There are coffee-lovers and then there are coffee-lovers.
The first kind can down the stuff with impunity—like my old roommate Dave, whom I once watched drink a pot of stovetop espresso and then sack out on the couch for a snooze.
Then there are those who love coffee with immoderate zeal, who worship the roasted bean even as it grinds us down. For us, coffee is a drug: it gets us genuinely high—focused, euphoric, confident—until inevitably we come crashing back to earth.
We delicate flowers look on with rabid envy at our more solid compatriots, who can sustain a caffeine habit without showing signs of wear and tear. For us thin-skinned types, the days following a coffee bender are uniformly lackluster, filled as they are with fatigue, body aches, muzzy-headedness, and tell-tale circles under the eyes. You laugh, less sensitive brethren, but it can take days or weeks to recharge a burnt-out system (even months, in the case of deep adrenal exhaustion).
The difference comes down to constitution: sturdy vs sensitive, or Kapha vs. Vata in Ayurvedic terms. Sure, it’s a spectrum, but it’s useful to consider the extremes. Sturdy folks can stand up to stimulation without being bowled over, while the sensitive and hyper-sensitive amongst us have the decidedly mixed blessing of feeling stimulation—and everything—more acutely.
Maybe we can get away with the occasional cappuccino, but we know we’re playing with fire.
The trouble of course for us lightweights is that coffee is as ubiquitous as it is delicious. And it’s nice to be able to indulge once in a while without ruining the next 3 days. (This is no exaggeration for some; your mileage may vary.) Here, then, is my Featherweight’s Guide to Caffeine Consumption.
*The amount counts. The more sensitive and self aware you are, the less it takes to get you going, so get the smallest size and sip slowly. Overdoing it means being a mess of tense and frazzled nerves, never mind the crash.
*Empty stomach rule. You know the one: put something nourishing in your belly first, or at least have your coffee with a meal as opposed to before it. This way you’ll soften the impact of caffeine on nerves and adrenals.
*Beware the black stuff. Milk (or almond milk) provides a nourishing counterbalance to coffee’s catalytic effects, as long as you don’t use it to mask the taste and down more than you otherwise would want to.
*Stay away from sugar. White sugar is as much as stimulant as caffeine, so you’d be giving yourself a double dose. If you’re at home, a little maple syrup is a more balanced (and more delicious) choice of sweetener. Just don’t let the milkshake effect keep you slurping beyond your capacity.
*Take at least a day off between flights. Caffeine has a surprisingly long half-life in the system (the exact time varies from person to person); drinking coffee two days in a row means you’re not fully coming back to baseline in between. Let yourself experience the full curve of caffeine’s effects, then make your decision about going in for the next round.
*Cardamom helps antidote the nerve-rattling effects of caffeine, so consider adding it to your brew as they do in the middle east. Try simmering 2-3 cracked cardamom pods per person in the water you’ll then use to brew. With milky coffee, you’ll get a delicious coffee-chai effect.
*Ritualize. Make coffee or tea a special occasion, and enjoy it with all the ceremonial attention a (for you) powerful mind-altering substance deserves.
And finally, saving best for last:
*Have a great go-to coffee substitute for those mornings—every morning, right?—when you want something hot, delicious and invigorating that won’t leave your depleted or frayed around the edges come mid afternoon.
Here’s my favorite herbal coffee, made with Ayurvedic (and one Andean) tonic herbs. It’s rich, slightly bitter and musky, deeply nourishing (especially for us Vata types) and entirely satisfying. Over time, it’ll build you up and help you better tolerate the occasional cup of coffee. But by then, with this herbal brew as part of your routine, you may not be so tempted by morning joe.
A.M. Herbal Tonic Recipe
1/2 teaspoon Ashwagandha powder
1/2 teaspoon Shatavari powder
optional 1/4 teaspoon of licorice root powder (great natural sweetener for the adrenally compromised)
3 cardamom pods, cracked
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup whole milk (ideally non-homogenized and from pastured, happy cows or goats)
optional cinnamon and/or nutmeg for serving
Combine the herbs and spices with the water and bring to a simmer, stirring to incorporate the mixture into a thin paste. Add the milk and bring just to the point of boiling, then remove from the heat and serve.
For a more pronounced coffee-like taste and enhanced tonic properties, you can try dissolving a lentil-sized dab of shilajit in the brew as well. Shilajit, a kind of purified black Himalayan mineral pitch, is famous as a vitalizer (being featured in many herbal aphrodisiac blends) and is an especially powerful tonic with milk and in conjunction with herbs like ashwagandha. However, Ayurvedic tradition prohibits shilajit if one’s diet includes alcohol, grease, and stimulants. Consider this suped-up herbal brew, then, your reward for abstinence.
Jonathan H. Edwards is an herbalist, acupuncturist and writer based in Brooklyn. Learn more about his work at www.axismundihealingarts.