Coffee is in the news regularly and it seems the body of data suggests that it could be beneficial for a number of medical conditions is steadily growing. It’s an amazingly potent collection of biologically active compounds which have far reaching effects on the body. As such it needs to be perceived and respected as a potent drug.
Caffeine, the most widely known compound in coffee, only makes up a mere 1% to 2% of the bean. The other ingredients such as chlorogenic acids, caffeol, polyphenols, phytoestrogens and diterpenes are now being researched regarding their effects on health.
Highly regarded Medscape News published an excellent and extensively referenced summary of the potential medical benefits of coffee consumption (you can check it out here although registration is required to view in full). In summary, the main health conditions/ body systems covered in the summary include:
- Cardiovascular system – despite potentially increasing blood pressure, coffee may lower the risk for coronary disease and protect against heart failure. In cited studies, moderate coffee intake was associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease as far out as 10 years, and new data suggests that an average of 2 cups a day protects against heart failure.
- Coffee consumption may cut stroke risk by as much as 25%. While its impact on stroke risk in those with cardiovascular disease is still in question, data presented at the European Meeting on Hypertension 2012 found that 1 to 3 cups a day may protect against ischemic stroke in the general population.
- Weight loss and diabetes – studies have linked coffee consumption with improved glucose metabolism, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and promotion of weight loss in overweight people.
- Cancer – according to recent data moderate to heavy coffee consumption (4-6 cups per day) can reduce the risk for numerous cancers. The benefits are thought to be at least partially due to its antioxidant and anti-mutagenic properties.
- Dementia and Parkinson’s disease – it’s clear that coffee temporarily affects cognition, many of us need it to get going in the morning! But new research also links it with more enduring effects on cognitive wellbeing including slowing the progression of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
- Depression – coffee drinkers reportedly have significantly decreased risk of developing depression. A 2011 study suggests that a boost in coffee consumption might also benefit our mental health: women who drank 2 to 3 cups of coffee per day had a 15% decreased risk for depression compared with those who drank less than 1 cup per week. A 20% decreased risk was seen in those who drank 4 cups or more per day.
- Liver disease – coffee has been reported to slow disease progression in alcoholic cirrhosis, hepatitis C and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The liver helps to break down coffee, but coffee might also protect the liver (in some cases).
- It can also be beneficial for dry-eye syndrome, gout and in preventing MRSA infection. Coffee and hot tea consumption were found to be protective against one of the most concerning bugs, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Drawbacks and risks
As is often the case, with the benefits come the risks, and coffee consumption certainly has negative medical and psychiatric effects to consider. The Medscape News report mentions that besides the potential increase in blood pressure, coffee can incite or worsen anxiety, insomnia, tremor and potentially elevate glaucoma risk. Also, given the potential severity of symptoms, caffeine withdrawal syndrome is under consideration for classification as a type of mental disorder.
I would also add the following drawbacks:
- The acidity of coffee is associated with digestive discomfort, indigestion, heartburn, GERD and dysbiosis (imbalances in gut flora).
- Elevated urinary excretion minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium have been noted in coffee drinkers. An imbalance in the electrolyte status can lead to serious systemic complications. It also interfers with iron absorption.
- Use coffee with care if you have depleted adrenals manifesting in fatigue, low energy, sugar cravings and heightened stress response.
- Constituents in coffee can interfere with normal drug metabolism and detoxification in the liver making it difficult to regulate the normal detoxification process in the liver.
- Another issue to be aware of is that for certain medications that are poorly absorbed to start with, their absorption decreases even further, with coffee making any symptoms worse.
- Addiction is often an issue with coffee drinkers. Ask any coffee drinker about how it feels to withdraw from coffee, and you may mistake their story for that of a drug addict’s…
It’s worth noting that the above evidence and cited studies didn’t specify the types and preparations of coffee used, naturally it makes a difference from the nutrition and symptoms points of view.
My take on drinking coffee
Although I also enjoy a cup of coffee now and then, I don’t consider it as food required for our health and wellbeing. While certain people may tolerate coffee and even enjoy some health benefits, it is evident that it is not for everyone. However, if you decide to keep drinking it have only good quality coffee and consider the following:
- Have organic coffee whenever possible – coffee crops are heavily sprayed and the pesticides remain in the coffee beans. Go for the free-trade varieties that are farmed using more traditional methods in developing countries (that way you can also help the farmers!).
- Have it between the meals – coffee speeds up the digestion and movement of food through the gut and thus decreases absorption of many nutrients as well as medications. Having coffee with or immediately after meals is most problematic.
- Have black coffee (e.g. short or long black) rather than one with milk. Most supermarket milks are highly processed foods and, if not organic, they contain hormones, pesticides and preservatives which add to the body’s toxic load. If you can’t give up white coffee, use a small amount of cream instead (ideally organic).
- Have your coffee in glass or ceramic cups – take-away coffee sold in plastic containers has traces of plastics and other preservatives/coatings found inside the cups and released with the heat.
- Coffee is dehydrating so you need to add an extra glass of water per coffee cup you consume per day.
- Skip the sugar – it adds up if you are having a few cups per day plus sugar will ruin any of the benefits discussed above by spiking your insulin levels contributing to insulin resistance.
- If you have depleted adrenals and cortisol imbalances it’s imperative you stop drinking coffee during the treatment until they are fully restored.
Given the pros and cons mentioned above, further research is necessary to better assess and balance the potential benefits and drawbacks of coffee consumption. In the meantime you can test coffee’s benefits and/or drawbacks on yourself by, for example, taking a break from it for about 3-4 weeks and see how you feel!
What’s your view on this topic? Do you have any updates to add? Please comment below.
Adrenals and Gut Health Expert
Naturopath Herbalist Nutritionist
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