Coffee Done Right – Tips to Help Avoid Coffee Intolerance

Also see:
Diet, nutrition, physical activity and liver cancer
Caffeine: A vitamin-like nutrient, or adaptogen by Ray Peat, PhD
Coffee Inhibit Iron Absorption
Low Blood Sugar Basics
Ray Peat, PhD on Low Blood Sugar & Stress Reaction
Stress – A Shifting of Resources
Sugar (Sucrose) Restrains the Stress Response
Hope for Hypoglycemia: It’s Not Your Mind, It’s Your Liver by Broda Barnes, MD, PhD
Chronic caffeine intake decreases circulating catecholamines and prevents diet-induced insulin resistance and hypertension in rats.

Potent Stimulator
Coffee is a potent metabolic stimulator and must be viewed as such. The caffeine in coffee is powerful and can act like thyroid to increase your metabolic rate and the oxidation of sugar, making it a health-protective food. Coffee also has supportive nutrients in the form of B vitamins and magnesium and is a welcome companion to meat-containing meals for adults since it helps inhibit iron absorption.

These characteristics make coffee a useful tool in your health toolbox provided that you’re taking the right steps to maximize effectiveness. This blog describes what to expect when you’re doing coffee the right way and offers a handful of tips to help if you’re “coffee intolerant.” The blog is written in the context of health promotion rather than one centered solely around body composition and fat loss.

Self Awareness
Symptoms to expect when you do coffee right are calmness, focus, motivation, warmth, and stable energy. Coffee done wrong leads to anxiety, shakiness, sweating, feeling wired, inability to focus, and sometimes cold extremities. Truthfully there is no right or wrong because whether you react well or not, the situation serves as a learning tool if you’re knowledgeable and aware enough to assess and correct the symptoms.

If you do get unfriendly symptoms from using coffee, stop what you’re doing as soon as possible and correct by eating or drinking something sweet like orange juice, honey, a ripe fruit, ice cream, or sweetened milk. This action will lower the symptom-producing substances by raising the blood sugar.

Stepping on the Gas Pedal
The metabolic stimulation from coffee ingestion increases the metabolism, which is very friendly, if the metabolic support is adequate. Metabolic stimulators must be matched with adequate metabolic support, especially adequate blood glucose. The common symptom of feeling anxious or shaky after coffee consumption is from a lack of support, which causes low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).

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When you drink coffee, the glucose in the bloodstream is used as the caffeine stimulates the body’s metabolism. Coffee is like stepping on the gas pedal in your car. When the fuel system delivers fuel to the engine in adequate amounts, the engine performs well and the car takes off in relation to the intensity of the pressure on the pedal. However, if the fuel system is faulty in some fashion, the engine sputters and is sluggish. For us, the inadequate support from our “fuel system” shows up as unfavorable symptoms as the stress response is activated.

Problems with coffee begin when our body cannot provide enough fuel for cells given the level of stimulation. If too much stimulation occurs, a stress alarm is signaled that mobilizes resources to provided energy to cells. Your body is saying, “we’ve got lots of stimulation going on here; we need to mobilize resources right now.”

The stress alarm’s basic function is to raise the blood sugar. This involves the release of glycogen from the liver under the direction of adrenaline and glucagon, and the conversion of the body’s protein (skin, muscles, thymus gland) into glucose using the liver’s help. Cortisol directs this conversion of protein into glucose. The liver is intimately involved in blood sugar regulation.

Stimulation Requires Support
Your goal is to avoid the stress alarm from inadequacy of support. The first basic rule is to have coffee with a meal. This delays entry of the caffeine into the bloodstream providing a time-release type effect. A meal is comprised of a protein from an animal and carbohydrate from a plant. Usually animal proteins also contain dietary fat, preferably saturated fat.

Secondly, add sugar or honey and milk, or sugar or honey and cream to the coffee as an additional buffer against low blood sugar. These step ensures that you are providing the fuel necessary to match the press of your metabolic gas pedal. The amounts of each added ingredient will vary from person to person and comes with practice. Keep in mind that the amounts can change over time and in relation to your mental or physical demands.

Thirdly, do not have coffee on an empty stomach or immediately upon waking. At these times, you likely do not have the support needed to match the stimulation. You want to avoid activating the stress systems, not encourage their activation through inappropriate choices. For those who wake and aren’t feeling hungry but have the habit of having coffee prior to eating anything, this practice tends to prolong the effects of blood-sugar relating stress hormones which preferably you want to decrease, and not increase, upon rising.

Lastly, be aware that the hotter the coffee is the more stimulating it tends to be. If you’re susceptible to low blood sugar from drinking hot coffee, follow the aforementioned rules in conjunction with drinking cooler coffee.

I’ve found that each person seems to have his/her cut-off time in regard to consuming coffee without affecting his/her sleep. When I have coffee after 5 pm, it affects my ability to fall asleep easily at night. Find out what time “last call” is for you through trial and error.


Coffee Intolerance
Your “coffee tolerance” can be used as a barometer to measure health progression or lack there of. If you improve your tolerance to coffee, you’re likely headed in the right direction nutritionally. If this doesn’t happen, it could be time to reassess your strategies.

When your coffee tolerance is poor, it might say that the liver is suffering and is not storing glycogen very well and can’t back you up efficiently (by releasing glycogen) when there is excessive stimulation from coffee. It could also be a signal that you’re not following one or more of the rules listed in the previous section of this blog.

Hypothyroidism increases susceptibility to low blood sugar because of the effects of thyroid hormone on the liver. Hypothyroid individuals can have coffee intolerance symptoms for this reason and sometimes need to show extra caution when drinking coffee. Broda Barnes’ book “Hypoglycemia: It’s Not Your Mind, It’s Your Liver” is an excellent resource to explore this topic further.

Going the extra mile is sometimes necessary for those that are really susceptible to over stimulation from coffee. One such step is adding a little coffee to milk/sugar instead of adding milk/sugar to coffee. As you improve, you will be able to handle more coffee and progressively be less dependent upon support — you will be able to press harder on the metabolic gas pedal. Another option is sipping a little coffee with support throughout the day so you get a little stimulation without it being excessive.

Improved tolerance to coffee may also be accompanied by improvement in other things like sleep quality, energy levels, digestion, cravings, time to fatigue, calmness, and duration that you can comfortably go between meals. As the metabolic rate rises from consistent coffee consumption, the need for all nutrient increases so a sensible diet should consist of foodstuff that offer dense nutrition with few digestive inhibitors (such as ripe fruits, milk, eggs, shellfish, beef liver) rather than nutrient deficient foods (such as pasta, bread, cereals, packaged foods) or hard to digest foods (like raw vegetables, beans, nuts, and legumes).


“Often, a woman who thinks that she has symptoms of hypoglycemia says that drinking even the smallest amount of coffee makes her anxious and shaky. Sometimes, I have suggested that they try drinking about two ounces of coffee with cream or milk along with a meal. It’s common for them to find that this reduces their symptoms of hypoglycemia, and allows them to be symptom-free between meals.

…In animal experiments that have been used to argue that pregnant women shouldn’t drink coffee, large doses of caffeine given to pregnant animals retarded the growth of the fetuses. But simply giving more sucrose prevented the growth retardation. Since caffeine tends to correct some of the metabolic problems that could interfere with pregnancy, it is possible that rationally constructed experiments could show benefits to the fetus from the mother’s use of coffee, for example by lowering bilirubin and serotonin, preventing hypoglycemia, increasing uterine perfusion and progesterone synthesis, synergizing with thyroid and cortisol to promote lung maturation, and providing additional nutrients.” -Ray Peat, PhD

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29 Responses

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  1. Sharon says

    Thanks so much for this article.
    I was afraid to start in with coffee but when I did it the right way, I had no jitters or speedy feelings at all. I was more of a hot raw cocoa gal, but now I barely crave that as a beverage. Cocoa used to speed me quite a bit (I didn’t always have it with food but I did add coconut milk or cream). Coffee, done right, does not speed me very much. I’m going to start drinking it later in the morning or at lunch because I agree that it makes sense not to tamper with an already high cortisol in the early morning.

  2. Jesse says

    This is an excellent summary of how to properly have coffee and experience the up side without so much of the downside. I was never a coffee drinker, because it made me anxious and jittery, but I started drinking coffee a year ago, and have been using a similar protocol to the one you describe, after reading some of Ray Peat’s work. It’s been a huge help for me in improving body temperature, energy, and mood. Thanks for the article.

  3. Sharon says

    I went hunting and found this article on coffee.
    I use a French Press so I wonder if I’m harming myself as my LDL is already high enough.
    They also claim that coffee affects homocysteine in a negative way.

  4. Team FPS says

    Since caffeine is protective against liver damage, I suspect that cafestol and kahweol are not having a toxic effect on the liver (allowing the liver to form cholesterol) although I haven’t studied cafestol and kahweol directly to determine that for sure.

    What the mainstream and most physicians knows about cholesterol is the marketing campaign of the pharmaceutical companies. High LDL is a marker for low thyroid function. Several articles on this blog provide insight into that concept. Homocysteine is elevated in hypothyroidism (see second link for resources).

    High Cholesterol and Metabolism

    Thyroid Status and Cardiovascular Disease

    The Cholesterol and Thyroid Connection

    The Truth about Low Cholesterol

    Cholesterol, longevity, intelligence, and health

    Caffeine: A vitamin-like nutrient, or adaptogen

  5. cv says

    Knowing that I had very little tolerance to coffee, I tried 1 tablespoon of a weak brew in about 4 ounces of goat milk (I’m allergic to cow’s milk) with a generous amount of honey. This gave me the runs so I dialed it back to 1/2 of a tablespoon then gradually increased it to 1 tablespoon again. The good news: no stomach upset or diarrhea. The bad news: it seems to be disrupting my sleep.

    A couple months prior to the coffee experiment I had been drinking goat milk and honey before bed, followed by a coconut oil chaser. That really seemed to turn down the volume on the adrenalin/cortisol wakings but now the wakings are nearly as bad as they were before.

    Any suggestions? Unfortunately, repeating the milk and honey during the night disturbs my digestion, which not surprisingly, is extremely sluggish–which is why I’m so interested in getting the coffee to work. Thanks in advance for any advice you might have!

  6. Wojciech Majda says

    Thanks for this post. I was drinking coffee in the morning (with coconut oil and a lot of sugar), initially I felt good, but approximately 3-4 hours after drinking I tend to have symptoms of low blood sugar.

  7. Richard Cunningham says

    My experience has been quite different. If I put even a tinge of sugar in, I will immediately fall asleep. Coffee does not interfere with my sleep at all. The coffee does help prevent my blood sugar from dropping.p

  8. Parsifall says

    What do you think about genes analysis like 23andme where they say we can have genes of caffeine intolerance (slow caffeine metabolizer)?

  9. Lisa Fonseca says

    How will this affect me if I have insulin resistance/pre-diabetes? I have stopped eating all refined sugars and glutens about 2 months ago. I was following a ketogenic diet and it seemed to help my blood sugar reading that it may hurt my metabolism, I’ve added in fruits and healthy carbs. I’m still learning about food and drink choices.

  10. Julie says

    I get really bad symptoms about 12 to 16 hours after consumption. I’m very productive on the days I have coffee, but sometimes between 9pm and 1am, I feel restless, my heart is racing, my belly gets full of air, my hands are not shaking when you look at them, but on the inside, I feel like they are. Sometimes I can also get really cold to the point of shivering and teeth chattering.

    It usually lasts for a bit less than an hour. I might go to the bathroom 2 or 3 times in that period. Then I feel really hungry, I eat and maybe another hour or 2 later I’ll be able to go to bed.

    So if I have coffee at 9am, it ends up keeping my awake until about 4 or 5am the next day.

    Is that what coffee intolerance is, or is that completely different?

  11. Carson says

    Great Article.

    I think ray’s favourite food milk is perfect to pair with coffee. It provides protein carb and fat.
    Latte’s anyone? :)

  12. Carson says

    Note – Caffeine is cleared from the bloodstream at the latest 6 hours after consumption in most cases.
    So if you have coffee at 6 the caffeine is there till 12.
    That should help people determine a cut off point.

  13. chris says

    do you think that having a calcium source like yogurt shortly after having a coffee would help with keeping my blood sugar normalized for hours after, without suffering from the sugar lows that typically follow the transient sugar high of a coffee?

    Thanks in advance

  14. Carson says

    Mention not having coffee in the morning. before eating.
    But, ive been having a glass of regular milk with instant coffee added. (kinda like a latte).
    That would be proper in slowing the absorption would it not? or is just avoid all caffeine in the morning?


  15. Sau yi says

    Thanks for this article. I was starting to think I had diabetes. But your article accurately describes all my symptoms.

  16. Serena says

    Great article. I’ve been having ‘panic attacks’ lately but I feel it’s low blood sugar from an endocrine system not functioning properly.

  17. Team FPS says

    I think they do a good job of pretending they have this gene thing sorted out.

  18. Team FPS says

    Improved cellular energy leads to cellular relaxation and more efficient energy use. Try having the coffee with a meal and see if your symptoms change at all.

  19. Team FPS says

    Try eating just before hour three and keep the blood sugar and cell metabolism train rolling!

  20. Team FPS says

    Try adding some salt to your night-time cocktail, and minimize meat consumption later in the day. I have other suggestions for sleep quality here:

    10 Tips for Better Sleep

    More context on your daytime food intake would help, but it’s apparent that eating easily digested food will be important for you. Your daytime blood sugar regulation and caloric/mineral intake will setup your nocturnal sleep quality for better or worse. Keep in mind your prior context that created the sluggish bowel and intestinal concerns. These concerns may not turn around quickly depending upon how long they have been present and how long they took to develop.

    Don’t forget the value of the raw carrot salad to help minimize liver stress. If you’re not already having the coffee exposure with a meal I suggest doing so. I make gummies that I can eat if I were to wake up during the night. The gelatin and sugar are sleep inducing and easy on the digestive tract. Here is a sample recipe:

    Valentine’s Day Strawberry Gummies’s-day-strawberry-gummies/

  21. Team FPS says

    Sugar for diabetics is friendly in a variety of ways. Starches are not, however, since they affect the blood sugar more steeply than do disaccharides like sucrose (white sugar). The ketogenic diet is a dead end approach to wellness.

    The combination of a meal with sugar/milk/coffee or sugar/coffee will help your cells re-establish glucose use. Free fatty acids are heavily implicated in insulin resistance and diabetes. Educate yourself on the matter using these links.

    The Randle Cycle

    Ray Peat, PhD Quotes on Therapeutic Effects of Niacinamide

    Since women are more likely to be diabetic than men, it’s important to note that hormones (like estrogen) can make a person diabetic by releasing free fatty acids, blocking glucose use, and causing the blood sugar to be high. Your individual context needs to be discovered and corrected since there are several routes that can lead a person to a diabetic diagnoses.

    Women, Estrogen, and Circulating DHA

    Dr. Peat has some absolutely tremendous articles on diabetes. I suggest reading them thoroughly.

    Sugar issues

    Glucose and sucrose for diabetes

    Glycemia, starch, and sugar in context

  22. Team FPS says

    That’s exactly what that is. Your describing perfectly the symptoms of high adrenaline. I hope the article’s contents help you correct the issue and give your cells what they’re looking for to make you feel well again.

  23. Team FPS says

    That could be a starter guideline, but the efficiency of the liver is person specific as many variables are at play such as age and gender.

  24. Team FPS says

    Yogurt wouldn’t be my first choice because it’s lactic acid content can cause hypoglycemia in some people. Maybe try some cottage cheese or cheese instead. Secondly, a meal in my opinion is the combination of an animal based food (like yogurt) with a plant based food (like a ripe fruit). This combination will activate the digestive function most intensely and simultaneously help you regulate blood sugar most effectively. Lastly, I would have the meal prior to the coffee or with the coffee as this helps prime the bloodstream with the glucose necessary to handle the metabolic stimulation from the coffee while also slowing the entry of the caffeine into the bloodstream due to the presence of other foods in the digestive tract.

  25. Team FPS says

    It could be sufficient for some people to feel well and energized. Your individual response will tell you whether you’ve made a good choice.

    I caution use a metabolic stimulant first thing because glycogen is usually low (which is a reason why you wake up in the morning — body knows time to eat because we are running low on fuel) so you stimulate the engine without ample fuel and your cells could stutter. The healthier you are the less likely that the combination you mentioned will cause problems.

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