In the Western world—at least when I was growing up—alternative medicine was seen as exactly that: alternative. Even the phrasing of it centers Western medicine as the main, accepted method. Relying on centuries of botanical development and knowledge using plants and herbs wasn’t seen as modern, and western culture positioned these understandings as unscientific, foreign, different.

You may sip on coffee for pleasure or the caffeine hit. But for some people, coffee has always been medicine.

One could argue that if you get a caffeine headache after skipping your morning coffee, you also use coffee as a medicine of sorts. But I’m not here to debate contemporary research articles on coffee’s health benefits. Instead, I want us to look closer at the history of coffee as a medicine, and understand how this intertwines with coffee culture as we know it today.

Early coffee usage was tied to religion. The Oromo people of Ethiopia use coffee in religious ceremonies and as medicine; the Kaldi-and-goat story describes a monk drinking coffee to stay awake for prayers; and Sufi mystics also used it to energize themselves for evening prayers.

All parts of coffee the plant and the various subsequent preparations of its cherries have a notable presence for the Oromo people and one of their religions, Waaqeffannaa. “Oromo people have been utilizing coffee from time immemorial, and the art of preparing coffee is a central element in their every-day cultural practices,” writes Bula Sirika Wayessa in a study on traditional coffee use among the Oromo people. “In the society, coffee has always been used as a medicine, a food and a beverage, as well as in ritual performances.”

It is mainly used to treat discomfort and illness, like a headache, and is also carried on long journeys in case someone starts feeling ill. If someone has an injury, the wounded area is sprinkled with coffee powder and covered with a croton leaf. The same powder, when mixed with honey, treats diarrhea. Wayessa continues, “Moreover, coffee is viewed as a preventive medicine that protects people from any illness and the smoke produced from its burning is said to kill vectors and eliminate any cause of sickness. It is also believed that the smoke goes to and appeases the spirit (ayyaana) that guard as person’s well being.”

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Early medical texts in the 9th–11th centuries showed Islamic physician Rhazes describing coffee as “hot and dry and very good for the stomach,” and Islamic doctor Avicenna wrote about “coffee as coming from Yemen and, expanding on Rhazes, explained that it ‘fortifies the members, cleans the skin, and dries up the humidities that are under it, and gives an excellent smell to all the body.’” A handful of centuries later, coffee was in full use by Yemeni Sufis to stay awake for a night of prayers. These gatherings laid the foundations of the first coffeehouses in Yemen. “A coffeehouse was often one of the first things Ottoman empires build upon conquering a new city, ‘to demonstrate the civility of their rule,’” writes Augustine Sedgewick in the book Coffeeland.

But before we look at how coffee was prescribed as medicine in Europe, we need to rewind to the first century. Originating from Ancient Greek by Hippocrates and Galen, the humoral medical theory detailed that each human body had an individual mix of four fluids, or “humors”: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Health issues arose when the humors became imbalanced. Because every food had its own humoral affiliation—hot, cold, dry, or moist—it was given as a prescription of sorts to treat whichever humor went out of sync.

The humoral theory stayed for over a millennia and then became challenged when new foods were introduced. As coffee, tea, and chocolate were brought in from different parts of the world, doctors were divided over how to categorize them, writes Lorraine Boissoneault. “Some physicians viewed the drink as having a heating effect. Others claimed coffee cooled the body by drying up certain fluids (an early acknowledgement of coffee as a diuretic).” If a single food item had multiple forms and qualities, then what did that mean for the humoral system?

In the early 1600s, coffee was announced as curing alcoholism in England, in addition to all sorts of ailments like preventing and curing gout and scurvy, headaches and stomachaches, and miscarriages. “It is observed that in Turkey, where this is generally drunk, that they are not trobled with the Stone, Gout, Dropsie, or Scurvey, and that their Skins are exceeding clear and white,” proclaims Pasqua Rosée, who opened the first coffee shop in London, in a 1652 handbill advertisement.

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Noted Islamic physician Dawud Al-Antaki wrote in the 16th century (translated in 1659) on “The Nature of the drink Kauhi, or Coffe,” that coffee was used to treat coughs and diseases: “When it is dried and throughly boyled, it allayes the ebullition of the blood, is good against the small poxe and measles, and bloudy pimples.”

Elsewhere in the world, coffee reached China in the 19th century, but the Rubiaceae plant family it belongs to had long been documented in Chinese herbal medicine. “Unroasted and green coffee bean is used to move constrained liver qi and has a cooling property. It also energetically enters the gallbladder and can disperse stagnant qi.” explains Dr. Paige Yang, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine. “When roasted, as we commonly know coffee beans to be in the West, it then becomes a warming herb that adds heat to the body.” Here, as in other cases of coffee being used as medicine, it is not consumed in large quantities, but rather in “in a complete formulation alongside other herbs to treat the patterns of disease found through differential diagnosis.”

coffee medicine dr paige yang
Dr. Paige Yang.

The Oromo people and Chinese medicine are still around today, and the concept of coffee as medicine is not lost to history books. There are people like Daniel Brown of Gilly Brew Bar in Atlanta, who shared with Sprudge a few years ago about elixirs, “Your grandmother may have made you chicken soup; for me, in my family, we saw coffee and tea as a kind of medicine, and I wanted to choose a word that would help express and embed that in people’s heads.” He added, “We also want to express that it is a medicinal product, that can be healing to your soul. And the storytelling is all a part of that.”

This was but a brief foray into coffee’s medicinal history—I hope that telling the story of coffee’s roots inspire you to explore this area more deeply.

Jenn Chen (@thejennchen) is an Editor At Large at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jenn Chen on Sprudge.

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