt of caffeine can make your mind race and your energy erratic, says Kathryn. Instead, follow this Ayurvedic morning coffee routine:
- Drink a cup of hot water with the juice of one lemon and a teaspoon of honey at least 20 minutes before breakfast. This drink will stimulate agni and evacuation, so your system is primed for your morning meal.
- Eat a grounding breakfast with some fruit, protein, and whole grains.
- Drink your cup of coffee (prepared according to your dosha) to stimulate your mind and further stoke your agni, so the drink acts as a digestive aid.
Remember, one of the keys to Ayurvedic healing is self-observation, so try this routine—and the other tips for coffee drinkers—and ask yourself: Is my coffee hurting me or healing me?
Shannon Sexton is a digital strategist, executive editor, and award-winning journalist. She is a regular contributor for Yoga Journal; she produced award-winning magazines for Yoga International as a former editor-in-chief; and her poems and creative nonfiction have been anthologized in five books, including Stories from Where We Live (Milkweed Editions). She writes about food, health, yoga, and the arts for nonprofits, magazines, and websites.