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What is functional coffee and can it help your gut and mental health?




So far 2024 has been the year of the wellness trend with everything from our workouts to our lunches being given a healthier overhaul.

The latest fad causing a buzz on the social media block involves stirring some wellbeing benefits into our morning caffeine hit and switching up a flat white for a functional coffee.

In basic terms a functional coffee is the Joe you know and love, but with an added blend of adaptogens, natural substances known for their ability to help the body adapt to stress and promote balance.

"Functional coffee takes your morning brew to the next level by infusing it with additional ingredients like adaptogens, herbs, or supplements, aiming to offer more than just a caffeine boost," explains nutritionist, Lara Buckle from www.thewellnessdetective.co.uk.

And it is proving pretty popular amongst wellness devotees on social media with the global market for functional coffee expected to grow by 5.9% per year until 2027.

Even Meghan Markle has hinted at her interest in the trend having recently made a surprise cameo in a new advert for Clevr, a California-based wellness coffee company she invested in three years ago.

But there are other reasons functional coffee is causing a stir right now (literally!).

"The recent surge in functional coffee's popularity can be attributed to a growing emphasis on holistic wellness," explains Buckle. "As people become more health-conscious, they're seeking beverages that not only taste good but also provide tangible health benefits."

Of course, as with many of the wellness gimmicks fuelled by TikTok, experts often advise they should be taken with a spoonful of skepticism, so is sipping a functional coffee the wellbeing-boosting switch up your body really needs or is the jury still out on the benefits?

 

What is functional coffee?

Unlike traditional coffee, functional coffee is formulated to support specific health goals beyond simply waking you up.

"It's often enriched with various ingredients such as adaptogens, antioxidants, and prebiotics, for their potential to enhance overall wellbeing," explains Buckle. "This makes it a preferred choice for those looking to elevate their coffee experience while supporting their health."

Some popular varieties of functional coffee include:

  • Mushroom coffee: Infused with medicinal mushrooms like chaga or reishi, known for their immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Collagen coffee: Contains collagen peptides, which may support skin health, joint function, and gut health.

  • Keto coffee: Formulated with ingredients like MCT oil or butter, catering to those following a ketogenic diet and aiming to promote sustained energy levels and fat burning.

 

What are the potential health benefits of functional coffee?

Buckle says that with a cup of functional coffee, we can enjoy the ritual of our favourite brew while also reaping the benefits of additional ingredients, which could help to promote better health, both physical and mental.

 

These plus points could include:

Improved gut health

Prebiotic content: Many functional coffees contain prebiotic fibres such as inulin, which serve as food for beneficial gut bacteria. "These fibres promote the growth of probiotics, helping to maintain a healthy balance of gut flora," Buckle explains.

Digestive enzymes: According to Buckle some functional coffees may include digestive enzymes like amylase, protease, and lipase, which can aid in the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, potentially reducing digestive discomfort.

Reduced inflammation: Buckle says ingredients like turmeric and ginger, commonly found in functional coffees, possess anti-inflammatory properties that may soothe gut inflammation and support overall gut health.

 

Enhanced mental wellbeing

Adaptogens: Functional coffees often contain adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha and rhodiola, which help the body adapt to stress and promote a sense of calmness. "By modulating the stress response, adaptogens may alleviate symptoms of anxiety and improve mood," Buckle explains.

Cognitive function: Ingredients like lion's mane mushroom extract have been studied for their potential cognitive benefits. "They may enhance memory, focus, and overall cognitive function, contributing to better mental clarity and productivity," Buckle adds.

Antioxidants: Coffee itself is rich in antioxidants, which have neuroprotective effects. "Antioxidants help combat oxidative stress in the brain, which is associated with cognitive decline and mood disorders," Buckle says.

 

Balanced energy levels

Caffeine modulation: Functional coffees may contain alternative sources of caffeine such as green tea extract or yerba mate, which provide a smoother energy boost compared to regular coffee. "This can prevent the jitters and crashes often associated with high doses of caffeine," Buckle adds.

Blood sugar regulation: Buckle says ingredients like cinnamon and chromium, sometimes added to functional coffees, may help stabilise blood sugar levels, reducing energy spikes and crashes throughout the day.

 

Is there a functional coffee catch?

Before you vow to ditch the frappuccino for the functional, it's worth considering that while there appears to be some anecdotally reported health benefits to the pimped-up brews, further studies are needed to fully confirm the potential plus points.

According to some experts the relatively few studies on adaptogens in humans often lack randomisation, recruit only healthy people, and some don’t specify the dose of the herb that was tested.

"It is also important to note that individual responses may vary, and more research is needed to fully understand the synergistic effects of these ingredients in functional coffee formulations," explains Buckle.

And of course, as with anything, there are some risk factors to consider, especially when functional coffee is consumed in excess or by certain groups:-

  • Increased anxiety and insomnia: Functional coffees often contain caffeine, which can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and disrupt sleep patterns, particularly when consumed in large quantities or close to bedtime.

  • Heart palpitations and increased heart rate: Excessive caffeine intake can lead to palpitations, rapid heart rate, and even arrhythmias in susceptible individuals.

  • Gastrointestinal distress, including acid reflux and heartburn: The acidity of coffee, combined with added ingredients like MCT oil or high doses of caffeine, can exacerbate symptoms of acid reflux and heartburn, particularly in individuals with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

  • Diarrhoea and digestive discomfort: Certain additives in functional coffees, such as sugar alcohols or high doses of prebiotic fibres, may cause gastrointestinal upset, bloating, and diarrhoea in sensitive individuals.

 

If you're thinking about giving them a go, Buckle advises consulting with a healthcare professional before making significant dietary changes or incorporating functional coffee into your routine.

 

Source: Marie-Claire Dorking, Yahoo News UK

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