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Chinese Culture >> Chinese Medicine Health >> Coffee, Chinese Medicine Perspective

Coffee: Chinese Medicine Perspective

How should one of the most (if not the most) widely consumed decoction worldwide be evaluated from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective?

To discuss coffee's classification into traditional Chinese medicine energetics I prefer to look at its actions and side effects. Increased alertness/energy, diuretic, diaphoretic, and purgative. The last three are easy to classify as drain dampness, resolve exterior and mild purgative. Classifying increased energy I think can mistakenly be classified as a Qi tonic. I mention mistakenly as I do not see coffee having any supplementing energies. If it were supplementing like Ren Shen or Huang Qi then I would expect over time that coffee would build your Qi and stamina. This is not the case. Once the effect of coffee wears off you are tired again and often more tired needing more coffee. I think coffee is borrowing from your jing and this is experienced as an increase in energy. Over time continuous coffee consumption will deplete your Jing and causes more fatigue. Bob Flaws explains how coffee can cause the stirring of ministerial fire giving you a sense of increased energy.

To Quote Bob Flaws: It is also possible for ministerial fire to stir frenetically simply due to too much stirring. This means mental-emotional, verbal, and/or physical stirring. All stirring or movement is the expression of the activity of yang qi, and all the yang qi of the body is rooted in the life gate fire. Stirring consumes yang qi at the same time as it transforms and consumes yin essence. In particular, stirring of heart and/or liver fire due to emotional stress, excitement and anger or the stirring of excessive sexual desire and activity may stir ministerial fire to flame upward and become hyperactive above. Last but not least, many so-called recreational drugs which are acrid, warm, up bearing, out-thrusting, and scattering may also cause upward stirring of ministerial fire. - This includes marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, opiods, and hallucinogens. It also includes coffee, alcohol, and tobacco.

Bob Flaws has referenced from somewhere that coffee is acrid, warm, up bearing, out-thrusting, and scattering. My question is how does this description explain the diuretic and purgative affect?

Coffee is acrid, warm, up bearing, out-thrusting, and scattering may also cause upward stirring of ministerial fire according to Bob Flaws. Knowing Bob, he came to this conclusion through detailed analysis and appropriate references to respected Chinese medicine sources and journals.

This description explains how it can give a sense of increased energy and act as a diaphoretic. Any comments how the traditional Chinese medicine classification of Coffee above explains the purgative and diuretic effect?

According to traditional Chinese medicine herbal theory, which channel(s) do(es) coffee have an affinity for? This is often a contentious subject within traditional Chinese medicine since many of the main effects of coffee are related to its ability to affect the mind (i.e. inducing wakefulness and insomnia, reducing anxiety, and enhancing cognition). And since, according to traditional Chinese medicine, the mind is housed in the heart, it may appear that coffee is primarily directed to the heart channel. However, it is in my opinion that the tropism of coffee is primarily the liver, secondarily for the heart, and kidneys. The five-element theory illustrates the effect that coffee has on these three channels/organs. The liver over taxes from its mother element, the kidneys. In turn, the liver generates excessively with its child element, the heart.

I agree that coffee's flavor is predominantly acrid and that its energy is very warm. Acrid herbs that enter the Liver act to up bear (another example is chai hu). Chai hu is acrid and cool, and it up bears qi. Coffee is acrid and warm and seemingly up bears the yang. This up bearing of yang is transferred to the heart where it arouses the mind, which leads to wakefulness, or insomnia, etc.

It is difficult to fit coffee neatly into a Chinese herbal category. It appears that coffee regulates the qi, while at the same time warms the interior. Generally, acrid herbs for releasing the exterior have affinities for the lung (the most superficial organ), or the bladder (the most superficial channel, taiyang). Even though coffee is considered to possess diaphoretic and diuretic actions, I do not think coffee has affinities for either the lung or bladder, and therefore would not be a particularly effective herb for releasing the exterior. Nor does coffee conform to the downward draining purgatives and laxatives categories, despite promoting bowel movements.

The grounds for coffee's diaphoretic, diuretic, and purgative actions are less orthodox. From extensive self-experimentation, I understand that the diaphoretic action of coffee is a property that relates to coffee overdose. That is, an excessive consumption of coffee brings about diaphoresis, along with a host of other adverse effects: jitters (stirring of liver wind), and anxiety (disturbed mind). Diaphoresis and anxiety occur when coffee's dispersing action excessively diffuses heart qi. The diuretic and purgative actions for the most part stem from the over taxation of the kidney and less so from any direct action on the fu organs. This seems a reasonable explanation, since the kidney controls the lower two orifices (1).

A thorough TCM evaluation of coffee is available at:

(1) Maciocia, G., The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, Churchill Livingstone, 1998, pp. 98.

About the Author:

Ryan Mader practices Chinese medicine and acupuncture at Acubalance Wellness Centre in Vanocuver BC Canada. He writes regularly on a weblog about Chinese medicine and acupuncture related topics. More TCM info