(or Thank Goodness I Don’t Have to Quit)
The last 25 years has seen an increase in studies of the health benefits of coffee. And no wonder – over 400 million cups a day are consumed throughout the world.
But for decades the health industry warned that the habit might be unsafe. Recent studies show the opposite is more likely to be the case, especially if you’re drinking a nice organic brew.
Caffeine, one of the main ingredients in coffee, has long been known to be a mild stimulant. It can raise blood pressure, increase heart rate and produce the occasional irregular beat.
But most researchers now believe the effect is mild and short-lived.
By contrast, the emerging data about the health benefits of coffee consumption are numerous and diverse.
Jumpin’ Java! Coffee Prevents Cancer?
There’s strong evidence that coffee reduces the odds of developing colon cancer, but only at higher levels of consumption – four cups a day or more. That much intake may well outweigh the benefits.
But there are other benefits even at moderate levels of coffee drinking.
Coffee, like wine, contains antioxidants that help prevent heart disease and certain cancers by removing cell-destroying free radicals from the blood.
High on the ORAC Scale
Some studies say the concentration of antioxidants is greater than that found in cranberries, apples or tomatoes. Scientists, however, point to the many other valuable vitamins, minerals and fibers in fruits and vegetables.
Apart from the obvious contribution to mental alertness, Chinese studies strongly suggest that coffee can even help reduce the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
American and Scandinavian studies both suggest that decaf and regular coffee help reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes. Good news for the Scandinavians – they have the highest per capita consumption in the world.
There’s some evidence that coffee may reduce the risk of developing kidney stones and gallstones. Other digestive system benefits have been seen, as well. Caffeine increases the secretion of stomach acid, which aids digestion.
Caffeine has been shown to reduce constriction of airways in asthma sufferers, with moderate consumption. In addition to the caffeine, coffee contains theophylline, a bronchodilator which helps the effect.
But those benefits, not surprisingly, come with risks.
Though mammalian sperm swim faster, longer and farther in fluids laced with caffeine, some studies link heavy coffee drinking with reduced fertility.
Increased coffee consumption has been associated with higher blood levels of homocysteine, recently shown to be a risk factor for coronary heart disease. Other studies show an increase in LDL-cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol).
To what degree these factors actually contribute to heart attacks is a matter of debate.
Coffee contains cafestol – known to raise cholesterol levels – and is found in Turkish (course, we call it “Cowboy Coffee” – boiling ground beans in water) and French Press coffee. Filtered coffee (drip method), favored by most Americans, removes the cafestol.
Women who drink coffee lose more calcium and tend to have less dense bones than non-caffeine consumers. Those who drink four or more cups per day also have twice the risk of urinary incontinence.
All in all, though, most agree that the health benefits of coffee – at least at moderate consumption levels – outweigh the risks.
By the way, if you’re a heavy drinker looking for a substitute, green tea has a lot less caffeine (but still a little), and its own list of benefits.