If you have ever felt the slightest bit guilty about needing a cup of coffee (or two) to wake up in the morning, stop worrying! That cup of java contains a whole army of nature’s health crusaders.
The Good News
Like all plants, coffee contains naturally occurring chemical compounds. In the coffee plant, these substances (polyphenol compounds) protect the plant against environmental damage from insects, UV light, and temperature extremes. Many of the beneficial substances are antioxidants. When we drink coffee these chemicals have beneficial effects in our own bodies. In fact, coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the US diet, mainly because we drink so much of it.
- Diabetes protection. Two large studies reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2012 and 2013, showed drinking coffee lowered the risk of type 2 diabetes. The exact mechanism has not been defined but it appears that coffee’s polyphenols increase insulin sensitivity and slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
- Brain protection. Drinking coffee protects against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Long term coffee intake exhibits a dose-dependent association with improved cognitive function and memory. Recently, a Mount Sinai 2-year study of individuals, aged 65-88 years, offered a clue as to why this occurs. The study found that coffee’s polyphenol chemicals triggered the release of an anti-inflammatory protein which then caused recruitment of cells to increase nerve growth and improve nerve transmission within the brain. By the way, this effect did not occur with decaffeinated coffee or with tea, which indicated that the benefit was due to synergy between the polyphenol compounds in coffee and caffeine. The individuals who drank the most coffee had the highest levels anti-inflammatory proteins, with the lowest level of cognitive decline during the 2 years.
- Prostate cancer prevention. A large 2011 study reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found men who drank coffee (including decaffeinated coffee) had a much lower risk for prostate cancer. By drinking just one to three cups of coffee daily the risk was lowered by 30 percent.
- Weight loss. Coffee increases fat metabolism, blocks the absorption of sugars, and is calorie free - so it is no surprise it is helpful with weight loss. Extract of green coffee bean contains higher concentrations of the polyphenols present in regular coffee – in capsule form, these have been documented to cause weight loss. However, you must purchase with caution because the supplement industry is unregulated. I suggest that you check Consumer Labs first; they have analyzed the popular brands to determine if they contain the optimal amount. Most do not.
What about the caffeine?
Like other drugs, caffeine does have an impact on physical and mental functions. As a stimulant, it increases alertness and reaction speed. It improves performance on vigilance tasks like driving, flying, and solving simple math problems. In sports, caffeine is a legal performance booster. It improves endurance in sports by lowering the perceived exertion – allowing you to perform longer.
Caffeine’s “wake up” power comes from it interfering with adenosine, a chemical in the body that acts as a natural sleeping pill. Caffeine blocks adenosine and keeps us from falling asleep. A benefit of caffeine that you might not know about is it has analgesic properties; this effect comes from blocking adenosine. Many over the counter pain relievers include caffeine in their formulations.
How much is too much?
If you are drinking so much coffee that your hands are shaking, or if you have problems sleeping, or if you become jittery or irritable, then obviously you are drinking too much coffee. If you have a cardiac arrhythmia, I advise against drinking coffee. And you should avoid coffee if you are pregnant; high doses of caffeine raise the risk of miscarriage.
For the rest of us, coffee is a good way to rev up our engines in the morning, guilt-free! With coffee, like most things in life, moderation is the key.