In recent years, more and more women have testified how a caffeine-free lifestyle has helped them reduce or completely get rid of period-related problems such as PMS, PCOS, irregular ovulation, missed periods or difficulty getting pregnant. Is this just a coincidence or could there be an actual connection between caffeine and the female sex hormones? In this post, we will go through how caffeine actually works and whether caffeine can have any effect on our sex hormones and menstrual cycle-related symptoms or challenges.
We start from the beginning, why do we drink caffeine?
In Sweden, enormous amounts of coffee are drunk, we are actually one of the countries in the world where it is drunk the most. Coffee drinking has become a large part of our Swedish fika culture. In addition to the social aspects of drinking coffee, many are attracted by the invigorating effect of the caffeine. In recent years, coffee has been joined by many other caffeinated drinks in the form of soft drinks, but above all by so-called energy drinks that have rapidly grown in popularity. Some energy drinks have not least become popular in the context of training and are often consumed in connection with training.
This is how caffeine works
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and is one of the most used drugs in the world (yes, it is actually classified as a drug as it is a substance that stimulates the nervous system, creates dependence and can lead to problems with withdrawal). Caffeine triggers a variety of physiological effects on the cerebral vasculature, blood pressure, respiratory function, gastrointestinal activity, urine volume, and exercise performance. Low to moderate doses of caffeine (20 mg-200 mg) have been shown to produce effects such as temporarily increased well-being, energy, and alertness, while higher doses are more likely to produce symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, muscle tremors, and upset stomach. It can also act to increase blood pressure and heart rate.
Caffeine affects different people in different ways. Some are more sensitive to caffeine's effects than others, which depends in part on genetics, metabolism, nutritional status, liver health, and how you absorb it. Even things like what time of day you drink it and in which of the phases of the menstrual cycle can have an effect. Depending on these factors , the caffeine stays in the body between 2-12 hours, with an average of 4-6 hours.
What we have in common, however, is that we are all governed by the 24-hour hormonal cycle known as the circadian rhythm. One of the things that the circadian rhythm controls is our release of the hormone cortisol which makes us feel alert and awake. The highest production of cortisol during the day occurs between 8-9 am (under normal conditions.) Cortisol is a stress-related hormone and consumption of caffeine can increase the production of cortisol and thus potentially affect our circadian rhythm, hence some people experience difficulty sleeping from caffeine.
Caffeine thus stimulates cortisol in a similar way to various types of stressors in our lifestyle, such as mental or physical stress in the form of, for example, a stressful job situation, a bad relationship or negative thoughts about oneself, all of which can affect our cortisol levels. Long-term elevated levels of cortisol (as in chronic stress) can lead to many negative health effects.
Caffeine and stress, not the best combo for our menstrual cycle?
Cortisol and our dear progesterone (one of the important sex hormones in women) come from the same basic hormone, pregnenalone. When the body experiences stress, whether it's caused by caffeine, tight deadlines at work, or thoughts of not being enough, the body (ie your adrenal glands) will prioritize producing cortisol over progesterone, to deal with the stress. This simply means that more cortisol equals less progesterone , this in turn of course affects the balance between your hormones. Cup is wise and will always choose survival, i.e. dealing with the stress, over fertility. Our hormonal system works best when we feel calm, safe, get the nutrition it needs, sleep well and don't have to focus on dealing with stress.
So one theory is that the connection women have experienced between caffeine and period-related challenges is basically about stress and how stress in any form can have a negative impact on our menstrual cycle. When we are exposed to stress, we go into something called fight-or-flight mode. Here the sympathetic part of the nervous system is activated and in this state the body prepares for battle where the only focus is on survival. The body simply prioritizes away all functions that are not necessary for our survival here and now (but which are important from a health perspective and for quality of life, including our menstrual cycle).
The other part of the nervous system, the parasympathetic part , on the other hand, is the opposite – in this state, the body feels safe, calm and it can function as it is meant to do, that is, it prioritizes fertility and the menstrual cycle when survival is not threatened. An important point to highlight is that we cannot be in both systems at the same time, but one is either in the parasympathetic or in the sympathetic. So, when we are under stress, the body will not prioritize resting, rebuilding itself or prioritizing digestion (the body will not prioritize producing stomach acid, bile from the liver that can break down the food properly, which means that the food comes down to the intestines undigested which can lead to stomach problems). In other words, we want to strive to be much more in the parasympathetic nervous system so that the body gets the conditions to build itself up and heal!
How do I know if I can drink caffeine without it negatively affecting my hormones and menstrual cycle?
As we mentioned earlier, we are all different and react differently to caffeine. In addition to that, it is also about when and how you drink the caffeine (for example at the time of day, on an empty stomach or not), how high a stress level you experience and what your lifestyle looks like in general.
Unfortunately, there is currently insufficient research on the relationships between caffeine and the female hormonal system and menstrual-related symptoms. Therefore, it becomes important that you feel what effects caffeine has on your body and what the body signals to you.
If it is the case that you have missed periods, irregular or absent ovulation, a lot of PMS, PMDS, PCOS and feel that you live a lifestyle with a lot of stress in various forms, an alternative could be to try excluding caffeine for a few cycles to see if you experience any difference. Many women have written to us and told us that when they cut out caffeine, they got rid of symptoms like PMS, cysts, migraines, got ovulation back, got a longer phase three and managed to get pregnant. While waiting for research to be done in this area, perhaps other women's own experiences might be enough to inspire them to try making a lifestyle change? If it makes no difference to you, the caffeine is always there!
So is caffeine good or bad for the menstrual cycle and hormones?
As we have touched on, caffeine is a hotly debated topic where research points to both positive and negative health effects, but research specifically regarding the relationship between our female sex hormones and the menstrual cycle is still lacking. Caffeine can have positive effects, but something more and more women have testified about through their own experiences is how caffeine can also lead to the opposite, especially when it is added to an already stressed body and lifestyle.
If you want to try an organic and caffeine-free alternative to coffee, we recommend checking out our Chicca Roast product.