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The Benefits Of Coffee – Other Than Keeping You Awake At Work
This article has been written by experts and fact-checked by experts, including licensed nutritionists, dietitians or medical professionals. The information in the article is based on scientific studies and research.
It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
The scientific references in this article (marked by 1, 2, 3, etc.) are clickable links to peer-reviewed research material on the subject being discussed.
Americans drink a lot of coffee. About 3.5 billion pounds each year.
62% of us drink coffee every day. 70% drink it at least once per week.
The average American, in fact, drinks more than three cups of coffee per day.
The integration of Starbucks deeply into our everyday lives certainly has something to do with that. Worldwide, Starbucks sells four million coffee drinks each day, and the United States is – by far – their biggest market. And Dunkin’ sells even more coffee than that.
But we were all drinking coffee long before three guys went into the coffee business in Seattle back in 1971. For that matter, America loved coffee long before the first Dunkin’ Donuts opened in 1950.
We drink coffee to wake up. We drink it to stay awake at work. We drink it as the perfect way to finish a terrific meal. We drink it to sober up after a long night – or to help get over the hangover the next morning.
And, needless to say, we drink it because it’s the ultimate “social beverage.”
Not many of us drink coffee specifically because of its many health benefits. But we probably should.
The Health Benefits of Coffee: Caffeine-Related
Many, but not all, of coffee’s benefits can be attributed to its high caffeine content.
There’s twice as much caffeine in coffee made from robusta beans as there is in brews made from Arabica coffee beans. Espresso contains much more caffeine, per ounce, than brewed coffee. There’s more caffeine in cold brew than in regular coffee, but there’s slightly less in instant coffee. And there’s really no difference between light, medium and dark roasts. (Diluting black coffee with milk or cream will obviously affect the amount of caffeine you consume in each cup.)
The type of coffee you drink may somewhat affect the benefits – but as long as you’re not drinking decaffeinated coffee, you’ll be benefiting greatly from that delicious cup of joe.
Be honest. If someone asked you about coffee’s #1 benefit, health and wellness wouldn’t even come to mind. You’d say that coffee wakes you up. (Or keeps you up when you’re tired.)
Needless to say, that’s because of the caffeine in coffee.
Caffeine occurs naturally in a number of plants, but don’t let that fool you. Caffeine is a drug. More specifically, it’s a powerful central nervous system stimulant.
Caffeine keeps you awake because it’s able to interact with the brain’s adenosine receptors. The biochemical messenger adenosine normally binds with those receptors, carrying messages that tell the body to become tired. More and more adenosine is produced during the day, which is why we get more and tired as the day wears on.
That is, until caffeine gets involved. When it interacts with adenosine receptors, it blocks adenosine from reaching them to deliver their “you are getting very sleepy” messages. As a result, it feels like caffeine wakes us up – even though what it’s really doing is preventing us from getting tired.
That explains one element of coffee’s ability to jolt us awake and keep us going. But what about the energizing effect that a cup of coffee (or two) can deliver? You can thank caffeine for that, too. There are two reasons why that effect can be so powerful.
First, adenosine receptors do more than just receive messages from adenosine molecules. They are also responsible for controlling surges of “feel good” and “fight-or-flight” hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline. So when caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, it’s having an effect there too. Adrenaline and the other hormones are given free rein to course throughout the brain and body, and neurons fire unimpeded.
Second, since caffeine is a stimulant it causes the nerves in the brain to get excited. The pituitary gland thinks that means danger, so it tells the adrenal glands to release even more adrenaline – and the adenosine receptors are powerless to slow the flow.
Bottom line: to an extent, caffeine helps to stimulate and energize us. But its real power is in preventing the brain from controlling the levels of hormones that make us feel happy and energetic. (And happy isn’t a word we use lightly; studies show that moderate to heavy coffee consumption can help people avoid depression.)
The same mechanism that keeps you awake and makes you feel energized has an effect on cognitive function as well.
Harvard Medical School reports on a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, which documented the effect of caffeine and alcohol consumption, and a healthy diet, on cognitive performance. Not surprisingly, a proper diet correlated with better memory and thinking skills, but caffeine was also shown to have a noticeable positive effect on brain performance. (If you’re wondering, alcohol didn’t help, except in women and those over age 70.)
Also not surprising: caffeine improves reaction times. That’s not because it improves motor skills, but because it enhances attention and the ability to perceive stimuli.
We’ve mentioned the increased levels of adrenaline associated with caffeine consumption. If you play sports or are a sports fan, you understand the potential benefits of an adrenaline boost.
You can enjoy the same benefits if you’re a weekend workout warrior. Studies have shown that ingesting caffeine shortly before exercise significantly improves endurance, and can boost energy levels and improve performance by 10% or more.
Drinking coffee isn’t going to immediately cause excess body fat to miraculously disappear. But there’s evidence that it can be a big help to dieters.
Research shows that caffeine boosts fat burning by an average about 10% in obese patients, and by more than 25% in fit ones. It also promotes heat production (thermogenesis) in the body, which causes the body to burn more calories.
If you’ve ever wondered why over-the-counter diet supplements all contain caffeine – now you know why.
In most areas of the body, caffeine acts as a vasodilator. That means that it expands blood vessels, allowing greater blood flow and improved circulation. Both are important factors in maintaining cardiovascular health.
In research based on large studies of heart disease patients, it was found that the more coffee people drank, the lower their risk of heart failure. Most of the data showed that the risk dropped by 5-12% per cup. There was one caveat, though; the lower risk was only for people who drank caffeinated coffee. The same benefit wasn’t associated with decaf coffee.
The American Heart Association says, however, that the evidence isn’t strong enough to recommend that everyone increase their coffee consumption in order to prevent cardiovascular disease.
It’s generally accepted that blood pressure may briefly rise after drinking a cup of coffee. But even though a meta-analysis of research suggests that long-term heavy coffee drinking (7+ cups per day) may help lower blood pressure, another study claims that moderate coffee consumption may actually increase blood pressure.
In other words, coffee seems to lower the risk of heart disease – but the jury is still out on whether you should make an effort to drink more of it.
In a somewhat-related vein, studies show that coffee drinkers may have a significantly lower risk of stroke.
We mentioned a moment ago that caffeine acts as a vasodilator in most parts of the body. It works differently in the brain, though. There, it does just the opposite. Why? It’s because adenosine is responsible for telling the blood vessels to expand – but caffeine prevents adenosine receptors in the brain from delivering that message.
Vasocontraction, or the narrowing of blood vessels, may sound bad. But when you have a headache, it can do a world of good.
Here’s the reason. There are sensitive nerves right next to the blood vessels in the brain. And when the vessels expand, they contact those nerves and cause pain. The contraction caused by caffeine can ease that pain and relieve headaches; that’s why many headache and migraine relief medications contain caffeine. (One warning: regular consumption of caffeine can be a migraine trigger in some patients.)
The General Health Benefits of Coffee
There are many other reasons to drink coffee. Some health benefits can be credited mostly to caffeine, while others are primarily linked to properties of the coffee plant itself.
And researchers still aren’t quite sure of the reasons behind even more of the demonstrated health benefits of coffee.
Diabetes and Blood Sugar Levels
Research has found that heavy coffee drinkers develop higher insulin sensitivity. That means they’re better able to process glucose, so they have a significantly reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. The meta-analysis most often cited in this area found that – for unknown reasons that may include coffee’s antioxidant properties – every 8-ounce cup of coffee per day lowered diabetes risk by 7%.
Studies have also found that caffeine doesn’t appear to affect glucose levels in healthy adults.
The news isn’t all good, though. Research shows that in patients who already have type 2 diabetes, caffeinated coffee may either increase or lower blood sugar levels. Healthcare professionals often suggest that their diabetic patients limit coffee and caffeine intake for that reason.
We alluded to this in the last section, so let’s expand on the subject. Roasted coffee beans are a bountiful source of antioxidants like polyphenols and quinines (the latter contributes much of the bitterness that coffee drinkers are familiar with).
Antioxidants are crucial weapons against the free radical damage that causes many health issues, including cancer and aging. In fact, coffee may be the number-one source of antioxidants in most Americans’ diets.
You won’t get the same amount of important vitamins and minerals from a daily cup of coffee that you’ll get by eating a healthy diet. But drink several cups of coffee a day, and they can start to add up. Coffee contains decent levels of vitamins B2, B3 and B5, and minerals like manganese, potassium, magnesium and calcium.
Every little bit helps.
Studies have shown that coffee drinking can help protect against some of the most common neurodegenerative diseases affecting Americans. The risk of Alzheimer’s disease may be as much as 65% lower among coffee drinkers, while the risk of Parkinson’s disease may be reduced by as much as 60%. However, the protective effects for Parkinson’s only appear to be delivered by caffeinated coffee, not decaf.
Cirrhosis of the Liver
Liver diseases like fatty liver disease and hepatitis often progress to cirrhosis, the heavy scarring of the liver that’s fairly common among alcoholics. Heavy coffee drinking appears to help protect against the development of cirrhosis, lowering the risk of developing the disease by as much as 80%.
Research indicates that drinking coffee may help protect against several types of cancer. Coffee drinkers were shown to have a 40% reduced risk of liver cancer, drinking 2-3 cups per day was linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer, and those who consumed at least 4-5 cups per day had a significantly lower risk of developing colorectal cancer.
We’ve saved the best for last. Several large studies have found that coffee drinkers seem to live longer; women had a 26% lower risk of death, and men had a 20% lower risk. The results were even more encouraging for type 2 diabetics who drink coffee.
Are There Any Health Risks or Side Effects?
The side effects of coffee drinking are primarily related to caffeine.
We don’t have to tell you that drinking too much coffee – and “too much” can vary between individuals – can cause the jitters, anxiety and lack of sleep. In a few people, it can even cause heart palpitations or panic attacks. It’s also possible to develop an addiction to caffeine and suffer withdrawal symptoms when coffee intake is suddenly reduced or stopped.
For most people, however, those side effects aren’t anything to worry about. The Mayo Clinic says it’s safe for most adults to consume 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, which equals about four or five cups. 200 milligrams daily is a safer amount for pregnant women or those trying to get pregnant.
Two final notes. First, a few medications don’t play well with caffeine. Seek medical advice regarding coffee if you take stimulants like ephedrine, asthma meds like theophylline, anticoagulants like Plavix, tricyclic antidepressants like Elvavil, or birth control pills. Second, there’s evidence that a small group of coffee drinkers may experience higher cholesterol levels when drinking unfiltered coffee.
With those few exceptions, though – drink up! Coffee is even better for you than you thought it was.