Have you ever wondered about the health benefits of coffee? I can already see it:
You’re pouring your fourth of fifth cup of the day. And suddenly a malicious voice from the other side of the room interferes saying the last thing a coffee lover wants to hear: “That stuff will kill you”.
We’ve all been there.
You’d like to laser them with your eyes, instead you panic wondering whether your enemy is right and you should quit. With no answers ready at hand the only thing you’re left with is sipping that warm, comforting drink still in your hand. It’s good, isn’t it?
But the question you’re asking is: is coffee bad for you?
Luckily for you, it seems like it is not. Not only it will not kill you but, apparently, coffee can make you live longer.
Yes, you read that right.
Roasted coffee is a complex mixture of more than 1000 bioactive compounds (1), some of which are very familiar, like caffeine —a good friend responsible for getting us through those prolonged study or working sessions, but also of some more surprising benefits. This molecule and many others contained in coffee beans have the potential to lower the risk of some of the most common diseases of our age, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, type 2 diabetes and even some types of cancers.
Let’s jump right in and have a look at some of the amazing health benefits of coffee beans.
Coffee will not kill you
Let’s start with a great news: coffee will not kill you. If anything, it might prolong life.
Bare with me as I give you a bit of background.
Sometimes scientists conduct what are called long-term observational studies, following people’s daily habits for even as long as 20 years! It’s not “bigbrothery” with a young man in a lab coat watching everything you do and taking note in his little pad.
Instead, every once in a while people report what they’ve been up to: if they feel sad or happy, if they’ve had a heart attack, if they exercise, how many coffees they drink or cigarettes they smoke. And sometimes what scientists look at is how many people have died in that period and what are the differences between their lifestyle and the lifestyle of those who are still alive.
What did they find?
Firstly, that there is no higher risk of dying, for any cause —not even from cancer or cardiovascular diseases— if you drink coffee or decaf, even for those who drink up to 7 cups of coffee a day. (2)
Dr. Robert Van Dam, who teaches Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, said that “These findings fit into the research picture that has been emerging over the past few years: for the general population, the evidence suggests that coffee drinking doesn’t have any serious detrimental health effects.”(3)
According to him, this is an important finding because many people who want to improve their health think they have to give up that hearty, stimulating drink they so enjoy in the morning. To the people who ask themselves “Is coffee bad for me?” they should be reassured. Rather, they should focus their efforts on other aspects of their lifestyle like physical activity, quitting smoking and eating more fruits and veggies.
But there is one little catch.
Keep in mind that the Harvard study in question identifies a “cup” with a 8-ounce cup containing approximately 100 mg of caffeine, not the 16 ounces you would get in a grande at Starbucks containing 330 mg of caffeine. So you should probably still keep count if you’re a bit shaky as you come out of the coffee shop.
black coffee is very low in calories, but not the same can be said for a 24-ounce mocha Frappucino at Starbucks with whipped cream: it has almost 500 calories—I mean, if you have four, that’s probably your whole daily calorie intake!
And, no offence to Starbucks, that sounds more like cake than coffee. So do check how much milk or cream you’re adding to your coffee. You might be consuming more calories that you think.
But the best part is:
some recent research has found that people who drink coffee usually live longer than people who don’t.
One recent meta-analysis (that is, a study studying other studies on a certain subject) found that people who drank 7 cups of coffee a day had a 10% lower risk of all-cause mortality. (1)
However, drinking 3-4 cups a day seems to bring the most advantages, lowering the risk of all-cause mortality by 18%. (4)
Does this mean that people who hate coffee should start drinking it or that you should drink more?
Of course not. As one of the most consumed beverages in the world, along with water and tea, it is important to know that at least it has no concerning health effects and that it can be part of a healthy diet.
With a couple of exceptions. Like everything else coffee has some pros but it also has its cons.
There are some people who should avoid or at least reduce their coffee intake.
Women with osteoporosis for example. Also, some research suggests that caffeine during pregnancy can reduce foetal growth and may even increase risk of miscarriage or stillbirth (5-6). And even though some studies propose that there are no long-term effects of coffee on high-blood pressure, if you are having trouble controlling your hypertension you might want to try switching to decaf for the time being. (3)
Now that we’ve put our minds at ease, let’s look at why coffee is good for your brain!
Coffee improves your energy levels and makes you smarter
It might surprise you to discover that caffeine (aka 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine) is the world’s most frequently ingested psychoactive substance. (7) In other words, caffeine is a drug. So after we’ve drunk a cuppa, caffeine travels through our bloodstream to our brain and because it is both fat- and water-soluble, it easily passes through our blood-brain barrier. (8)
But why does caffeine make us less tired? Let me explain.
When you’re awake, your brain is continuously working: your neurons are happily firing away all day. A by-product of all this partying is adenosine, a biochemical compound which regulates the activity of your central nervous system. The brain keeps monitoring levels of adenosine and when there’s too much it slows down neural activity. And we become sleepy.
What has this got to do with caffeine?
Caffeine is a bit sly, you’ll find. Because it has a similar molecular structure to adenosine it is able to bind itself to its receptors in the brain, but without activating them. So the brain can’t detect adenosine levels even when they are high. (8)
One of the most interesting consequences of caffeine’s action on arousal, vigilance and fatigue is that it also improves learning, memory, performance and coordination (even though it’s just short term)! (9)
It turns out, this might be an evolutionary advantage for plants containing caffeine: one study showed that honeybees were three times more likely to remember the scent of a flower after consuming caffeine. This means that it will be easier for those bees to go back to that plant, thus ensuring its reproductive success. (8) Smart plant makes bees smarter. And humans too.
Coffee can help you improve your mood and fight depression
As part of the 30-year-long Nurses’ Health Study, started in 1976, following more than 100.000 registered nurses in the US, a group of scientists from Harvard School of Public Health analysed the links between depression and coffee consumption in a sample of 50.739 women in a study that lasted 10 years.
The results showed that the risk of depression was lower in those women who drank more caffeine, and the more coffee you drank the lower the risk. (10)
So what was going on?
It’s probably due to coffee’s psychoactive effects: apart from adenosine, caffeine also acts on other neurotransmitters, for example serotonin, which is a natural mood stabiliser, and dopamine, which helps control the brain reward and pleasure centre — this hormone doesn’t just cause an emotional response: by pushing us to seek rewards, it leads us to action. Thus, they contribute to regulating anxiety and to a general feeling of well-being as well as putting our lives in motion.
One note from this study:
for some people with particular genetic backgrounds or who are oversensitive to it, caffeine could have an opposite effect: it can make you anxious and induce insomnia or other sleep disturbances, which are not particularly uplifting nor pleasurable.(10)
Coffee lowers the risk neurodegenerative diseases: dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
Worldwide, around 50 million people are affected by dementia with 60-70% of these cases attributable to Alzheimer’s disease, while 10 million worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s. Because of these neurological disorders cognitive function deteriorates beyond what is expected from the normal ageing process, affecting memory, thought, comprehension, coordination, motor functions and language, among other things. (11-12)
But that’s not all:
these diseases don’t only have an impact on the people living with them but also on their families, both emotionally and economically. In 2015, the total global societal cost of dementia was estimated to be US$ 818 billion, equivalent to 1.1% of global gross domestic product (GDP). (11)
The combined direct and indirect cost of Parkinson’s in the US alone is estimated at $25 billion. And there is no known cure, at the moment, only some treatments to help slow down the process and manage the symptoms. (12)
So it is exceptional that numerous studies have found that drinking coffee significantly reduces the risk of developing dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. (1) In particular for Alzheimer’s, the effect is more pronounced for caffeinated coffee than for decaf and the lowest risk was found in people who drank 3-5 cups per day: a 65% decrease! (13)
But before you gets your hopes up, consider this:
much of the research has been done through observational studies which, even if long term and statistically accurate, can only point us in the right direction, but cannot fully explain the link or prove the connection. Further studies are needed to confirm the potential, positive interaction.
How does it all work?
Coffee has amazing effects on motor and cognitive skills which are affected in dementia. Some have suggested that coffee also has protective effects against inflammation in the brain.
Think about it this way:
an unregulated release of adenosine in the brain causes a chain reaction of enzymes leading to inflammation, thus through its ability to block adenosine receptors, caffeine might also reduce the inflammation itself, often linked to neurodegenerative diseases. (14)
As Parkinson’s affects predominately dopaminergic brain cells, it is thought that the neuroprotective effects of coffee are linked to its influence on dopamine, but it is still not clear how. (15)
In a nutshell
Let’s rewind and gather our thoughts a moment before finally responding to our rude (and ignorant) villain from the beginning.
Coffee does not kill you. It actually may lower the risk of all-cause mortality by 18%.
In addition, it stimulates the brain in many ways: from improving cognitive performance (it basically makes you smarter for a little while), to reducing depression, to potentially benefitting neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Remember: three cups a day give the most benefits, even though drinking more doesn’t really carry many side effects. But be careful about adding milk, cream and syrups to your coffee. They make it much more caloric.
Check your intake if:
- you’re a pregnant woman;
- a woman prone to fractures;
- a person with hypertension.
Now, it’s your moment. Go and tell that fool how wrong they were!
Don’t miss Part 2 of our in-depth guide to the amazing health benefits of coffee: follow us on social media for updates on this and other topics.
Warning: The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.