Legend has it that coffee was discovered by a 9th century Ethiopian goatherd after his goats ate berries from a certain bush and became so spirited they didn’t want to sleep at night. Whatever the actual origin, coffee has been enlivening spirits and keeping people up at night for over a thousand years. Today, it’s the single most popular beverage in the world. People love it and crave it, despite the fact that a host of health problems are blamed on it, along with negative traits like smoking, stained teeth, and hyperness. New research, however, is finding a more complex picture. The drink, like other natural plants and herbs, appears to have some therapeutic benefits, when consumed in the right way.
Coffee could be the “poster child” for whole, unadulterated food. By itself, caffeine, the chemical stimulant in coffee, can be toxic, a shock to the system. But when consumed in moderation in whole food – coffee, cacao (chocolate), tea – it can be highly beneficial. Decaffeinated coffee, however, lacks medicinal benefits and has little nutritional value, though it may play a role in reducing excess caffeine intake. Nature, as usual, knew what She was doing by providing the whole package. Recent studies are revealing that coffee – the right quality and quantity – can protect against a host of conditions, including Parkinson’s Disease, Type 2 Diabetes, liver cancers, Alzheimer’s, etc.
We’re talking about drinking coffee as part of a balanced diet of whole, fresh foods. Coffee should be imbibed in moderation (about 2-3 six oz. cups a day). Organic is important because coffee is one of the most heavily sprayed crops. Buy whole bean (grind it yourself; pre-ground may be rancid by the time you use it); properly dried and roasted, dark roasted is best (if it doesn’t smell pleasant and taste fresh, it’s likely rancid and poor quality). Drink black (added sugar and cream ruin benefits by spiking insulin levels and causing insulin resistance).
Benefits and Risks
Caveats: Individuals vary in their coffee tolerance. For most people light to moderate consumption is best, i.e., less than four 6 oz. cups a day (that’s the European style rather than the standard American 8-10 oz.or larger “bottomless” size). Caffeine is addictive, so it’s wise to reduce your intake gradually if you’re exceeding moderate levels. Those who are particularly sensitive to caffeine or who may have an inherited reduced ability to metabolize caffeine should limit intake. Also, dark roast is easier on the stomach; light roast can cause acid-like stomach irritations. Coffee drinking is most beneficial when part of a healthy lifestyle – balanced diet, adequate sleep, moderate exercise, no smoking, etc.
Women are generally advised to minimize or avoid coffee during pregnancy. Moderate caffeine -two 6 oz. cups of coffee a day – does not appear to cause miscarriage, fetal growth, premature delivery. BUT large caffeine doses may be of greater risk, though more study is needed.
Use non-bleached filters; bright white ones are chlorine bleached and can leach out during brewing. Avoid plastic cups which generally contain BPA that can migrate to the drink. Styrofoam cups will leach polystyrene molecules. Best bet: glass and ceramic mugs.
Brain and muscle health. Coffee triggers your brain to release a growth factor called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF activates brain stem cells to support the neuromotor, the most critical element in muscles. Without the neuromotor, your muscle is like an engine without ignition. Neuromotor degradation is part of the process that explains age-related muscle atrophy. Thus, BDNF helps keep muscles young in the brain and throughout the body.
Alzheimer’s. Moderate coffee consumption has been linked to lower risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. A 2011 study revealed that a yet unidentified ingredient in coffee interacts with caffeine to help protect from Alzheimer’s.
Cognitive performance. Coffee can increase short-term recall. Likewise, in tests on reaction time, verbal memory and visuospatial reasoning, regular coffee drinkers were found to perform better than occasional or nondrinkers. Elderly regular drinkers were found to have the largest positive effect. In another study, women over 80 performed significantly better on these type tests if they had regularly drunk coffee over their lifetimes.
Cancer. Research indicates that coffee might have anti-cancer properties. In a recent study it was found that coffee drinkers were 50% less likely to get liver cancer than nondrinkers. A few studies have discovered ties to lower rates of colon, breast and rectal cancers. A large 2011 study of nearly 50,000 men found that those who drank 3 cups per day had a 30% lower risk of prostate cancer. Several studies have shown that decaffeinated coffee has less benefits than caffeinated.
Type 2 Diabetes. A 2010 Japanese study revealed that coffee consumption had a protective effect on Type 2 Diabetes. This was confirmed by a 2012 German study which also found that coffee doubles glucose intake, which will greatly reduce blood glucose levels. Drinking coffee regularly may increase resting metabolism rate which would also protect against diabetes.
Blood pressure. Coffee can temporarily spike blood pressure, but long-term studies are showing that coffee does not increase the risk of high blood pressure over time. It’s believed that people may develop a tolerance to coffee’s hypertensive effects after a while.
Parkinson’s Disease. Coffee seems to be more protective in men than women against Parkinson’s. One possible explanation for the sex difference may be that estrogen and caffeine need the same enzymes to be metabolized, but estrogen tends to nab those enzymes more readily. However, a McGill University study concluded that coffee can lessen the symptoms of Parkinson’s for either sex. The caffeine helped boost movement control and muscle stiffness for people with Parkinson’s, though it did not help their sleepiness. The effects were considered moderate but, since coffee is easy to make and relatively inexpensive, worthwhile.
Heart problems. Research has differed on the link between coffee and heart health. For instance, in one study of about 130,000 Kaiser Permanente health plan members, people who reported drinking 1-3 cups of coffee per day were 20% less likely to be hospitalized for abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) than nondrinkers, regardless of other risk factors. However, if a fourth cup or more was consumed regularly, the risk of suffering from heart problems did not decrease.
Gallstones. Coffee drinkers are less likely to suffer symptomatic gallstone disease, possibly because coffee alters the cholesterol content of the bile produced by the liver.
Longer lives. A longitudinal study by National Institutes of Health and the AARP followed over 400,000 relatively healthy people ranging in age from 50-71 for 13 years. They found that people who drank 3 or so cups of coffee a day had a 10% chance of living longer than their coffee-abstaining peers. Coffee also appeared to protect against various forms of death with the exception of cancer.
Laxative effect. Coffee stimulates peristalsis and is sometimes considered to prevent constipation, though it can cause excessively loose bowel movements. The stimulative effect on the colon occurs in both caffeinated and decaf coffee.
Bone mass. Studies have concluded that moderate coffee drinking is not a risk factor for bone mass loss or fractures.
Mayo Clinic: What does the research say about coffee and health?
Ponder Health: Is coffee truly bad for you?
Dr. Mercola: Can drinking darker coffee improve your health?
WebMD: Coffee and Your Health