Coffee and Your Immune System

Why it might not be the best time to deluge yourself with coffee

Times are hard. The world is witnessing an unprecedented outbreak of mass proportions, and for most of the lucky ones, this means social distancing and self-isolating, essentially locking ourselves inside our own living quarters, reducing social interactions and community activities to a bare minimum.

And while physical business locations are closing down, there is an ever-present demand for the continuation of work, and that leaves many of us with the conundrum of having to hand in assignments and follow-up on projects from the uninspiring embrace of our living room couch.

Naturally, moments like these call for hot cups of freshly brewed coffee. It seems like there’s nothing more fitting than our usual daily dose of caffeine to put our cerebral engines into gear and jumpstart productivity. Coffee shops too far away? Worry not, delivery service platforms are here to help. Oh now they’re closing down too? Don’t worry you can still purchase some roasted coffee bags online and brew some yourself from the comfort of your kitchen pantry.

When there’s a will, there’s a way right?

Yes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always a good strategy. While there is an abundance of studies and papers citing to the seemingly endless array of benefits from consuming coffee, such as its ability to reduce stroke risk, prevent Type II Diabetes, and promote longevity, a 1990 paper by Dr. Isaac Melamed contrastingly showcased how drinking coffee instead decreased the immune function’s ability to fend off infections.

The study was performed in 15 healthy medical facility staff members, who were later divided into two additional subgroups of 7 and 8 people respectively. The first subgroup was asked to drink 5 cups of coffee (containing 45mg of caffeine) daily for 5 weeks and to abstain from coffee in the succeeding 5 weeks. In the second subgroup, the orders were reversed, so they were told to abstain from coffee for the initial 5 weeks, and then coffee for the next 5.

The subjects’ blood was drawn on the first day of the trial before the intervention, and at the end of each 5-week period, and were evaluated for mitogen stimulation, chemotaxis, and subsets of T-cells.

Though no significant correlation was found between coffee consumption and the resulting number of T-cells, chemotaxis was found to be higher in coffee periods at all concentrations, and mitogenic stimulation had a more blunted effect on lymphocyte response during coffee drinking.

If we translate all this to day-to-day English, coffee essentially decreases our white blood cell’s ability to react to potential pathogens by curtailing its ability to divide. And yet there was an increase in chemotaxis, a term used to describe when your immune cells mobilise toward a particular chemical stimulus. While this would be useful in the event of an infection, increasing chemotaxis in the absence of real danger is analogous to the boy who cried wolf. With coffee consumption, cortisol is thought to be the perpetrator.

The results of the study was ultimately inconclusive to its chemotactic and T-cell findings, but this 2005 paper by Professor William Lovallo underlines the causative correlation between caffeine consumption and endogenous cortisol release.

“It affects your immune system,” postulates sleep scientist Dave Gibson. “Chronic elevations of cortisol can alter the immune system responses.” And if you and I have ever heard of the word cortisol, our brains will immediately refer to them as the stress hormone. While the definition may be slightly misleading, since cortisol actually helps reduce stress and inflammation (which is why they are very closely associated), too much of it can actually suppress brain function, slow down metabolism, break down muscle, and increase blood pressure, all of which are counterproductive to a normal and balanced physiology.

“Chronic elevations of cortisol can alter the immune system responses”

In addition to the cognitive strain that cortisol generates within the body, they are also thought to decrease our body’s ability to fight off infections as well as remove abnormal or damaged cells. And to make things even worse during times like these, this article lays upon some other devastating effects of consuming too much caffeine, such as worsening panic attacks, anxiety, restlessness, nervousness, insomnia, stomach upset, tachycardia, irritability and addiction.

The bottom line is this. There is yet to be a conclusive study on the true objective effects that coffee and caffeine begets on our immune mechanisms, both at low and high concentrations. But at times like these, when the urge to consume gallons of coffee as a catalyst to overcome the seemingly insurmountable goal of producing meaningful work from home is at its peak, it is imperative that we train our self-discipline muscles and look for alternatives elsewhere.

Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but uncertainty is not fought by adding another layer of uncertainty. The war with uncertain times is fought by taking no chances, by adhering to professional advice, by sticking to government policies, to make sure you and your loved ones see through this one. Stay safe always.

Junior doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist. Receive weekly updates from me ⤵

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