coffe beans

Coffea species

a.k.a.: Java, joe, mud, etc.

A warm cup of Joe in the morning is not usually  sipped with herbal medicine in mind, but no one will tell you it doesn’t have an effect on the body. Coffee is full of stimulants that, when properly placed, provide a remedy for common health problems. The caffeine in coffee can help with more than just getting you out of bed in the morning. It helps ease bronchial conditions, relax migraines, regulates elimination and stimulates the nerves. Properly applied, coffee is just what the doctor ordered.

Medicinal Properties of Coffee

Coffee has lots of the world famous nitrate, caffeine. Caffeine increases arterial blood pressure (BP), heart rate, and muscle sympathetic nervous activity (MSA). Studies show there’s more in coffee to trigger the cardiovascular response, too. Decaffeinated coffee also has a marketable increase on BP and MSA.

The brain produces a chemical called adenosine, which attaches itself to receptors in the nervous system to slow activity. When we wake up, the adenosine starts to wear off and allows regular activity to resume. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors so our nerves can charge full speed ahead without regulation.

Caffeine also tightens the walls of the blood vessels in the brain, which increases blood pressure and decreases the amount of oxygen in the brain. It’s difficult to get a deep sleep if blood pressure is raised and the brain doesn’t have proper oxygen levels.

Combine these effects and you have a panic situation in the body that causes the pituitary gland to produce more adrenaline, hence the jittery feeling many folk get from coffee.  Coffee also raises dopamine levels. The dopamine transmitters are in charge of the pleasure centers in the brain. Any thing that increases dopamine levels runs a high risk of being additive. This is why coffee shacks are popping up like weeds around the world. After a few cups of coffee, the espresso bars have a customer for life.

Recent studies from Cornell University indicate coffee blocks adenosine receptors, which, in turn, prevents the body from displaying symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. When the brain suffers damage from inflammation, the injured cells signal an immune response by releasing ATP (adenosine 5′-triphosphate). ATP is then broken down into adenosine. When this chemical binds to the choroid plexus in the brain, immune cells known as T-lymphocytes flood in, which damages the nerves. Coffee prevents this destructive cycle from beginning. For people suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, coffee could be a real boon.

antique coffee brewerCoffee can be hard on the digestive system if used immoderately. Coffee contains chemicals that increase low-density lipoproteins, commonly called LDL (the bad cholesterol) that leads to cardiovascular disease. Using unbleached paper filters when brewing coffee decreases the amount of cafestol and kahweol in your cup significantly. Other coffee brewing systems use metal or cloth filters. The metal filters are more expensive initially but save both the pocket book and LDL levels in the long run.

Some people count on their daily cup of java to keep them regular. The increased stomach acid causes a laxative effect on the bowels. The high acidity of coffee can cause problems since it triggers stomach upset and decreases the body’s ability to absorb iron. This is how many people stay regular even on a low fiber diet. Be aware, too, that choosing decaffeinated coffee can increase this effect because decaffeinated coffees tend to be higher in acid than its standard brethren.

Conditions Best Helped by Coffee

As a stimulant, coffee is beneficial for treating allergies much in the way that pseudo-ephedrine is used. Just one cup drunk daily when sinuses begin to clog up will bring relief. It’s important to moderate use of this herb because overuse can cause the body to require more coffee to obtain a similar effect. Coffee is serious medicine. Treat it seriously. See the caution list below.

The most obvious use of coffee is the most use: Liquid brain. Caffeine is a stimulant and triggers the nervous system. It is a quick “wake me up” that has developed a cult-like following around the world. Coffee also blocks adenosine (as mentioned above) which the brain generates when we are awake for a long time. Adenosine calms the brain’s arousal centers. This is why coffee works so well for college students as they pull all-night study sessions.

coffee/breakfastAvid coffee drinkers know the stimulating effect coffee has on their digestive tracts. One cup of coffee is all coffee fans needs to keep them regular. Patients with problems with chronic constipation would do well to try  a daily cup of  joe along side a bowl of bran flakes to alleviate symptoms.

Coffee is a boon to people with type 2 diabetes. Coffee increases blood glucose levels and plasma adiponectin concentration. Both of these help reduce insulin resistance. Keep in mind that coffee also increases urination so keep an eye on water intake. Coffee is not a dietary substitute for water. Be sure to consult with your doctor to be sure coffee does not conflict with other medication.

As a stimulant, coffee, used in moderation,  helps people with allergies. The stimulant, pseudo-ephedrine, is commonly suggested for those with hay fever. Coffee has fewer side effects and is easier to access. A cup of coffee taken with other allergy aids (see The Practical Herbalists’s suggestions for sinus infections) is a practical way to handle the pollen haze of spring.

There are people who react to caffeine the opposite way that the standard coffee drinker reacts.  It is not uncommon to find a person that reacts to coffee as a sleeping aid. The trick is to know your body’s reactions to plants and utilize these reactions wisely.

People with compromised nervous systems, particularly those confined to a wheelchair, sometimes find that a cup of coffee prevents uncontrolled leg spasms. Coupling coffee with a regular stretching routine is good medicine.

For more information on the conditions best helped by coffee, see the topics in Conditions.

List of Coffee’s Medicinal Actions

Digestive stimulant, central nervous system stimulant, increases inotropic actions, diuretic, antioxidant

Medicinal Processing of Coffee

The best way to process coffee beans is to just brew a cup of coffee. If you chose to munch chocolate covered coffee beans for the medicinal effect, stick to only two or three. You’re looking for a gentle healing effect, not a coffee coma.

For more information on basic herbal preparations, see the topics in Herbal How-to.

Gardening and Gathering Coffee

Coffee Berries Ripen in the Sun
Coffee Berries Ripen in the Sun

For temperate climates, coffee trees are indoor plants. Coffee likes acidic soil with high nitrogen fertilizer. Orchid fertilizer mix is a good choice for the home coffee grower. Coffee is a high-need houseplant. The tree should be watered twice weekly. Keep the soil well drained yet moist. After a few years, it will begin to flower. After a few years of flowering, coffee cherries will appear. Even with all this pampering, without high altitude, the coffee you harvest will be inferior to the coffee you buy in the store. This kind of gardening is for the hobbyist only in northern latitudes. Hardcore coffee friends dedicated to growing drinkable coffee can use the information by clicking this link.

For the gardener, coffee grounds are the best gift a compost bin could get. High in nitrogen and easily composted, coffee grounds are remarkable for building soil. Earthworms love it. The scent covers rotting food in the compost. Coffee grounds are pH neutral since the acid is water soluble and disappears after the coffee is brewed. Even the coffee filter adds needed carbon to the compost pile.

I dig fresh coffee grounds into the soil under my roses. They love it. I also use spent coffee grounds as a liquid fertilizer. I just fill a 5 gallon bucket with water and coffee grounds from one pot of coffee and let it sit in the sun all day. The next day, I have 5 gallons of liquid fertilizer to pour on my high-need plants. Don’t put coffee grounds on seedlings, though. In the garden and in the body, coffee is serious medicine; Coffee grounds are similar to manure in composition and can burn young, tender plants. Use them wisely.

Quick Id Tips: Coffee “Beans”

Appearance: Seeds with rounded backs and a split seam in the center interior. Red when ripe, brown when roasted. The longer the roasting time, the darker the “bean.” Roast time description from least roast time to longest roast time: City, Full City, Full City +, Vienna, Light French Roast and Full French Roast.

Taste: Rich, robust and earthy.

Odor: Distinctive coffee scent.

Gathering Coffee

Gathering and processing coffee is an art form. Some very good books have been written on the subject. If you’re interested in home roasting, you can purchase green beans from a variety of internet sites or, if you’re fortunate enough to live near a roaster, you can often purchase green beans directly from your local coffee roasters. You can buy specialized home coffee roasters from a variety of internet sites or you can make your own roaster using a hot air popcorn popper. Both the hot air popper roaster and the commercial roasters for home use are a lot of fun, but they won’t roast enough at a time to keep you in daily coffee.

Coffee BeansWhile I’ve roasted green beans at home, and enjoyed doing so, I gather most of my beans from local coffee shops and, believe it or not, the grocery. When gathering your beans this way, look for beans that are fresh and whole. It’s okay to grind them yourself at the grocery or have your coffee shop grind them for you, but try not to buy more than you’ll use within the week or so if you can. The longer ground beans are exposed to air, the more the flavor stales. The essential oils and high notes will seep out of the ground coffee, giving it a flat flavor. If you can, invest in a good coffee grinder and grind your beans as you use them.

Avoid buying the already ground and sealed in a tin commercial coffees, too, if you can. There are two main types of coffee plants, Robusta varieties and Arabicia varieties. Arabicia is what you want; these are the ones most artisan coffee roasters and good coffee shops offer. The Robusta varieties are hearty at lower altitudes and in higher heat climates, allowing them to produce vast quantities of beans cheaply. Robusta beans generally contain far more acid and caffeine than Arabicia beans, too. Many of the commercially produced, sealed-in-tins, already ground coffees contain high amounts of Robusta beans…which is why those types of coffees taste more sharp, less complex, and give you a lot more kick per cup.

Using Coffee to Care for Animals

file0001997692810Used coffee grounds are fabulous for getting strong odors out of the fur of animals. I say used grounds because the acids are being utilized here rather than the caffeine. Once the coffee grounds have been brewed, the caffeine is in the liquid brew rather than the grounds. Make a “tea” or infusion of the used grounds and soak a rag in the lukewarm coffee infusion. Rub the effected area with the rag. If the area is large, use the coffee infusion as a rinse to clean the unpleasant smell from the fur. If you’re washing your animal in the bathtub, rinse the tub immediately with water and then with vinegar when bath time is done to save the tub from staining.

Remember, the coffee plant makes caffeine to defend itself from browsing animals. Coffee is a poison. Dogs and goats have been known to eat a bean or two and survive, but it’s not good for them. Chocolate covered coffee beans are particularly enticing to dogs but are particularly toxic. Keep your animals safe. Hoard the coffee for yourself.

Household Formulas and Non-medicinal Uses of Coffee

Coffee is a natural deodorizer, making it terrific for an array of household cleansers. Soaps made or milled with a bit of coffee can take strong scents out of your skin. Add a little bit of coconut oil to your soap recipe and you’ll have a fantastic soap for cleaning up after changing your oil or working with any other really greasy, oily substances that won’t strip the natural oils out of your skin. Cooks can benefit from a bit of coffee in their cleansers, too. Just add a spoonful of grounds to a grated soap recipe to make kitchen soap with rich color and scent that will take the strong odor of garlic and onions right off your hands.  See our recipe for French Milled Soap or Recycled Soap Balls for directions on milling your own soaps.

Coffee is good for clearing the sinuses of old scents — this is very helpful when you’re going to be smelling lots of perfumes, or other strongly-scented stuff. Use coffee a little like wine-tasters use water crackers between sampling different wines. Make a small bottle or bowl of coffee beans or grounds and take a good, deep whiff of them between sampling the scents you’re smelling.

Coffee contains anti-oxidants that help the skin. Spent or fresh grounds mixed into soap makes a good exfoliation/deep-cleansing bar that cleanses and rejuvenates the skin.

Spent coffee grounds mixed with wax make an effective fire starter.

Coffee essential oil is good for filling a space with warmth and invigoration.


In incense, coffee or coffee essential oil adds fire to the blend’s energy.  Added to candles, coffee creates warmth and adds a warm scent to the room or fire and energy to any magical working.

Drunk before meditation, small amounts of coffee can aid in keeping the mind alert — be very careful with this, though, as too much can keep the mind centered on the body’s well-being rather than allow the mind to clear and move forward with the meditative process.

Coffee pots need to be cleaned monthly. The residual oils can collect in coffee makers and go rancid. Mineral deposits or “scale” can build up from hard water and clog your coffee maker. Use a solution of half white wine vinegar and half water to wipe and rinse the coffee pot. Pour 1 cup of the vinegar/water solution into the pot and allow the liquid to sit for a while to break down the oils before wiping and rinsing.

For more recipes and ideas for using Coffee, see the topics in Recipes.

Cautions for Coffee

Coffee is additive. Use with moderation. Not appropriate for growing children.

Coffee is a high acid herb, which will disrupt the pH balance in the mouth. Tannic acid in coffee can eat away tooth enamel, which also allows traces of coffee’s brown pigment to stain your teeth. Rinse your mouth with water after every cup.

Pregnant or nursing women should only use coffee sparingly or under the advise of a qualified health specialist. Coffee is not appropriate for people with heart conditions or ulcers. Coffee can increase nervousness, hand tremors, and cause rapid heartbeat. Immoderate use of coffee may also raise cholesterol levels and contribute to artery clogging. Drink coffee with food since the acids in coffee are strong enough to trigger digestive acids. Discontinue use of coffee if allergic reactions occur.

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