Ahh, that first sip of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. Can’t think how I would survive without it. Addiction? Maybe, but the bigger question is “is this good, bad or indifferent for my health”?
Well, to answer this question I set out to look at the scientific data. So, the big question is what does coffee do to me physiologically. As we all know, coffee contains caffeine. Caffeine is a molecule that binds to the adenosine receptors in the brain causing a series of events to happen. First of all displacing adenosine from its receptor decreases the signal to the brain that it is time for rest or sleep. The displaced adenosine then causes the adrenal glands (which sit above the kidneys) to release adrenaline. Also affected is the dopamine system which may begin to work more efficiently. All of these factors can cause us to feel better and more alert.
Because caffeine has a similar chemical structure it also works like theophylline to relax smooth muscles (this is why a person often feels the need to use the bathroom as it is affecting the smooth muscles of the colon). Furthermore, theobromine (a metabolite of caffeine), is a vasodilator (a blood vessel widener), a diuretic and heart stimulant. But it is not as good as caffeine at displacing adenosine and crossing the blood brain barrier. So, what does this all mean?
Well initially it causes contraction of artery walls (vasoconstricts) which may be in part the reason some people can have a short, but dramatic increase in their blood pressure. However, the vessel wall ultimately relaxes due to the smooth muscle effect of caffeine (this is why it is beneficial in treating migraines). Caffeine also affects the kidneys by acting as a diuretic (causes you to release more water in urine).
So, lets weed through the downside from what we know and the above discussion: “it can temporarily increase my blood pressure, possibly cause rebound headaches when I don’t get it and make me lose water and cause me to seek the closest restroom for two reasons!!!”. Got it!
Now let’s look at some of the positive benefits. A lot of research has surfaced showing health benefits in type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s, liver disease, liver cancer and its ability to promote a healthy heart. Researchers at UCLA identified an increase in a hormone called sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). This controls the biologic activity of the body’s sex hormones (testosterone and estrogen) which play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes. Patients who increased their consumption to an average of 1.69 cups per day had an 11% lower type 2 diabetes risk. Researchers have also demonstrated “higher coffee and caffeine intake is associated with a significantly lower incidence of Parkinson’s disease”. Italian researchers have found that coffee consumption lowers the risk of liver cancer by about 40% (drinking 3 cups a day decreases the risk by more than 50%). And, according to some studies, it is the number one source of antioxidants in the US.
Other benefits include a reduced risk of primary sclerosing cholangitis and cirrhosis (22% reduction in a Kaiser Permanente study). Drinking decaf lowers liver enzyme levels suggesting the benefit is not linked to caffeine (maybe the antioxidant effect?). A Beth Israel Deaconess and Harvard School of Public Health study showed that drinking coffee in moderation protects against heart failure. And finally, other studies have suggested it may help prevent premature death, reduce mortality, reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis and protect against colorectal cancer.
So, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, your favorite convenience store and the coffee industry in general… you’re welcome! Of course, we are all different and have different reasons why we may or may not drink coffee. But from a scientific standpoint, it does a lot more good for you than it does to hurt you (unless, of course, you add a little too much “indulgence”). Now back to my coffee!