Without a doubt, coffee is one of our society’s favorite beverages. But while many people wouldn’t even think of starting their day without savoring that hot, aromatic blend, it has been the subject of long standing debates on its health risks and benefits.
Aside from containing important antioxidants, polyphenols, proteins and fiber, coffee’s main ingredient is caffeine which is the source of most of the controversy.
The chemical name for caffeine is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, and is found in 60 different plants.
It is the most popular drug in the world, 90% of Americans consuming it daily in one form or another.
A 6-7 oz. cup of coffee contains anywhere between 80 to 175 mg of caffeine. It is generally believed that 200-300 mg of caffeine per day is safe, but beyond that there is little agreement.
Benefits of drinking coffee
Studies suggest not only that moderate coffee consumption causes no harm (as long as it is avoided by those who have certain risk factors), it has been shown to have possible health benefits.
For example, people who drink coffee regularly are less likely to develop Type II Diabetes than those who don’t. The caffeine in coffee reduces levels of C-peptide which is a substance in the blood that is an indicator of insulin resistance and risk for diabetes.
Also, coffee may reduce the risk of developing gallstones, discourage the development of colon cancer, improve cognitive function, increase endurance performance in long-duration physical activities, and may reduce the risk of liver damage in people at high risk for liver disease.
It is also believed to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease due to the levels of antioxidants contained in coffee. (However, my father suffers from Parkinson’s despite having consumed coffee on a daily basis his entire life.)
And contrary to the long held belief that coffee could raise blood pressure, it has now been shown that it may even reduce the heightened blood pressure that often results from mental stress.
Studies have also shown that coffee may have protective effects on the skeletal, reproductive nervous, and cardiovascular systems, including homocysteine and cholesterol levels, etc.
But while all of this sounds great to someone who loves coffee, conflicting evidence exists suggesting that these systems can also be compromised with excessive coffee consumption.
Risks of coffee drinking
Although coffee does contain antioxidants, some believe that they are not enough to outweigh the associated health risks.
It is widely agreed that coffee should be avoided by anyone with high blood pressure, gastritis or ulcers, and particularly by pregnant or nursing mothers.
And without a doubt, it is quite acidifying to the system, and when consumed regularly can keep the pH balance on the acid side setting up conditions ripe for disease.
Pregnant and Nursing Mothers
Studies have indicated a link between consumption of over 300 mg of caffeine per day by expectant mothers and low birth weight, miscarriage, and some birth defects. Though some observations conflict with this information (read the comments below), it is up to the reader to decide.
In addition, a fetus or infant’s liver is not developed enough to process caffeine and so it remains in the body for up to 4 days. Therefore, nursing mothers should avoid caffeine as well.
Adrenal Functions, Hormonal Impacts, and Nutrient Absorption
Caffeine stimulates the adrenal hormones, resulting from an activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This controls the body’s “fight or flight response”, and should never be an extended condition. In this state, your body’s parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the rest and digest system) is inactive.
The parasympathetic nervous system regulates hormone levels, maintaining body temperature, digestion and nutrient absorption, is active under normal conditions.
But as the sympathetic nervous system remains active for extended periods, adrenal hormones are continually excreted, causing other hormones to become out of balance, precipitating numerous risk factors. Hormonal imbalances caused by extended periods of adrenal activity can lead, for example, to osteoporosis.
Excessive coffee consumption compromises the body’s ability to utilize B vitamins such as folica, B-12 and B-6, which are needed to maintain healthy homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is an amino acid in the blood which in high levels has been associated with a variety of cardiovascular disorders.
It also decreases the absorption of essential minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. Minerals are the most difficult of important nutrients for our bodies to absorb, even under normal conditions. Coffee cause the excretion of these minerals in the urine, especially calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron.
To Decaf or Not to Decaf?
Switching to decaf is not always the safer choice. One commonly used chemical in the decaffeination process is Methylene Chloride, which some argue is unsafe, even at the levels touted as safe by the FDA.
Even Ethyl Acetate, used in the most commonly, and ‘natural decaffeination’ touted process, is a manufactured chemical that mimics the naturally occurring one. Water and CO2 decaffeination are the safest, with no byproducts, but are much less commonly used.
Preparation and Cholesterol
Some indications of benefit vs. risk may be due to the preparation of coffee. For example, kahweol and cafestol, two substances in coffee known to raise cholesterol levels are filtered out when coffee is prepared using the drip method and paper filters. But for those who drink non-filtered coffee, such as lattes, the risk of increasing cholesterol levels is present.
Regardless of the preparation, coffee is also a known diuretic, which limits the body’s ability to absorb water. For every cup of coffee a person should drink at least the same amount of water to make up the difference.
Coffee consumption also raises blood acidity levels which causes calcium to be pulled from the bones to alkalize the blood, further increasing the risk for osteoporosis.
And a final note, coffee is one of the most heavily sprayed crops. And it is grown outside the US where pesticides are used that are against regulations in this country. So if you do drink coffee, switch to an organic brand to avoid these dangerous chemicals and eliminate one more health risk.
So the moral of the story appears to be that moderation is key. If not taken in excess there seems enough evidence of some benefit to drinking coffee for those not having certain risk factors.
And if you do decide to give up coffee, or switch to decaf, do so gradually to avoid the headaches often associated with the cessation of stopping a daily caffeine habit.
When at one time I had issues with insomnia, and since then becoming aware of the link to osteoporosis, a condition which crippled my grandmother and with which my grandfather also suffered, I have almost completely given up my acquired coffee habit except for on occasion.
When I do consume coffee, I choose organic blends, and never drink it late enough in the day that it will affect my sleep. I can’t deny that it’s right in line behind chocolate as one of my favorite flavors!
That said, I’ll leave you with is a good study of caffeine’s affects on our bodies: