The Healthy Pros and Cons of Drinking Coffee

Coffee – the luxurious, dark, rich heaven of a beverage that is one of the most popular beverages in the world – owes part of its popularity to the physical effects it has on the body. The most active component in coffee is caffeine, a central nervous system stimulant. The amount of caffeine in one or two cups of coffee can counteract fatigue, increase alertness, improve motor skills and speed up thought processes, as well as increase the heart rate and speed up digestion. (You knew there was a reason for that after dinner coffee, didn’t you?)

Coffee has had its ups and downs in the world of public relations. When I was a child, for instance, coffee was “for grownups only” because everyone knew that “coffee stunted your growth”. By the time I was in my teens, doctors had found that coffee ‘has a reverse effect on some children’, and caffeine was a first-line medication for children who exhibited what we now call Attention Deficit Disorder. It was prescribed for my own brothers for that purpose, in fact. Decades later, caffeine literally saved the life of my son, who developed sever sleep apnea at a week old. He literally stopped breathing every time he fell asleep, and no medication seemed to have any effect. After three weeks on a ventilator, a visiting doctor suggested trying a dose of caffeine to stimulate his central nervous system. The effect was miraculous – within half an hour, he was off the ventilator, and within days, home with a prescription for 5 milliliters of caffeine daily. By the time he was two, he was sneaking sips of coffee whenever we left a cup within reach, and today, at sixteen, he’s learned that half a cup of coffee helps him relax and focus when he’s too jittery to settle down to sleep or homework.

Interestingly, it’s not a ‘reverse effect’ on children that makes coffee a calming influence on children and adults with ADD. Doctors have learned that people with ADD are easily overstimulated because their brains process things more slowly. When they are bombarded with sensory stimuli, the brain skips ahead, and they often act before thinking things through. Caffeine speeds things up, allowing their brains to work through the information it is taking in, and the visible result is that they are less likely to act on impulse and more likely to be able to focus and concentrate on work and the things around them.

This seeming anomaly is only one of the things that scientists and doctors have learned about caffeine and coffee in recent years. Here are a few other health facts about coffee that you should know.

1. Coffee May Help You Fight Cancer
Fresh brewed coffee contains about the same amount of antioxidants as three oranges. Antioxidants are a powerful ally in the fight against cancer. The key? Fresh means really fresh. After about ten minutes, the antioxidants seem to evaporate with the steam.

2. Coffee May Prevent Gallstones

Two cups of coffee a day cuts a man’s risk of developing gallstones by 40 percent. Four or more cups of coffee a day cuts the risk by 45 percent. The benefit is specific to coffee – those drinking the equivalent amount of caffeine in tea or soda did not show the same benefit.

3. Coffee May Improve Athletic Performance
A study in the Journal of Sports Medicine reported that two cups of coffee two hours before exercise improves marathon and cycling trial times. It increases alertness and endurance, but caffeine can also dehydrate you, so be sure to drink extra water with your coffee.

4. Coffee May Improve Your Mental Skills and Keep You Awake
Caffeine helps you fight fatigue, improves your alertness and helps you process new information by increasing the activity in your neurotransmitters and improving brain function.

5. Coffee may be bad for your bones
Caffeine may interfere with your body’s absorption of calcium. It decreases the amount of calcium absorbed during digestion and increases the amount excreted in your urine. The solution? Drink your coffee with milk.

6. Unfiltered Coffee May Increase Cholesterol Levels
There is a compound in coffee called cafestol which may affect the way that the liver metabolizes cholesterol. A paper filter removes cafestol, so filter your coffee before drinking your coffee.

7. Few Cups Of Coffee is Safe During Pregnancy – Too Much Coffee May Cause Complications in Pregnancy
(see Drinking Coffee During Pregnancy and Ins and Outs of Caffeine and Decaffeinated Coffee)

The doctors are divided in their opinions about coffee during pregnancy. Some studies suggest that drinking 6 cups or more a day increases the risk of miscarriage. Caffeine does pass through the placenta, so it may affect the fetal nervous system during development. Caffeine is also passed through breast milk, so doctors strongly suggest keeping your coffee intake low during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. One solution? Go for darker roasts, which contain less caffeine and less acid, giving you a double benefit.