By Nicky Billou and Marina Zelenovic, DNM, RNCP
The invigorating aroma of freshly brewed coffee eases you from slumber better than anything else—alarm clock, rooster’s crow, or dog’s tongue in the face. Taken black or with cream, at sunrise or sunset, coffee holds a sacred place in society. The countless studies to ascertain its virtues (or vices) reflect that. Yet the seemingly contradictory results these studies have produced, have coffee lovers wondering whether they’re drinking divine nectar or the devil’s brew. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between the saintly and the sinful, and you’ll have to measure coffee’s pros against its cons before deciding what’s best for you. To help you do that, here’s what you need to know about that next cup o’ joe.
Hail, to thee
In coffee’s corner of the ring stand several studies—including one from 2004 conducted by the Harvard School of Public Medicine—suggesting that regularly drinking coffee decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes. It does this, most likely, through the action of two key compounds, chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid, both of which lower blood sugar. Separate studies by Finnish and Dutch researchers found, in fact, that drinking three to four cups of coffee daily lowered blood sugar 23 to 26 percent.
Meanwhile, the caffeine in coffee carries perks of its own, including temporary boosts in energy levels; improvements in short-term (though not long-term) memory; sharpened performance on routine mental tasks (but not those requiring complex, problem-solving skills); and the prevention of constipation by stimulating peristalsis.
Other research suggests that the caffeine—a mood elevator—moderately but measurably lowers the risk for suicide and helps relieve pain when taken with painkillers like aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen.
Java has also been linked to reduced risks for Alzheimer’s disease and certain cancers, though researchers have yet to identify the protective mechanisms.
Finally, in another much touted study, published last year in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, roasted coffee beans actually rank as the No. 1 source of antioxidants in the typical American diet. Whether you can absorb these antioxidants, however, remains to be discovered.
Now for the downside: The caffeine in coffee also provokes the body’s stress response by increasing the production and release of the hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. In this “fight or flight” state, heart rate and blood pressure rise, immunity weakens, blood circulation to the brain decreases, and, perish the thought, abdominal fat increases.
Coffee has also been associated with elevated levels of homocysteine (a risk factor for cardiovascular disease) and C-Reactive protein (a marker for inflammation).
Women especially need to moderate their caffeinated coffee consumption, since according to studies in journals like the American Journal of Public Health, Reproductive Toxicology, and the Journal of Maternal-Fetal Medicine, java junkies exhibit worsened PMS, lowered fertility, hot flashes, and—in the case of four-plus cups a day—an increased risk of stillbirths.
The black stuff also inhibits absorption of minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. This may not matter all that much, however, if you drink moderate amounts of mud and get plenty of minerals elsewhere in your diet.
All things considered
Weighing the evidence, the verdict for most people is that one or two cups of coffee a day allows you to capitalize on its pluses without incurring its health drawbacks. Still, each person is different, so keep these tips in mind when deciding how much coffee is right for you:
• As a general rule, avoid coffee after 3 p.m. to protect against insomnia from the caffeine. Most people do better drinking coffee first thing in the morning, before breakfast.
• During times of anxiety, opt for herbal teas, since coffee sets off the stress response—which is the last thing you need when you’re already stressed.
• Rather than having a coffee dependency (where you have to have it at a certain time each day), enjoy your coffee as a social or personal ritual, while sitting down with friends or relaxing, so that you savor each sip.
• Keep track of what time of day (and for women, when in your cycle) you take your coffee. Then record how it makes you feel the rest of the day. Also, consider foregoing coffee for a couple months to see if it changes your day-to-day vibrancy (not counting the initial symptoms of withdrawal, of course).
• For those especially sensitive to caffeine, remember that “decaffeinated” coffee doesn’t let you off scot free. Decaf has 1 to 5 mg of caffeine per 8 ounces versus 80 to 115 for regular coffee. If you opt for decaf, choose a Swiss water process variety—it will contain fewer artificial ingredients. You can be found it at specialty coffee shops and better grocery stores.
• If coffee just doesn’t settle with you—but you love the taste—try alternative beverages like Inka Naturalis, dandelion blend, and Teeccino that give you the flavor you want, without the negative effects. Nicky Billou is president of the fitness program. Tranz4m, which markets the 23-minute Champions workout.
Marina Zelenovic, DNM, RNCP, founded the nutritional consulting company Everything Zen NC. PQs:
Coffee ranks as the No. 1 source of antioxidants in the typical American diet. Decaf has 1 to 5 mg of caffeine per 8 ounces.