I very much like the occasional morning coffee. It has a delightful aroma being one of my favourite drugs. Last year I did quite an extensive study on coffee and ended up producing an audio called The Wonderful World of Coffee (what was originally only supposed to be a few thousand words ended up to be a 12,000).
I did a chapter on the health benefits and what I discovered was quite surprising. Here is that chapter:
The Wonderful World of Coffee (text from track 5).
OK we can now look at the health benefits of your daily brew and the potential risks. But firstly let’s gauge usage. Customary coffee consumption has been classified as follows: Low coffee consumption, 1 or 2 cups a day. Moderate, 3 to 5 cups. High consumption, greater than 5 cups. Like many drugs once we are habituated, a cup lifts our mood up to so-called normal. Caffeine is toxic at sufficiently higher doses but not from drinking coffee as we can’t absorb enough caffeine with delivery method because it’s quickly broken down in your body and excreted. Mania and psychosis seem to be rare. More common is anxiety and or irritability from too much caffeine, called caffeinism, or the coffee jitters. And of course insomnia. Currently the effect of caffeine on people with ADHD is not known.
I must note that with caffeine, like any drug, one can become habituated, so you become less sensitive to it’s stimulant effects. This is known as tolerance and for many develops quickly.
Coffee has been blamed for many ills for hundreds of years. However the brew does have a surprising number of health benefits. Having said that, it is a contentious area, so for your own health and well-being you need to do your own research. Consult a qualified health professional if you must. You can then weigh up benefits and risks for yourself. Individuals react differently to coffee and caffeine, but it seems that for most of us the benefits of coffee at moderate doses outweigh the risks. And of course you have to look at all the variables involved, the type of coffee, how it is made, your lifestyle choices and even how your body metabolizes caffeine. Just one example: the espresso method of extraction yields higher antioxidant activity than other brewing methods.
Here are some of the potential benefits which are all backed up by fairly recent large independent scientific studies, which I will not laboriously quote but rest assured are real and are not industry based. Most of the studies refer to caffeinated coffee and show reduced risk to the following: varying degrees of Alzheimer’s and dementia, gall stone and gallbladder disease, cirrhosis of the liver, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes type 2 and gout. Also an increase in cognitive facility and short-term memory, protection from radioactivity and help with hay fever as caffeine inhibits one of the enzymes involved in histamine release. Caffeine may be helpful with certain breathing disorders in infants. Coffee consumption is also correlated to reduced risk of many cancers such as oral, esophageal, pharyngeal, liver and pancreatic. No protection for ovarian cancer has been shown and protection against breast cancer is inconclusive. Both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee contains the anticancer compound methylpyridinium, not present in significant amounts in other foods. Other benefits include the prevention of dental cavities due to the tannins in coffee reducing plaque formation. Coffee can prevent constipation by providing good bowel movements. Some alternative medicine practitioners recommend coffee enemas which I did subject myself to on one occasion. It is supposed to cleanse the colon. I certainly felt very good afterwards.
OK so let’s look at the risks. The first obvious one is caffeine dependency. A physical dependence, which could be called an addiction, can develop. Just take away that cuppa for a few days and note what happens. Withdrawal symptoms include headache, irritability, restlessness, inability to concentrate, drowsiness, insomnia, and pain in the stomach, upper body, and joints. Such symptoms may peak at around 48 hours and usually last from one to five days
Another risk is cancer. 19 of the 1000 chemical found in roasted coffee are known rodent carcinogens but none have been shown to be a problem in humans at exposure levels typically experienced in day-to-day life. Coffee can damage the linings of the gastrointestinal organs causing gastritis and ulcers. Coffee consumption can lead to iron deficiency anaemia in mothers and infants. Pregnant women are usually advised by doctors to avoid too much coffee. Caffeine molecules are small enough to penetrate the placenta and slip into the baby’s blood circulation. This could send the baby’s pulse and breathing rate racing and affect its sleep pattern.
Probably the most controversial health aspect of coffee drinking relates to blood pressure and heart disease. Countless studies have been done, some very large over long periods and the pendulum swings both ways between protective and risky. But one really sticks out for me. A 2004 study tried to discover why the beneficial and detrimental effects of coffee conflict. The study concluded that coffee consumption is associated with significant elevations in biochemical markers of inflammation leading to a detrimental effect on the cardiovascular system. This may explain why coffee has thus far only been shown to help the heart at levels of less than five cups a day. So this may be a key point here. Invariably, the maxim all things in moderation is your friend.
Also other factors come into play: such as the type of coffee, lifestyle, how your body metabolizes caffeine and setting – how and where your coffee is consumed. Here is another important study. A 20 year Harvard study published in 2006 of 128,000 people concluded that there was no evidence that coffee consumption itself increases the risk of coronary heart disease. The study did, however, show a correlation between heavy coffee consumption and higher degrees of exposure to other coronary risk factors such as smoking, greater alcohol consumption and lack of physical exercise. So of course lifestyle factors play a big role.
However, research shows other risk factors. High consumption of unfiltered coffee is associated with mild elevations in cholesterol levels especially in women. A study found that two or more cups of coffee a day can increase the risk of heart disease in people with a specific and not uncommon genetic mutation that slows the breakdown of caffeine in the body. Also some people with irregular heartbeat syndromes may choose to drink decaffeinated coffee since caffeine has been known to precipitate arrhythmias, as do alcohol, exercise, stress and other drugs. Contrary to popular belief coffee does not lead to dehydration or to a water-electrolyte imbalance.