What is a Coffee Cleanse and How Do They Work?

Published October 15, 2020 | Published by Daisy Cabral

Using coffee for its health benefits is nothing new. The roasted bean is packed with nutrients that, unfortunately, are often smothered away with cream, sugar, and syrups. Drinking pure coffee, though – nothing more than water and brewed coffee – might have some surprising quirks.

The Health Benefits of Coffee

Coffee isn't exactly a miracle cure, but it's a lot healthier than its reputation might lead you to believe. The trouble is, when people talk about coffee, they might be talking about two very different things. 

On the one hand, you have straight coffee. Brewed black (coffee without any cream or sugar and no other additives) is essentially like tea. It's water with flavor and nutrients brewed into it. There's nothing in it to even give you calories, let alone negative nutrients.

On the other hand, you have coffee beverages. The vaguely coffee-flavored drinks you get at Starbucks (made more out of milk and whipped cream than coffee) are much worse for you. They're essentially just cups full of sugar, are very high calorie, and have little or none of the health benefits of coffee left in them.

Needless to say, when we talk about a coffee cleanse, we're talking about using straight coffee. So what benefits does straight coffee have when you drink it?

  • Improved energy levels. The caffeine content in coffee is a stimulant, and that gives you additional energy for a while after you drink it. Sure, there are downsides to caffeine – we'll discuss them later – but there's no denying the energy boost.
  • Improved brain function. Caffeine has been very well studied over the years, and it has been proven to increase brain function in various ways. This includes vigilance, attention, mood, concentration, and reaction times.
  • Fat burning. Coffee is well known to be a fat burner. It boosts your body's passive metabolism slightly, and it helps you get more out of the effort you put into things like working out.
  • Improved physical performance. Coffee stimulates breaking fat down into energy, and it increases the epinephrine in your blood. Epinephrine is the "fight or flight" hormone, and it prepares your body for intense physical activity. Thus, you're more prepared to perform.
  • Reduced risk of diabetes. Several systemic studies have shown that regular consumption of black coffee reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, by anywhere from 7% to 67%.

On top of those proven benefits, there are a handful of "maybes" that science hasn't fully proven, but which might be true. These include several brain benefits, such as protection against Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, and the potential to reduce the risk of certain cancers. Now, a coffee cleanse isn't going to cure cancer, but it's possible that long-term coffee drinking can lower your risk for certain cancers.

It's no wonder that people want to get more coffee in their diets. The trick is just drinking enough, especially when you're not particularly a fan of the dark roasted black coffee that seems common everywhere. Don't worry; we'll give you some more information on that later.

How a Coffee Cleanse Works

Now let's get to the meat of the issue. If you've looked up coffee cleanses before, you might have seen some… interesting results, shall we say. Essentially, there are three ways to do a coffee cleanse, and one of them tends to dominate the search results.

First up is a supplement cleanse. There are coffee capsules you can take that pile in the benefits of coffee without the flavor or any of the rest of the cleanse. We don't consider these a "coffee cleanse", but some people like to try it and even prefer coffee capsules to drinking their coffee.

Second is the coffee enema. This is a kind of coffee "cleanse" or colonic that involves using a coffee enema to flush out the lower digestive system. The idea is that this process can remove stuck toxins in your intestines without altering your overall diet.

This method of cleansing was developed around 100 years ago, and there's not much evidence that it does anything real for you. Like any enema, it can relieve some forms of constipation, and chances are your intestines will absorb some of the nutrients from the coffee, but that's about it. It doesn't really "cleanse" anything.

The third method is a more traditional cleanse, similar to a juice cleanse. You go on a harsh low-calorie or no-calorie diet and focus on eating little or nothing besides coffee. You might have a short-term zero-calorie diet meant to jolt your system into resetting itself, or you might have a low-calorie diet that emphasizes foods that pass through you quickly, to dislodge solids and clean out your system.

Cleanses in general aren't necessarily a hugely beneficial medical procedure, and they do have some side effects. That said, any time you fast for an extended length of time, especially if you take a stimulant like caffeine along with it, you're likely to lose some weight.

The general "meal plan" for a coffee cleanse is a 2-week system where you drink at least three cups of black coffee per day. You limit your food otherwise. You'll have something like a single green smoothie and a couple of small snacks, like a handful of almonds or a quarter of a cantaloupe. Keeping your overall caloric intake low, plus the stimulant nature of coffee, gives you enough nutrients to keep yourself alive, but a low enough intake to lose weight.

Whether or not this detoxes your body, well, that's another story. A "coffee detox" isn't really a real thing; it's just the process your liver and kidneys do to filter your blood. A coffee cleanse can potentially help lighten the load on your liver, and coffee may support liver health, but beyond that, your organs do most of the heavy lifting.

There are a handful of benefits though, which leads us to the next section:

The Purported Benefits of Coffee Cleansing

A coffee cleanse supposedly has a handful of tangible benefits. Some of them are very real and positive, and some have a more subtle effect. Let's look at the rundown.

Weight loss. First of all, the main reason a lot of people invest in a coffee cleanse is the weight loss documented in people using them. This post, for example, mentions a woman who lost 15 pounds in three weeks. It's hard to argue that a coffee cleans won't cause weight loss, after all, since it's simple math. If you eat fewer calories than you burn in a day, you lose weight. A coffee cleanse is accompanied by a dramatic reduction in daily calories, which will naturally result in you losing weight.

Detoxification. Any cleanse, whether it's implicit or explicit, has the message that it "cleans" your body. What it cleans out of you, and how it does it, is often left unsaid. The trouble is, you're not necessarily cleaning anything. Your body has natural processes that handle cleaning on their own. When you eat food, nutrients are processed and contaminants are expelled as waste. Anything that makes it past digestion and ends up in your blood is filtered out by your kidneys and liver and summarily expelled. 

What does a coffee cleanse add to this process? Coffee includes compounds that are laxative/diuretic, which aids in expelling waste. Coffee may also have some benefits to support the liver, but it also might hurt the kidneys if you're drinking it in excess. Lower caloric intake means fewer "toxins" coming in, but that's not sustainable. After all, sooner or later, the cleanse ends. Unless you're dealing with other issues, that will happen naturally on its own. Make sure you're not exceeding the daily recommended intake of coffee

Coffee benefits. We listed the benefits of coffee up above, and yeah, you'll get those benefits when you drink coffee during a cleanse. They aren't enhanced compared to just drinking coffee as part of your daily ritual, though, so it's hard to say how effective it is as part of a cleanse. It's mostly just there to keep the benefits going while you crash diet, not to provide any effects above and beyond drinking coffee normally.

So, while coffee cleanses may have some benefits in weight loss, and the health benefits of drinking coffee, it's not significantly different from other diet plans that let you drink coffee.

People With Coffee and Caffeine Sensitivities

We haven't exactly been super positive on coffee cleanses up to this point, and it's entirely because of what we'll mention in this section. As it turns out, pumping your body full of stimulants while reducing the amount of food you eat to near-starvation levels isn't always a healthy choice!

First and foremost, caffeine. Caffeine is the elephant in the room. It's a stimulant with powerful effects on the body, both positive and negative. Coffee indeed has all of those benefits mentioned above, but the caffeine can also cause some issues in sensitive individuals:

  • Arrhythmia, an off-beat malfunction of the heart that can be anxiety-inducing, occasionally painful, and sometimes dangerous.
  • Taking a regular dose of a stimulant will affect your sleep, so you have to be careful to limit your coffee to early in the day to avoid disrupting your schedule.
  • Coffee is a diuretic, and it doesn't actually do much to hydrate you because of it. You need to drink a ton of water to avoid dehydration during a cleanse.
  • Kidney issues. A primarily liquid diet including large amounts of coffee can do a lot of damage to your kidneys, and that can potentially be dangerous. Never attempt any long term liquid-only diets without the supervision of a doctor. 

And, of course, caffeine tolerance is a real thing. Caffeine only works as long as you take enough to surpass your tolerance, and that can quickly grow to dangerous levels. A coffee cleanse works best if you're not a regular coffee drinker; if you are, it can leave you grouchy and irritable with no tangible benefits beyond the potential weight loss.

Tips for Enjoying Coffee

If you want to embark on a coffee cleanse, or simply pick up a coffee habit for the health benefits of the drink, you're probably going to encounter the stereotype that black coffee is dark, bitter, and unpleasant. And, the truth is, that's correct. Plain black coffee, especially the stuff you get at a grocery store or fast food joint, is typically burned beyond all recognition.

More importantly, dark roasted coffee is worse than light or "lean" roasts. Light roasts keep many of the nutrients, phenols, and other compounds intact. Dark roasts burn away a lot of those benefits and leave you with a bitter tasting coffee. In fact, even the bitterness comes from the dark roast; a light roast is less bitter and a lot more flavorful, and also has more caffeine. If you're sensitive to caffeine and prefer the bitterness, you may like dark roasts better. 

So, here are our tips for enjoying coffee as part of a cleanse.

  • Skip the pre-ground stuff you buy in bags. Grinding your own coffee beans is the only way to ensure that you get the freshest, most flavorful coffee in every brew. Pre-ground coffee lets a lot of the good flavor evaporate away, while the bitterness remains. You'll want to buy a good coffee grinder to handle your beans each morning, too.
  • Find a source of good quality beans. There are dozens if not hundreds of companies out there selling excellent coffee beans with a nice, light roast these days. We're not saying you should buy green beans and roast them yourself, of course; but look for a good, reputable source.
  • Consider investing in a good coffee machine. A Chemex, a French Press, or even a standard drip coffee maker is usually the way to go. Those fancy Keurigs and so on are a lot more difficult to use with good coffee.
  • Don't be afraid to use cream in moderation. Start with enough cream to make your coffee enjoyable, and slowly reduce the amount you add each cup until you stop entirely. Even a light roast black coffee is still a difficult flavor to enjoy if you're not already a fan.

And, of course, make sure to balance your nutrition for the rest of your cleanse. Drink plenty of water, eat enough calories of healthy food to survive, and try to pivot into a healthier diet overall when you're done.

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