Is coffee good for you? There is some debate over the answer to this question, and science has a good understanding of it. In recent history, coffee has been associated with unhealthy lifestyles. A classic picture that comes to mind is an overweight person drinking a coffee while smoking a cigarette. Although I am not a smoker, I have been told that coffee and cigarettes are indeed a lovely pairing.
Over 50% of the American adults drink coffee on a daily basis. Mildly addictive and found under many forms such as latte, cappuccino, or espresso, it's the drug of choice of many people.
The average consumption per day of coffee per person is estimated at 3.4 cups. With such high consumption of coffee in North America, it makes us wonder: Is coffee healthy? Is it beneficial to our health or are we slowly digging our grave?
In more recent years, lots of research has been carried out on the subject of coffee, and it's now known that coffee contains a host of beneficial health properties. Coffee can dramatically improve our health, our quality of life and indeed our longevity. Indeed, coffee has been used positively by people, probably for thousands of years.
You love coffee, but you are unsure if is healthy. Learn here if coffee is good for you, how much is it safe to drink, and what are the pros and cons of coffee.
Lately, in western civilization, some negative side effects of coffee have become apparent. I have many friends and colleagues who can't or won't drink coffee due to the negative impacts it has on them.
I have also found, as a devout coffee drinker, that the effects of coffee are not always the same for me when I drink the precious substance. Some days I'll have a cup and feel amazing whereas other days it won't quite hit the spot. Again, lots of anecdotes from friends and colleagues support this statement. Sometimes coffee makes an individual feel good, and sometimes it has the opposite effect on the same individual.
One thing is for certain: coffee is a complicated substance that needs to be analyzed properly when we talk about its health properties.
So, the purpose of this article is to take a closer look at the brew that most of us drink on a daily basis and to answer the question - is coffee really good for you?
What Happens in Our Body when We Drink Coffee?
First things first, let's talk about what is going on in our bodies when we drink coffee. Studies show that drinking a cup of coffee increases alertness, attention and concentration as well as executive memory function. It has also been shown to improve mood. Why is this?
When we consume coffee, three main things happen. I like to refer to them as the three A's: adrenaline, adenosine, and antioxidants.
The first thing that happens when we drink coffee is that our bodies produce a bit more adrenaline (epinephrine). Adrenaline is the fight or flight hormone that helps us to perform better in high-pressure situations. It gives our minds and bodies a boost. This feeling can last for a few hours.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed this burst of adrenaline to deal with imminent threats like wild animal attacks. These days our relationship with adrenaline is a little more complicated, but more on that later.
The adrenaline that coffee produces is also one of the reasons that our metabolisms increase when we drink coffee. Studies have shown that coffee increases our resting metabolic rate and causes us to burn more fat.
The second thing that happens in our bodies when we drink caffeine is adenosine blocking. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that our bodies produce, which causes us to feel sleepy and eventually to fall asleep.
At its most basic level, caffeine blocks the production of adenosine in our brains. This means we don't get sleepy and feel more alert. However, the role of adenosine blocking has other positive effects on our brain.
When adenosine is blocked, our brain produces more of other types of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. This has several effects:
These neurotransmitters cause us to feel better. Dopamine is widely known as the pleasure hormone.
More impressively, however, is the fact that these neurotransmitters actually cause the enhanced firing of neurons in our brains. We literally think better and more creatively when we consume caffeine.
For this same reason, coffee and caffeine have been shown to increase memory function,
particularly executive (short term) memory. This makes coffee an extremely useful tool for day to day jobs and office work where we are mainly using this type of memory. Examples of this would be: remembering a phone number, a sales figure or piece of necessary data.
So far, the effects I have spoken about are mainly attributed to the caffeine content in coffee. However, the real health power punch from coffee actually comes from the antioxidants present in coffee.
Every time we drink a cup of coffee, we are giving ourselves a potent dose of disease-fighting antioxidants. In fact, coffee is the biggest source of antioxidants in the western diet.
Another study showed that a lot of the positive effects associated with drinking coffee are also present to a lesser extent when we drink decaf coffee. This suggests that a lot of the immediate effects of coffee we experience such as improved concentration, mood and memory are partly due to the antioxidants found in coffee, not just the caffeine.
Long Term Health Benefits of Coffee
As well as the short term effects that I have just talked about, the antioxidants from regular coffee consumption over a long period of time have been shown to decrease the risk of diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, some cancers and heart disease, to name a few. Coffee consumption is also excellent for liver health. Finally, it has been shown to improve long term memory over time.
Pros of drinking coffee – Nine Reasons Why is Coffee Good for Health
- Prevents Aging
Although this is still controversial, researchers say that coffee prevents aging. That is due to the antioxidants contained in coffee that prevent oxidation, a process that destroys cells and stimulates aging. Caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid are only two of the phenolic compounds in coffee, and the scientists have discovered a great absorption rate of the two phenols. Here is an abstract from the Journal of Nutrition.
- Prevents Dementia
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. It has been proven that drinking 3 to 5 cups of coffee per day decreases the chances of developing that disease by 65%. This is again attributed to the antioxidants in coffee that prevent tissue damage.
- Prevents Parkinson's disease
This disease is also prevented by the antioxidants in coffee.
- Prevents Type 2 Diabetes
Magnesium and Chromium, two minerals, found in coffee are essential to the prevention of diabetes. Using the insulin in our bodies, they regulate our blood sugar. Chlorogenic acid and antioxidants are also attributed to the prevention of noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM). Here is a study that validates the suggestion that coffee reduces type 2 diabetes.
As we all know, coffee also improves mental performance. It is one of the great effects of coffee. It helps us wake up, be alert, and more attentive. For this same reason, coffee is great when staying up late to study for an exam or finish an urgent job. Caffeine is the substance that gives us this rush of energy and that stimulates our brain.
Starbucks, Tim Horton's, Coffee Time, Second Cup... All these coffeehouse chains, where you and your friends spend your afternoon talking are the perfect place to socialize.
- Prevents colon cancer
The chlorogenic acid and other phytochemicals in coffee might be an effective preventative help for colon cancer. Here is more about this.
- Prevents diseases
Coffee can prevent a whole lot more diseases than the ones listed above. It has been also attributed to the prevention of liver cirrhosis, kidney stones, Gallstones, and Asthma.
- Improves Memory and Cognition
There is some evidence that coffee can improve cognitive functions, and prevent cognitive decline.
The Negative Effects of Coffee
So far, coffee sounds pretty great. Why is it then that so many people don't drink coffee, can't drink coffee or preach that it is an evil poison?
Cons of Drinking Coffee – Ten Reasons Why is Coffee Bad for Your Health
- Heart Attack
Coffee contains a compound named terpenoid that is well known to harden your arteries. This causes the blood vessels to either expand/swell or narrow or block off completely. Both effects are negative and can cause a heart attack.
- High Blood Pressure
Although it is clear that coffee causes high blood pressure, scientist and doctors aren't certain how it does it. A circulated idea is that caffeine blocks a hormone that prevents your arteries from narrowing. Another theory suggests that caffeine stimulates your adrenal glands to produce more adrenaline which would increase your blood pressure. Caffeine has a short-term effect on blood pressure and it has a stronger effect on people over 70 or who are overweight.
- High Cholesterol
Another negative aspect that coffee does is that it raises your cholesterol level. This is caused by essential oils called terpenes, and not from caffeine, unlike popular belief. These oils can be easily removed from coffee with filters.
We all know that to digest food, our stomach produces acid. When drinking coffee, it has to produce even more acid that normally causing stomach problems and heartburn.
Caffeine from coffee decreases calcium absorption in your body by discharging it through urine. This causes the bones to be thin and fragile causing osteoporosis. This disease affects 33.33% of women above 50 years old.
Water is essential to our body. It counts as half of our body weight and is vital to our survival. Coffee is diuretic and when drinking a lot of coffee, (5/7 cups per day), your body urinates more afterward. If you don't consume enough water with your coffee you can suffer dehydration.
- Bad Breath
We all know the reputation of coffee concerning a person's breath. So chances are that if you do drink coffee, you have it too.
- Stained Teeth
Ever wonder why your teeth aren't as white as they used to be or why they are getting yellow? It's most certainly because you drink coffee.
- Affects Sleep
Caffeine stimulates your body making you more aware, energetic and attentive. While this can be a pro, it can also be a con, especially when trying to sleep. As a result, there should be no surprise when you cannot fall asleep after a coffee drunk after 13:00.
This should come as no surprise especially since coffee has been classified as a drug. Although it's not highly addictive and very dangerous, it does create dependence due to the contained caffeine that stimulates the central nervous system.
Coffee has been drunk for hundreds if not thousands of years and has been a central part of spiritual practice for many indigenous cultures. It is only recently that coffee has become a problem for people's health. So what is going on exactly?
Coffee and Stress
First of all, it should be pointed out that the caffeine found in plants acts as a defence mechanism against other plants and animals. This is beneficial for humans when they consume coffee in normal doses. Our body is put under very mild stress when we drink caffeine.
Don't worry, this kind of stress is actually a good thing. Many healthy practices that we undergo as humans put mild stress on the body. Examples of these are exercise and fasting. When our body is in a mildly stressed state, it responds by improving or creating necessary properties within the body to deal with the stress. In this way, our body improves. For example, when we exercise, we put stress on our muscles. Muscles are then repaired and they grow bigger and stronger than before.
Mild stress versus chronic stress
So what happens when we are under stress? Let's think about the word stress as we use it normally.
If something stressful happens to you at work, for example, your body produces adrenaline to deal with the stress. During this time, your body and mind is in a heightened state. Normally, when the stressful situation is over, we return to normal.
The same is true with coffee. When we drink a cup of coffee, our body and mind is operating at a higher level. When the caffeine effects wear off, we return to normal.
The problems occur with stress when we don't allow our bodies to return to normal. We are not designed to be under a constant state of stress.
These days many people are in a caffeinated state for their whole waking day. This doesn't allow our bodies to return to normal. Chronic stress in any sense of the word is bad.
Is Caffeine Good for You?
Common Signs of a Caffeine Overdose
Chronic stress aside, various things start happening to us straight away when we drink more caffeine than our body can handle. I'm sure we are all familiar with the coffee jitters, headaches and even sweats that occur when we have too much caffeine in our system. We can all agree that these side effects are not fun.
How much Caffeine is in Your Cup?
Caffeine is good for you in small doses. If you like to drink a lot of coffee, consider switching your afternoon coffee drinks to decaffeinated coffee. More on this here: How Much Coffee Is Too Much?
One particular problem is gauging how much caffeine is in your drink. The caffeine levels can vary from one coffee brewing method to another. Make sure you know how much caffeine you are drinking.
Some brewing methods can be hard to gauge, given the way we prepare it. One example is cold brew, which can be very inconsistent regarding the strength and the caffeine content compared to hot brewed coffee.
Another factor that might affect the amount of caffeine is the origin of the coffee beans. The caffeine content can vary a lot from origin to origin, and between varietals.
Coffee and Sleep
It is becoming more and more apparent in our day and age just how important sleep is. Up until recently, it has been worn almost as a badge of honor by successful business people to operate on little sleep. However, poor sleep over a long period of time has been shown to be one of the core reasons for health problems later in life.
As I already mentioned, when we consume caffeine, adenosine is blocked, and we don't feel sleepy. We also don't feel like we need sleep.
Caffeine has a half-life of up to six hours. If we go to bed while we're still caffeinated, the quality of our sleep is naturally going to be affected.
Coffee and Dehydration
You might have heard that coffee causes dehydration. In the normal scheme of things, this is a complete non-issue. When we drink a drip coffee, americano or a milk-based coffee, we counteract the dehydration with the extra fluid, and our body doesn't become dehydrated.
Unfortunately, in recent times the caffeine has become more important than the coffee. People want to get as much caffeine into their bodies in the shortest amount of time in order to feel its effects. To do this, they drink coffee in as concentrated a form as possible (espresso) and don't drink enough water to compensate for this. Then they become dehydrated, and various aforementioned side effects occur.
Coffee and Mood
I mentioned earlier that caffeine has been shown by research to enhance mood. However, when we over-consume caffeine, it can also affect our mood negatively. When we are over-caffeinated, we can become paranoid, irritable, jittery and anxious.
Even if we have not over consumed caffeine, there are some instances where caffeine can affect mood negatively. If you are already feeling bad, for example, caffeine can make your mood worse. A more accurate statement would perhaps be that coffee is a mood enhancer, whether that mood be good or bad.
Though the research generally states that coffee improves mood, this is not always. Other factors influence how caffeine affects mood in an individual such as age, how often the person drinks coffee, their genetics, etc.
Drinking Poorly Brewed Coffee
Our huge cultural coffee habit has meant that an enormous supply of coffee has been necessary to satiate us. When something is required in large amounts, the quality of the product drops. Coffee is no exception. This is a bad thing for two reasons:
Firstly, bad coffee doesn't taste as nice. This means that we need to add lots of cream and sugar to mask the taste. Beans are also roasted dark (and are in fact burned) to mask the taste and compensate for bad coffee. Cream and sugar, particularly sugar, in excess lead to health problems such as diabetes. Consuming burnt food and drink has been linked to increased cancer risk.
Let's make this clear, adding sugar and cream to coffee doesn't diminish its health benefits. But adding too much sugar and too much milk makes you coffee a snack.
Secondly, coffee that is badly cultivated and badly brewed isn't as good for us. Badly cultivated and prepared coffee doesn't have as many of the beneficial nutrients that good coffee has. So learn how to brew coffee properly, and buy quality coffee beans, roasted with care. We might say that drinking bad coffee is not good for you, although David Lynch's words come to mind: "Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all."
"Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all."
- David Lynch -
Why Do We Abuse Coffee?
Coffee and Addiction
There has been some debate over coffee’s potential to create addiction, and it has been agreed that coffee is mildly addictive. However, coffee addiction isn't the main reason for the coffee over consumption, at least at the start. There are a whole host of reasons that we drink too much coffee as a society.
First and foremost, we become addicted to the feeling of coffee much before we become physically dependent on it. As I mentioned, coffee helps us perform better, and it makes us feel great, so naturally, we want to get as much of this feeling as possible.
Being addicted to feeling good after drinking coffee causes us to drink more, and eventually become physically addicted to it. At this point, people are drinking coffee to satisfy an addiction and bring themselves back to neutral, as opposed to getting the full benefits of the positive side effects I previously mentioned.
I personally feel great drinking my espresso, even when is made with decaf beans. So for me the caffeine addiction is not all. Obviously, we need more than anecdotal evidence to understand how coffee works, but until then, I know coffee makes me feel good, and not because of the caffeine.
The Vicious Cycle of Coffee
Due to the fact that coffee helps us to feel more awake, we naturally consume it when we first wake up in the morning. Then, when we hit our slump mid-morning as the caffeine wears off we go for another cup, and so on and so on.
Coffee in Our Culture and Society
Perhaps the biggest problem these days with coffee in the western world is that we have become a highly caffeinated society. We are drinking more coffee because that is what is accepted and appropriate among our peers and loved ones.
Whether or not we actually feel we need a coffee to wake up in the mornings, it is the cultural norm to have a coffee first thing in the morning, so we have a cup whether or not we feel we need it.
When we meet up with our friends and families, we meet up for coffee. Coffee is the main focus of day time social events in our day and age. Though I love meeting up with friends for coffee, if we aren't careful, this can also lead to excessive consumption.
Finally, we tend to drink too much coffee because we compare ourselves to other coffee drinkers. Just because your friend Paul can drink 10 cups a day and sleep like a baby, it doesn't mean you can. This article, (it was archived in the meantime), talks about how genetics come into play when it comes to caffeine tolerance. We are all different. Some of us can consume lots of caffeine without getting any negative effects, some of us get jittery after one cup. Unfortunately, that is the luck of the draw, and it's just the way it is.
The Coffee Plateau
The final reason for overconsumption of this beautiful drink that I am going to talk about is the coffee plateau. The more we do anything in life, the more we develop a tolerance to it.
Here is an analogy with bodybuilding. As we lift weights, our bodies adapt to that weight by growing bigger muscles to support it. If we want to build muscle, we have to keep increasing the weight. People who do weight training will often experience a plateau where they are not putting on muscle because their body is too adapted to their weight training regimen.
The same goes for coffee. The more we drink, the more adapted we are, and the less we feel its effects. This means we need to drink more of it to feel its effects. This becomes a slippery slope very quickly.
How Much Coffee Is Too Much
A scientific review published in November 2017, in Food and Chemical Toxicology, confirmed previous findings from 2003, that the safe daily caffeine intake is about 400 mg. Take this with a grain of salt. The number doesn't take in consideration people with sensitivity to caffeine, and your overall medical condition. For instance, the limit for pregnant women is 300 mg a day, and children can have 1.1 mg per pound. I'd personally go lower than that for both children and pregnant women, but that's just me.
To translate those 400 mg of caffeine in coffee cups, that's about 4 8-ounce cups of drip coffee per day. This obviously depends on the coffee beans, the brewing method, and the recipe. As we said before, some brewing methods, such as cold brew, are not that easy to standardize. If you are an espresso lover, that about 5 double shots of espresso.
As anecdotal advice, it looks like the more tired you are the more sensitive to coffee you are. So drinking coffee when you are tired works fine, but drinking too much of it might give you some side effects.
Also, age seems to play a role. The older you are the more sensitive to caffeine you are. So make sure you adjust your dose accordingly. If you get the jitters after your second cup, don't go for the third one just because the scientific paper says four cups. I found no dedicated study for a direct relationship between age and caffeine sensitivity. However, this study looked at the metabolic clearance of substances, including caffeine, in people aged 65 - 70 year old. The study found that it takes seniors 33% longer to metabolize caffeine compared to younger adults.
My Coffee Story
With all of the negative side effects I have just talked about, I am speaking from experience.
I grew up in coffee shops. My parents own a cafe, so I started drinking coffee at a young age. I started working in their cafe when I got a bit older and developed an interest in coffee. This led to me working as a barista in speciality coffee shops for several years before I started to write about coffee instead.
Being around coffee while I was working meant that I was naturally drinking more than I would otherwise (especially during the early morning shift!). I also found that I was only drinking espresso. This was because the coffee shop was usually too busy for me to be able to drink a longer brew. Espresso is also my favorite way of drinking coffee.
To cut a long story short, it got to the point where I developed a coffee intolerance. I had a constant headache for several months which didn't go away until I gave up coffee completely.
How To Balance Coffee Consumption?
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. I am now able to drink coffee again, and I enjoy it immensely. The fantastic news is that there are easy solutions to the overconsumption of coffee.
Drinking Coffee in the Late Morning
Early morning is really not the best time to be drinking coffee. When we wake up, we are dehydrated. What we are really craving is water. If we can hold off on drinking coffee for a few hours, our body is much happier to receive it.
Another reason for drinking coffee late morning (or early afternoon depending on how sensitive you are) is cortisol. In a similar way to adrenaline, caffeine causes the body to produce more cortisol. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. We naturally make cortisol, and it is part of the normal mechanics of the human body. As it turns out, we have the highest levels of cortisol naturally occurring when we first wake up. If we drink coffee at that time, the cortisol production skyrockets which can lead to chronic health problems over time.
Finally, it has been shown by research that the best time to drink coffee for positive mood improvement is late morning. Late morning is when our bodies want a cup of coffee most.
Hold Off on Coffee if You Are Not In a Good Mood
As I mentioned earlier, coffee can enhance your negative mood as well as your positive mood. Try to avoid drinking coffee if you are in bad form.
The Balance of Coffee Drinking
Whatever about the saying, the fact is you can have too much of a good thing. Drinking coffee is all about balance. When it gets to the point that we are drinking more caffeine than we used to in order to get the same effects, the solution is actually to take a small break from coffee, rather than to brew another cup. If you just hold off on drinking your joe for a day, you will be feeling those positive effects again in spades, trust me.
Now, I know this isn't what you want to hear. Coffee is delicious, you love it, and you don't want to drink less of it. I understand I've been there. On top of that, it is healthy! So what do we do?
For some reason, drinking decaf coffee is vilified by coffee drinkers. I used to feel the same way. Drinking decaf coffee felt like drinking alcohol-free beer. I thought it was sissy and I didn't see the point.
However, decaf has turned out to be a lifesaver for me. Switching to decaf, especially in the afternoon, allows you to still have the taste and experience of your coffee without the unwanted effects of caffeine. You also still get the health benefits and mood enhancement from all those wonderful antioxidants.
L-theanine is another thing that has saved me during my coffee drinking and abstinence journey. L-theanine is a nootropic and an amino acid that is found in tea. When L-theanine is consumed at the same time as caffeine, they work together in synergy, and we react very differently to the caffeine. L-theanine promotes feelings of calm and focus. However, it doesn't block the positive effects of caffeine such as alertness and enhanced mood.
Basically, L-theanine mitigates the negative effects of caffeine while leaving the good effects as they are. Have you ever wondered why you don't get the same negative reaction to caffeine when you are drinking tea? If you are suffering from the negative effects of caffeine, I highly recommend you give an L-theanine supplement a try.
I am not advocating here for switching to tea, everybody knows I am a coffee lover.
Chicory root coffee
Chicory root has been brewed with coffee for hundreds of years. To this day, chicory coffee is the preferred caffeinated drink in the state of Louisiana. Chicory, when ground and brewed, has very similar properties to coffee. The texture, taste and even the crema are similar.
The great thing about chicory root is that it also serves to mitigate the negative effects of coffee. Chicory is high in prebiotic fiber. Our body's absorption of caffeine is much more stable when it is consumed with fiber. Chicory also has calming and soothing properties that serve to help in counteracting the coffee jitters etc.
When you feel like you have had too much caffeine, try one of these options as an alternative or go for a half n half with your regular coffee.
Final Thoughts Focus on Quality and Not Quantity
Finally, I can't recommend drinking good quality coffee enough. Apart from the fact that you will actually enjoy drinking your coffee as opposed to just looking for a caffeine hit, our bodies react way better to good quality coffee. When I think back to my negative coffee experiences, it was nearly always when I had been drinking lots of bad quality coffee.
We need to approach coffee like our ancestors did - with respect. If we respect coffee and don't abuse it, it can drastically improve our quality of life, our health and our longevity.
Coffee truly is a wonderful substance if drunk in a healthy way. Healthy coffee drinking comes from awareness and not mindlessly consuming on autopilot. If we can become aware of how we are drinking coffee and make a few minor adjustments, we enjoy its great benefits all the time as opposed to just dealing with the side effects. So what do you say?