The health concerns—and benefits—of coffee.
There was a time when you could sit down at a diner counter and order a plain old cup of coffee. Really… I’m not lying. You could just ask for coffee and the waiter or waitress would bring you a steaming hot cupful—and in a glass cup nonetheless. And it would be piping hot, because who in his or her right mind would drink cold coffee?
Walk into a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donuts and ask for a cup of coffee.
The response will most likely be: Will that be original blend, dark roast or decaf? Want a Flavor Shot or a Flavor Swirl with that? Will that be blonde, medium or dark roast? Hot roast, cold roast, iced? Espresso? Cappuccino? Frappuccino? Latte? Macchiato?
It sort of makes you wonder just how many coffee variations there are out there today. Certainly enough for a bevy of apps to help you choose the right one—now if they’ll only help us correctly pronounce the name of the one it is that we want to buy.
Even with so many things changing throughout the years, one thing has remained constant; experts say that a cup of coffee is still good for you. Approximately 65 percent of adult Americans wholeheartedly agree, knocking back a whopping 400 million cups every day. Yes, we hear about the downside of caffeine and the possibility of coffee addiction, but research shows that coffee has some really great health benefits.
First, let’s deal with the addiction problem.
The Addictive Side Of Coffee: Caffeine
Brewed coffee is made from the seed contained in the fruit of a coffee plant. The fruit looks much like a cherry, and it usually contains two seeds pressed tightly together. Most of the coffee we drink here in the United States comes from South America and is of the Arabica or Robusta variety. Robusta seeds, or beans, contain almost three times the amount of caffeine as Arabica beans.
When it comes to addiction, caffeine is the bad boy in coffee. It’s what makes you want the second, third and fourth cup, and even though caffeine is widely used as a medicine worldwide, it is a psychoactive drug. Its cousins are methamphetamine, amphetamine, cocaine and psilocybin. Even though it’s not nearly as potent as this group of heavy hitters, it is a neurostimulant and it is addictive. Ask Marion County resident Dan Johnson.
“The first thing I think about when I wake up is my coffee,” Johnson says and laughs. “I’ve drank coffee every day of my life since I was a boy. I have a cup with breakfast, and I take a thermos to work with me just like my daddy did. I probably drink five cups or so a day, and if I don’t get it… watch out!” He laughs again as he balls up his fist and swings it through the air. “I was in the hospital once and they told me I couldn’t drink anything after midnight for some test the next day. The test was supposed to be around sunup, but it was put off and put off. By around noon, I told them ‘To hell with this, get me a cup of coffee.’ I got my coffee, and they did the test the next day.”
Caffeine elevates mood; enhances perception; alters behavior, consciousness and thought patterns; and increases energy levels. When stopped suddenly, withdrawal symptoms—such as what Johnson feels—may appear within just a few hours. The type and severity of the symptoms can vary widely from person to person but can include irritability, nausea, a pounding headache or drowsiness.
What makes caffeine so addictive? We have a hormone in our bodies called adenosine. Its job is to make us drowsy so we can fall asleep. Adenosine begins to build up in our brains the instant we wake up in the morning. As it builds up throughout the day, we become more and more tired. By nightfall, the high level of adenosine in our brain helps us fall asleep. Simply put, caffeine keeps adenosine from doing its job in our brains. At the same time, it enhances other neurotransmitters and hormones that increase neural activity. So, every time we drink a cup of coffee we become more aware, alert, happy and energetic, and our brains like that—a lot. So, when we don’t get our coffee, our brains let us know about it fairly quickly.
When it comes to caffeine and coffee addiction, the good news is that if you do decide to forego the Joe permanently, in a mere three days or so the symptoms should abate, and you’ll soon be back to normal.
The only other detrimental effects of drinking coffee reported by researchers also come from caffeine, but they are transient. When a person first begins to drink coffee, it will slightly elevate his or her blood pressure, heart rate and respirations. After a few days of regular coffee consumption, these side effects go by the wayside.
The Good Side of Coffee — it’s Good for You
Cathy Jones is patiently waiting in line at a Starbucks in Ocala. She’s visiting Florida from her home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“I buy at least two cups of coffee a day,” she says with a soft Southern drawl. “I had my first cup when I was around 7 or 8. My great aunt would pour it out of her cup and into a saucer to cool. She’d pour milk into it, and it just looked so good. I tried it, I loved it and I’ve been drinking it ever since. I’ve never really cared if it was good for me or not, because I was going to drink it no matter what anybody thought or said. I’m over 50 now, and my blood pressure is good, my cholesterol is good, my blood tests are all in the normal range and I don’t have any heart problems, so it doesn’t seem to be hurting me.”
Jones went on to say that she usually drinks about four cups a day but also drinks iced sweet tea and eats chocolate any time she gets the chance. Her caffeine intake may be considered moderate to high, but the fact is, coffee isn’t hurting her at all, in fact, according to most medical literature today it’s helping her.
Studies show that coffee not only makes us more alert and attentive, it also helps us in many other ways. Caffeine isn’t stored in the body; it is filtered out by the liver and excreted in urine. Increased urination helps rid the body of excessive salt or fluid.
Researchers in China have found that people who drink four of more cups of coffee daily have a 50 percent less chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Three compounds in coffee have been found to block the formation of toxic proteins that can cause diabetes mellitus. These proteins are similar to the ones formed in Alzheimer’s disease, and further research has shown that people who drink three to five cups of coffee per day in midlife have a 65 percent reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia in late life.
Research performed at Harvard University has found that coffee helps protect against Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis, tooth cavities, colon cancer and prostate cancer. And contrary to other findings, the Harvard study shows that regular coffee drinkers have a reduced risk of being hospitalized for heart arrhythmias.
Other studies have shown that regular consumption of approximately four cups per day can help reduce tinnitus, stop the formation of kidney stones, aid in erectile dysfunction, ward off depression and even lower your chances of committing suicide.
Before you rush right out and buy a $2,000 coffee machine, remember, not everything is safe for everyone. Certain people may be highly sensitive to the caffeine in coffee, especially in higher doses. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends a maximum caffeine intake of 400mgs per day, which usually means between four and five cups. For someone sensitive to caffeine’s effects on the body, that number may be much lower.
Symptoms of caffeine overdose are confusion, hallucinations, vomiting, possible heart arrhythmias and convulsions. In rare instance, overdose has been fatal. If you have a known heart arrhythmia, it would be best to consult your physician to determine if you should avoid caffeine or limit your daily intake of coffee.
For people who only drink decaffeinated coffee, always check the caffeine content before you order. Tests have shown caffeine levels ranging from 2 to 75mgs per 12-ounce cup. Levels as high as 75mgs could affect someone who is very sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
Researchers agree that drinking coffee (overall caffeine intake) during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage and low birth weight in babies. However, they do not all agree on what amount might be “safe” for pregnant women to drink. The March of Dimes has set the level at 200mgs per day. That is one cup of coffee, but women must also take into account any other drinks or foods they might also ingest during that 24-hour period that contain caffeine (tea, soft drinks, chocolate, some over-the-counter headache medicines).
Sources: pubs.acs.org, news.harvard.edu, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Popular Death Wish Coffee: 728mgs per 12 oz.
Starbucks Blonde Roast Expresso: 475mgs per 20 oz.
Dunkin Donuts Coffee with a Turbo Shot: 395mgs per 20 oz.
Panera Iced Coffee: 210mgs per 16 oz.
McDonald’s Iced Mocha: 200mgs per 21-24 oz.
Average Home Brew: 188mgs per 16 oz.
Average Decaf Coffee: 9.4mgs per 16 oz.
*These numbers are approximations. Caffeine content may vary widely based on the sample taken and brewing equipment used.