COFFEE: The GOOD, BAD and DARK of it
Written by: Gregory Ashby
Coffee is uplifting and energizing. For many, a ‘Cup of Joe’ has become a morning ritual. There are studies that say coffee may be more of a mood enhancer than once was thought. According to research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, regularly drinking coffee may even help prevent depression.
Is it possible that caffeine can change brain chemistry to equal Prozac or Zoloft?
In a study involving women (all nurses), coffee seemed to provide a way for many to reduce the chances of developing depression. The study spanned over ten years, tracking the coffee drinking habits and moods of over 50,000 women. Those who drank a moderate amount of coffee — two to three cups a day — had a 15 percent drop in risk, while drinking three to four cups showed a 20 percent drop. The majority of study participants who did develop depression were the ones who drank very little coffee, a cup or two in a week.
This is not the first study to link coffee with mood enhancement. It does, however, make a powerful argument for the benefits of enjoying coffee, or even a cup of black tea or hot cocoa, which both contain some caffeine as well. Decaf coffee doesn’t work the same way (unless of course, the placebo effect kicks in).
The Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professions follow-up study done on 130,000 people, tracked caffeine consumption for approximately 20 years and found that coffee did not increase mortality.
There was no relationship found between coffee consumption and increased risk of death from any causes, including cancer or heart disease.
Studies around the world consistently show higher consumption of caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee is associated with low risk of type 2 diabetes, so scientists hypothesize there may be a long-term benefit from caffeine on diabetes.
Other preliminary research has shown that coffee may protect against Parkinson’s disease, liver cancer and liver cirrhosis, as well as a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
A study led by Harvard School of Public Health researchers published in the Sept. 26, 2011 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found that, among women, drinking coffee may reduce the risk of depression. The study found the risk of depression to be 20 percent lower among women who drank caffeinated coffee daily (2-4 cups) than those who drank little or none. Those who drank decaf, tea, soft drinks, chocolate and other beverages containing less caffeine did not appear to be protected against depression.
Caffeine has been shown to positively increase alertness and test performance. An experiment was carried out to examine the effects of coffee on performance and alertness in the day and at night. The results showed that caffeinated coffee had a beneficial effect on alertness and improved performance on a variety of tasks, no matter the time of day. The effects were often very large.
A number of studies have shown significant performance increases in various endurance disciplines, including running, following caffeine ingestion. In one study, elite runners improved their time on a treadmill from run to exhaustion by 1.9 percent with caffeine. Caffeine boosted time to exhaustion in a cycling test by 15 minutes in another study. And in a study involving swimmers, caffeine was found to enhance performance in maximal-effort swims of up to 25 minute durations.
Coffee contains cafestol, which increases LDL cholesterol levels. This usually is resolved by using a paper filter. However, if you drink your coffee boiled and unfiltered (via French press or Turkish style) you will ingest large levels of cafestol. Unfiltered coffee has been shown in some studies to increase LDL by as much as 8 percent.
There may be a short-term negative effect on diabetes with coffee. In studies that give people caffeine or caffeinated coffee followed by something rich in glucose, it was found that the subject’s sensitivity to insulin dropped and their blood-glucose levels were higher than expected.
The dark side of coffee is that there is such a thing as too much. If drinking coffee makes you feel anxious or nervous, or if you notice physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, take a break or switch to a more subtle alternative such as green tea, white tea or mate. Too much caffeine can lead to trouble sleeping, which in turn creates mood problems.
So if coffee works for you, you now have another reason to feel good about drinking it. If you’re not someone who loves coffee or espresso, opt for other options, like black tea, green tea or herbal teas, which are loaded with numerous health benefits as well.
Many studies have shown no overall adverse outcome on health associated with caffeine from coffee. It should be noted, there are certain aspects of coffee drinking that may be deleterious to your health. Some examples of this would be in the case of autoimmune disorders and adrenal fatigue.
Is Caffeine Addictive?
This one has some truth to it depending on what you mean by “addictive.” Caffeine is a stimulant to the central nervous system and regular use of caffeine does cause mild physical dependence. But caffeine doesn’t threaten your physical, social, or economic health the way addictive drugs do (although after seeing your monthly spending at the coffee shop, you might disagree).
If you stop taking caffeine abruptly, you may have symptoms for a day or more, especially if you consume two or more cups of coffee each day. Symptoms of withdrawal from caffeine may include: headache, fatigue, irritability, difficulty with concentrating, poor mood and anxiety. No doubt caffeine withdrawal can make for a few bad days, but caffeine does not cause the severity of withdrawal or harmful drug-seeking behaviors as street drugs or alcohol. For this reason most experts don’t consider caffeine dependence a serious addiction.
Does Coffee Cause Insomnia?
Your body quickly absorbs caffeine, but it also gets rid of it quickly. Processed mainly through the liver, caffeine has a relatively short half-life. This means it takes about five to seven hours on average to eliminate half of it from your body. In eight to ten hours, 75 percent of the caffeine is gone.
For most people, a cup of coffee or two in the morning won’t interfere with sleep at night. But make sure that cup or two is not before breakfast. This is where some people can run into trouble. Over-stimulating the body in the morning before breakfast excessively raises cortisol. Cortisol is at its peak around 7-8 a.m. so doing anything else that can cause a stress response will keep cortisol higher than it normally is during the day. Overtime, this can lead to an imbalance in the adrenal glands, which has the potential to cause a whole other set of issues.
Consuming caffeine too late in the day may interfere with sleep. If you’re like most people, your sleep won’t be affected if you don’t consume caffeine at least six hours before going to bed. Your sensitivity may depend on your metabolism and the amount of caffeine you regularly consume. People who are sensitive may not only experience insomnia, but also nervousness and gastrointestinal discomfort.
Coffee prepared with a small amount of cream and natural sugar may be healthy. However, most coffee drinks contain large amounts of processed sugar, syrups and whipped cream, which can increase blood sugars and cholesterol levels. Further, many coffee drinks have upwards of 500 calories — 25 percent of the total calories that are needed for a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. Therefore, this could be a hidden source of calories that can lead to weight gain.
Coffee drinking as a lifestyle behavior appears to be linked to other negative lifestyle behaviors, such as exercising less, a less healthy diet and increased chance of smoking. Thus, whereas coffee may be neutral on the health benefits/detriments, other associated behaviors may cause adverse health outcomes.
Reap the most benefits of coffee between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. That’s when your natural levels of energizing cortisol are lower and the time frame that researchers from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland argue that caffeine has the greatest impact. Just know your limits: More than 28 cups a week—four a day—increases your risk of death according to a recent study from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Coffee is the leading worldwide beverage after water and its trade exceeds (US) $10 billion worldwide. Controversies regarding its benefits and risks still exist as reliable evidence becomes available in supporting its health promoting potential. Some researchers have argued about the association of coffee consumption with cardiovascular complications and cancer insurgence.
The health-promoting properties of coffee are often attributed to its rich phytochemistry, including caffeine, chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, hydroxyhydroquinone (HHQ), etc. Many research investigations, epidemiological studies and meta-analyses regarding coffee consumption revealed its inverse correlation with that of diabetes mellitus, various cancer lines, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
Caffeine and its metabolites may help in proper cognitive functionality. Coffee lipid fraction containing cafestol and kahweol act as a safeguard against some malignant cells by modulating the detoxifying enzymes. But higher levels can raise serum cholesterol, posing a possible threat to coronary health, such as myocardial and cerebral infarction, insomnia and cardiovascular complications. Caffeine also affects adenosine receptors and its withdrawal is accompanied with muscle and or adrenal fatigue.
An array of evidence showed that pregnant women, or those with postmenopausal problems should avoid excessive consumption of coffee because of its interference with oral contraceptives or postmenopausal hormones.
It has been said that caffeine causes dehydration. Most studies though show you can have up to 550 milligrams of caffeine (or about five cups of coffee) without affecting hydration levels. That means you can have quite a few caffeinated sports drinks and gels while running without risking dehydration; more than 550 milligrams will have a diuretic effect.
Osteoporosis and Caffeine
At high levels (744 milligrams/day or more) caffeine may increase calcium and magnesium loss in urine. But most studies suggest it does not increase your risk for bone loss, especially if you get enough magnesium and calcium. Research does show some links between caffeine and hip fracture risk in older adults. Older adults may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine on calcium metabolism.
Cardiovascular Disease and Caffeine
A slight temporary rise in heart rate and blood pressure is common in those who are sensitive to caffeine. But several large studies do not link caffeine to higher cholesterol, irregular heartbeats or an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. If you already have high blood pressure or heart problems though, have a discussion with your doctor about your caffeine intake. You may be more sensitive to its effects. Also, more research is needed to tell whether caffeine increases the risk for strokes in people with high blood pressure.
Cancer and Caffeine
Reviews of studies involving 20,000 people revealed no relationship between cancer and caffeine. It has shown just the opposite: that caffeine may even have a protective effect against certain cancers.
Limited evidence suggests caffeine may reduce the risk of the following: Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes and dementia. Despite its potential benefits, don’t forget that high levels of caffeine may have adverse effects. More studies are needed to confirm both its benefits and potential risks.
Caffeine and Sleep
Think you can brew a pot in the middle of the night and still be fine? You may be duping yourself. When normal sleepers were given 400 mg of caffeine before bed—either six hours, three hours, or immediately before—all of them saw their sleep suffer, according to a small study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Strangely enough, these drinkers were unable to detect the sleep-wrecking effects of caffeine, possibly because nighttime awakenings can be difficult to notice, says Christopher Drake, Ph.D. Cut yourself off at least 6 hours before bed.
As you can see, there is plenty of mixed research when it comes to caffeine and its effects on the body. Your best bet is to pay attention to your body’s unique signals and honor them. If it doesn’t seem to work for you, maybe it’s time to try an alternative.
1. Neuropsychobiology 1993;27:217–223 (DOI:10.1159/000118984) http://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/118984
2. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition Vol. 51, #4, 2011. http://digitalarchive.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1271
Integrative Health Coach and Functional Nutrition Consultant
at Ask Dr. Garland
Greg Ashby, CHHC, AADP lives in Ogden, Utah and is an Integrative Health Coach and Functional Nutrition Consultant. Greg has been in the Health and Wellness industry for over 20 years.
Because of his personal experience with Adrenal and Thyroid disorders, as well as Cancer, he’s committed to the areas of Autoimmunity and Cancer prevention and management when it comes to research and his work. He enjoys studying the Psychology of Eating and Behavioral Disorders.
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