Thursday, January 20, 2011

Rx.: caffeine

"Espresso: Euphoria without the unsightly track marks."

yerba mate, in a traditional gourd with a bombilla filter-straw, drunk throughout S. America as a therapeutic and culinary delight

Caffeine: the very word conjures up opinions almost as strong as the coffee that contains it. However, when venturing more into the topic of caffeine and athletic performance enhancement, its not that simple. There are a variety of opinions from top coaches of various sports, as to when it becomes friend or foe during training.

If you look judiciously at the history of caffeine, you begin to find that it almost comes second runner up to "man's best friend." But when can it help? When can it harm? Are there things which can bring out caffeine's best qualities while mitigating its negative ones?

The answer is to be found (like most questions regarding substances such as herbs) in the old adage of homeopathy: "The same substance can heal or cause the same symptoms." Let's look more clearly at what that means.

What this says, in regards to caffeine, is that it can cause insomnia in one dosage, but treat insomnia in another dosage. Think this is impossible? Know of anyone with insomnia? Have them consult a naturopathic physician about the option of partaking homeopathic Coffea Cruda. You will notice a difference within the first night.

What does this mean to the performance athlete? That coffee is not necessarily bad or good. In fact, studies support caffeine being a valuable enhancement to one's training regime.

If you've read "Born To Run," by Christopher McDougall then you are familiar with the concept of the ultra-runner. Yes, we see them in our own society. They continue to amaze us with their endurance. However, if you look at tribal societies, you will realize that ultra-runners were, in fact, a necessity for many cultures. From the chasquis of Peru, to the !Kung-Saan bushmen of the Kalahari. For messages to reach far distances, either from the King, or from one village to another, there was no choice. Someone had to do it, and it needed to be done, post-haste. If you look at the map of the ancient Incan kingdom, you will see that it, at its height, was an empire of up to 9 million people. For the king, to reach his message to the stretch of his kingdom, a chasqui would be brought to task to run along the "Inca Trail" to deliver this message along the ancient "highway."

An Incan "chasqui"

Medical Anthropology was the degree I obtained in my undergraduate. Anthropology is the study of culture, while medical anthropology is the specific, in-depth, study of culture and how it views, utilizes, and obtains its nutrition and medicine.

If we look at various tribes, in various parts of the world, from the Q'uechua of Peru to the nomadic bedouin of the Sahara, you will come to the conclusion that they each had a drink or "nectar of the gods," which gave them extra stamina and strength during times of need. I have yet to see a drink, which provided stamina, over the centuries for a people that didn't contain caffeine of some sort. In Arabic and north African cultures this takes the form of coffee. In other parts of the world, a tea (either black or green), but you will notice a theme: it contains caffeine.

espresso beans

Let's look even more in-depth now, on what comes with the drink. Typically some type of digestive aid, or carminative. Example: Turkish coffee with a dash of rose water (a digestive aid). If you go to the middle east they will offer you a smidge of ground cumin on top of your coffee. In Europe, its a dash of cinnamon. What is the nature and purpose of these herbs? How do they synergistically assist the coffee? An herbalist will tell you that herbs should be used with purpose. This does not exclude culinary. Herbs are medicinal. That's why, when used with awareness, herbs used in cooking or beverages change the nature of the food. They provide anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. They enhance not only of the flavor of the food, but the digestion of it as well. Its almost like "cooking alchemy." This is no less true for beverages.

Cultures around the globe have, through careful observation, noticed the benefits, but also the burdens of caffeine on the body. How to negate the burdens? Herbs. Here's how: dash an anti-flatulent on the top (or mix it in) with your beverage.

In Ayurvedic medicine cardamon is said to be the most potent herb to not only enhance caffeine's benefits, but negate its burdens. Here's what I do: I buy a bottle of therapeutic-grade, organic cardamon essential oil. 1 drop is all you need in your latte to not only make it taste good, but to negate any "jitters." Voila! Its wonderful tasting too. For an even better latte? Try adding some cinnamon and nutmeg (digestive herbs) also. The combination is excellent. I sprinkle a dash of vanilla-flavored stevia, & you have a chai-smelling cup of deliciousness.

Why go to all the trouble? Because caffeine does have benefits. Yes, you read that right. What does it do for us exactly? First of all, it acts as a cholegogue. A cholegogue is a substance that effectively regulates bile. This is particularly important for people who have a hereditary issue of digesting fats, and/or breaking down acids. Many herbs considered "liver tonics" or "liver cleansing" in nature do this same function: dandelion root, artichoke leaf, burdock root, milk thistle, lotus leaf, etc.

Unless you're planning on ingesting one or more of the above herbs daily, then caffeine is generally the preferred bile stimulant by most.

Dr. D'amo's famous "blood type diet," actually suggests that blood type A's benefit the most from coffee, and other caffeine containing substances, due to a pattern he viewed over time: that blood type A's have troubles digesting fats. Due to the nature of the above therapeutic benefits expounded upon, we may well see how a caffeinated beverage could assist with this dilemma.

Another recent concept, looking further at the issue of "Caffeine: friend or foe" is the issue of acidity. Recent studies further support that its not the caffeine that ends up being harmful, but the acids themselves, contained within the coffee, black tea, etc.

Again, carminative (digestive) herbs help "buffer" acids against the delicate lining of the G.I. tract. They, in a sense, do "damage control" with every cup. There are options of "low acid" coffee available on the market. Personally, I haven't found one that has a desirable taste for me.

I'll let you in on a secret: espresso has less acid than regular coffee. You're better off drinking it. The Europeans rarely drink a brand like "Folgers." Other cultures have called them "coffee snobs." Perhaps they've realized something we haven't? That espresso is less acidic, and you get more bang-for-your-buck when your body is actually able to digest what is being taken in. In addition you need less to get the same effect as a full mug of "joe." We would do well to mimic the Italian and French love of espresso. They savor it with each delicious sip.

Another 'lil secret I learned while I was in France: if you're going to have your espresso, coffee or caffeinated tea, have it with dessert.

espresso con panna

Why have it with dessert? Coffee lowers blood sugar. When is this helpful? With diabetes, one of the biggest ailments of our country. This is why you're seeing, "trickling" down in the news, studies on coffee's benefits. Most of them are pertaining to high blood sugar, which really could be considered an epidemic in our culture. So, by drinking an espresso with your piece of cake, its almost like a - and a + canceling each other out, as far as your blood sugar is concerned. This is why the Europeans have "dessert and coffee." Smart people.

This discussion could go on for a long time. We could divide it into many parts: which is better tea or espresso? which green tea is the most therapeutic? when is caffeine appropriate during endurance races? Fair-trade coffee vs. organic? Shade grown vs. not?

Here's a thought: I would speak with your local owner of your favorite coffee shop. Ask them about the various acidity contents of a variety of coffee they serve. Talk to them about where its grown. Ask them about whether they support "Fair Trade," where the farmers (who are mostly in third world countries) get a fair wage for their hard-labor.

My favorite espresso shop in Bend is "Bellatazza." Stewart Fritchman, the owner, loves talking about his coffee, his journey abroad to find the finest, and what goes into every cup. Support your local coffee shop, & drink in the benefits. Don't forget to add a dash of cardamon, nutmeg and cinnamon too ;-}

"I'm only as strong as the coffee I drink, & the hairspray I use." ~Mae West