The Menopause

Should we quit caffeine during midlife?

Like Marmite, caffeine polarises opinions. You either love it or you hate it. Data suggests those born before 1980 are more likely to sit in the ‘love’ camp: Gen X are drinking, on average, four times as many cups of coffee a day as stimulant-shy Gen Z.

But, while younger generations are leading the caffeine-free charge, we’re seeing a downward trend across the board, according to Urvashi Agarwal, founder of artisanal tea brand JP’s Original. This is thanks to a ‘Covid-induced surge of interest in wellness, sleep and hydration, as well as concern about the link between caffeine and anxiety,’ she says. ‘Many are shifting from a highly caffeinated cup of coffee to a milder cup of tea, matcha, herbal infusion or other decaffeinated options.’

The advent of menopause – and flurry of associated symptoms – can also see women break up with their morning brew, says menopause nutritionist Emma Bardwell.

‘I have some clients who have significantly improved their perimenopause symptoms by eliminating caffeine,’ she explains. ‘But it’s a mix – there are also true die-hard caffeine fiends who’d rip my eyes out if I told them to cut back, and others still who find they can drink right up to bedtime and not be affected.’

So how are we to know what’s right for us?

How does caffeine work?

You’d struggle to find a household in the UK without a caffeinated product in the kitchen cupboard. But few understand exactly what effect caffeine has on the body.

‘Caffeine has been described as the world’s most widely consumed, legal psychoactive drug,’ says Emma Beswick, nutritional therapist and founder of DNA testing company Lifecode Gx. ‘It’s a naturally occurring stimulus found in coffee and cocoa beans (consumed as hot drinks and chocolate), and in black and green teas.’

Part of what makes caffeine so popular worldwide is how quickly we feel its effects. From the first sip of coffee, it can take as little as 20 minutes to begin to notice a tell-tale buzz, as well as improved energy, focus, memory and mood.

These effects are thanks to the impact caffeine has on our brain chemicals, such as adenosine, which is responsible for feelings of fatigue. Adenosine levels build throughout the day, making us feel increasingly tired. We may not feel its effects first thing, but by mid-afternoon the accumulation is obvious.

‘This is why so many rely on caffeine to prop them up when they’re flagging in the 2-4pm window,’ says Emma Bardwell.

Caffeine temporarily relieves this afternoon fatigue by attaching to adenosine cell receptors, blocking the neurotransmitter’s sleep-inducing effect. ‘Caffeine also activates stimulatory neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, which can help focus,’ Emma Beswick explains.

Is caffeine healthy?

Though it seems caffeine is falling out of favour in some circles, there’s plenty of research that sings its praises – particularly for those in midlife who may be struggling with energy levels and brain fog due to hormonal changes.

‘Caffeine can be helpful for lots of things: energy, exercise performance and memory to name just a few,’ says Emma Bardwell.‘It can help to bring about a bowel movement and also suppresses appetite in some, which can be helpful in weight management.’

Lesser-known benefits include that it can help to break down fat stores for fuel and even block out pain, says Emma Beswick. Some caffeinated drinks offer additional health benefits, Emma Bardwell adds: ‘Coffee and tea contain polyphenols, fibre and other gut-friendly nutrients, such as magnesium and B-vitamins.’

Overall, the data seems to show that, if we’re not pregnant, 400mg of caffeine a day – around two to four cups of coffee – is harmless and may even deliver health benefits, she concludes. ‘Coffee drinkers tend to live longer, have reduced incidence of liver and gallbladder disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, plus a reduced risk of depression when compared to non-coffee drinkers. It’s also linked to lower rates of certain cancer, such as breast and colorectal cancer.’

Why might we avoid caffeine in midlife?

Top of the list of reasons people quit caffeine is anxiety. ‘Caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin, which increases our heart and breathing rate, and makes our body temperature and blood pressure rise, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety,’ says Emma Bardwell.

This may feel particularly pronounced in midlife when hormonal changes can also contribute to increased anxiety, adds Emma Beswick. ‘For most women, progesterone has a calming, anti-anxiety effect which is also helpful for sleep. During menopause, we can lose this calming effect – this is a significant contributor to anxiety and sleep disruption.’

Disruption to sleep is another reason why many steer clear of stimulants. ‘Caffeine has a half-life of two to eight hours (sometimes more), meaning if you’re having coffee at noon, half could still be in your system at 8pm and a quarter could remain at 2am,’ says Emma Bardwell. ‘For those really struggling with sleep, I always advise avoiding caffeine after 11am or noon at the very latest.’

Less well-known is the impact of caffeine on calcium – important for bone resilience in midlife and beyond. ‘Caffeine can slightly reduce the amount of calcium we absorb from food,’ says Emma Bardwell. ‘If we’re meeting the RDA (1,200mg for those aged over 50) we don’t need to be concerned, but those low in calcium and drinking roughly three cups of coffee a day may be at risk of accelerated bone loss.’

Why does caffeine tolerance vary from person to person?

According to the experts, it’s largely down to our genes whether a cup of caffeine will make or break our mornings. ‘There are two key genes that directly affect caffeine response: ADORA2A and CYP1A2,’ says Emma Beswick.

ADORA2A determines how sensitive we are to caffeine. ‘It influences the strength of the dopamine hit we’re likely to experience,’ she explains. ‘A genetic variant is very common – more than 50% of people are very sensitive to caffeine. If this is you, you may enjoy the buzz of low-dose caffeine but experience anxiety with high amounts.’

The second gene – CYP1A2 – impacts how fast we’re able to detox caffeine from our system and therefore the duration of its effect. Variants on this gene are less common, Emma says, with 30% of people having a slower detox ability. ‘This means you’re more likely to experience sleep disruption if you consume caffeine after midday.’

Interestingly, these genes don’t just affect how we feel after consuming caffeine but also seem to influence its impact on health. ‘The slow version of the CYP1A2 gene has been linked to high blood pressure and even heart attack risk in caffeine users,’ Emma Beswick adds.

Beyond our genetics

But it’s not just our genes that affect our ability to tolerate caffeine. ‘Caffeine is metabolised by the liver, so if your liver is sluggish or fatty it will metabolise caffeine more slowly,’ says Emma. ‘Smoking, by contrast, increases the rate at which caffeine is metabolised. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but having a cigarette with an espresso will soften the caffeine hit.’

Hormonal changes may also influence our ability to tolerate caffeine. ‘Changes in oestrogen levels (too high, too low or both) can impact stress and mood during perimenopause,’ she continues. ‘We feel wired, tired and everything in between. For those impacted, it’s worth considering whether it’s really worth the risk of a panic attack for a cup of coffee. That being said, those supported through menopause by HRT and a healthy diet and lifestyle may be able to have it all.’

How to test your caffeine genes

How do we know if caffeine is a smart choice for us? Looking out for trends in our energy and anxiety levels throughout the day and week is a good place to start. ‘I encourage women to tap into how they feel post-caffeine by keeping a simple food-tracking journal,’ says Emma Bardwell.

If we want a definitive answer, Lifecode Gx can test our genetic variants with a saliva swab sent via the post. Their Nutrient Core Report analyses the ADORA2A and CYP1A2 genes, providing insight into our personal sensitivity to caffeine and how fast we’re able to detox it from our system. The additional Nervous System Report provides a closer look at how our calming and stimulating brain chemicals are influenced by our genes.

‘The ADORA2A gene seems to resonate very strongly with people, especially in combination with genes that impact adrenaline or GABA – they can have an additive effect. For these people, caffeine is not their friend!’ says Emma Beswick.

The final verdict

If we’ve drawn a sensitive genetic hand or are struggling to get symptoms of underlying health conditions under control, it may well be wise to steer clear of caffeinated products. If not, we’ve got a green light. ‘Millions (if not billions) of people use caffeine safely every day,’ says Emma Beswick. ‘If you don’t have underlying health issues or genetic risk factors, then why not enjoy your caffeine?’

There are steps we can take, however, to ensure our caffeine habit is indeed a healthy one. The first is moderation. ‘I think two or three cups is the sweet spot to get the benefits, but don’t forget that everyone is different,’ says Emma Bardwell.

Choose wisely

Quality also matters. If we’re drinking coffee, go for whole beans that you grind at home to maximise nutrients and polyphenols, she adds. ‘The jury is out on organic – if you can afford it, go for it, but don’t beat yourself up if it’s out of your budget.’

Where fizzy cola or energy drinks are concerned, it’s best to steer clear entirely, says Emma Beswick. ‘I wouldn’t touch an energy drink with a barge pole!’

For a softer caffeine hit, consider green tea. ‘It gives you the caffeine buzz without the jitters and anxiety as it contains an amino acid called L-theanine,’ says Emma Bardwell.

Delaying our morning caffeine hit can also help soften the surge of stimulating chemicals. ‘For most people, cortisol is high in the morning, as this is what gets us out of bed – this means we won’t get much benefit from caffeine first thing,’ says Emma Bardwell. ‘In fact, the extra stimulation may leave you feeling anxious and jittery. Delaying your caffeine by an hour leaves time for the cortisol awakening response (CAR) to dissipate.’

Prioritising other energy boosters can also help. Our top tip? Hydrate before you caffeinate. ‘Even being as little as 2% dehydrated can affect cognition,’ says Emma Bardwell. So, if we’re looking to improve clarity, energy and focus before flicking on the kettle, a glass of water can work wonders.

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Words: Ellie Smith