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Back when I was growing up, everyone knew one thing about coffee — it stunts your growth. It was the reason that parents didn’t allow kids to drink coffee. There were other bits of wisdom about how coffee affects your health, and over the years, drinking coffee — and caffeine in general — has been associated with headaches, nausea, the “jitters”, anxiety, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heartburn and dehydration. It all added up to one big message from the health community to everyday people who love their coffee — Cut back on coffee. It’s bad for you.
But is coffee really bad for you?
If you’ve been paying attention to any health news in the past fifteen years, you’ve heard a steady stream of good news for coffee lovers. In fact, various studies about the health effects of coffee over the past 15 or so years have suggested that coffee may help prevent diabetes, lower the risk of several types of cancer, reduce the effects of hepatitis C and cirrhosis and protect against damages caused by illnesses such as Alzheimers’ disease and Parkinson’s disease.
So which is it? Is coffee a panacea or the devil’s drink?
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Coffee, with its hundreds of compounds, obviously has many effects on the body. It’s well known that caffeine is a stimulant, for example, but not as well-known how other compounds and chemicals in coffee may affect the functions of the various cells in your body. And since some studies have shown that both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee have some similar effects, scientists do know that all of the health benefits — and harmful effects — are not due only to caffeine.
Here’s a quick rundown of what research has suggested about the health effects of coffee over the past 15 years or so.
A number of studies suggest that coffee protects against beta-amyloid plaque that is found in the brains of those who have Alzheimer’s disease. In 2010, scientists at the University of South Florida found that caffeinated coffee boosts circulating levels of GCSF (granulocyte colony stimulating factor) in mice. GCSF appears to inhibit the formation of beta amyloid plaque, and higher levels of GCSF are associated with increased memory function in adults with Alzheimer’s. The effect was not seen with just caffeine, nor was it seen with decaffeinated coffee, suggesting that it is the combination of caffeine and another substance in coffee that boosts GCSF.
Numerous studies suggest a lower risk of tumors in endometrial cancer, prostate cancer and estrogen-negative breast cancer in men and women who drink at least 4 cups of coffee daily. Scientists believe that the antioxidants and anti-inflammatory subestances may be responsible for the reduction in cancer risk.
Coffee appears to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes in those who drink at least 4 cups of coffee daily, and more coffee appears to increase the protective effect. Again, caffeine appears to play a role, but may not be the only — or even the most important — protective factor. The most recent research suggests that caffeic acid and cholorogenic acid, two antioxidants found in brewed coffee, may increase insulin sensitivity and delay or protect against the onset of type 2 diabetes.
Studies show a 25% decrease in the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease for people who drink 1 to 3 cups of coffee a day. The findings suggest that moderate coffee consumption may have a protective effect aginst Parkinson’s disease.
Moderate coffee drinking appears to support liver function and may offer protection to the liver cells, according to research. Alcoholics who also drink a lot of coffee appeared to have a reduced risk of liver damage due to cirrhosis, according to several studies. Coffee use also appears to offer some protection from liver and pancreatic cancer. Researchers found that drinking coffee is associated with lower levels of enzymes that indicate liver damage and inflammation in cirrhosis.
While the caffeine in coffee temporarily increases the heart rate and pulse, the long term effects of coffee on heart disease appear to be positive. Drinking one to three cups of coffee a day over the course of several years has been linked to a small but significant risk of heart attack in adults.
Three to four cups of coffee a day is associated with a lower risk of stroke overall. However, because drinking coffee temporarily increases blood pressure, the chance of having a stroke may increase immediately after intake, especially in those who don’t commonly drink coffee.
Caffeine has been implicated in lower birth weight and drinking too much caffeinated coffe during pregnancy may increase the chance of miscarriage. Doctors recommend that pregnant women limit their intake of caffeine to no more than 200 mg daily.
While too much caffeine may be associated with bringing on caffeine, scientists have also found that a cup of coffee helps ease migraine headaches in some people. They suspect it is because the caffeine in coffee narrows the expanded blood vessels in the brain that cause migraine pain.
Drinking caffeinated coffee may reduce the risk of developing gallstones, according to several studies conducted between 1999 and 2002.
Early studies into the link between coffee and cholesterol suggested that drinking coffee can increase the levels of cholesterol in the blood. When researchers focused on the effects of caffeinated vs. decaffeinated coffee on cholesterol, however, they found a different story. In fact, decaffeinated coffee increases the levels of LDL — so-called bad cholesterol — but drinking caffeinated coffee does not. In fact, researchers found that those drinking 4 to 8 cups of caffeinated coffee daily saw an increase of HDL, good cholesterol, improving their cholesterol profile.
While coffee is certainly no panacaea, the evidence is mounting that it may be healthier for you than doctors previously thought. The beneficial effects of drinking coffee, at this point anyway, seem to far outweigh the deteriments, so enjoy your coffee if you drink it — but, as with anything, enjoy it in moderation.