Roy M. Arnold MD
Most of us enjoy a steaming cup of coffee first thing in the morning. Others enjoy coffee throughout the day. Over the last 30 years the pendulum on whether coffee is beneficial or harmful has swung back and forth so many times it would make you dizzy. When I began my medical career years ago, the prevailing dogma was that coffee consumption was a major contributor to stomach ulcers and that it increased the risk for pancreatic cancer. Both of the assumptions, taught to me as ironclad facts during the Carter administration have since been shown to be completely false.
Besides the pleasant aroma, taste and mild stimulating effects, are there in fact any beneficial effects of coffee? Moreover, have any scientific population studies shown any harmful effects of America’s favorite morning beverage? First, a few statistics: 54% of Americans over 18 or 150 million US residents drink coffee daily. 35% prefer it black and 65% consume their coffee during breakfast hours. 35% of the coffee consumed is in specialty drinks such as Cappuccinos, mochas or lattes. Per capita annual consumption in the US is almost 6 gallons. Surprisingly, the US is not even in the top 20 countries based on per capita consumption. The top 5 are Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands. I presume it’s pretty cold in northern Europe. The US is ranked 26th on the list right behind Portugal, Kosovo, Estonia and Spain. Our neighbor to the north, Canada ranked 9th overall.
The latest good news on coffee is that regular coffee drinkers are 50% less likely to commit suicide. The data comes from a 16 year study of over 200,000 individuals in the US and was published in the World Journal of Biologic Psychiatry. Another large study from 2011 published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that female coffee drinkers were 20% less likely to suffer from depression.
In a 2012 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found coffee-drinking men to be 10% and women who drank the same amount 16% less likely to die from any cause than their non-coffee drinking peers. This study lasted 14 years and included 450,000 participants.
Studies cited in a Popular Science article from earlier this year entitled, “7 Reasons Why Coffee Is Good for You,” showed a 23-67% lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, a 60% lower risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementia and a 32-60% lower risk of Parkinson’s disease. The article also cites a lower incidence of liver disease.
Coffee actually contains a significant amount of vitamins and antioxidants which can provide substantial benefit. The primary antioxidants in coffee are called flavonoids; however coffee contains significant amounts of at least ten other compounds including carotenoids like lutein and lycopene with recognized antioxidant properties. Antioxidants obtained by consuming fruits, vegetables and beverages contribute to the body’s self-repair mechanisms and may play a role in resisting cancer. Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help protect your cells and repair cell damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals, molecules responsible for aging and tissue damage, may be a factor in heart disease, cancer and other disease. Foods loaded with antioxidants include blueberries, strawberries and raspberries, tomatoes, kale, bell peppers, corn, and spinach. The major antioxidant vitamins are Vitamin C, beta-carotene and Vitamin E. They’re largely found in colorful fruits and veggies, especially those that are red, blue, purple, yellow and orange in color. Despite all of the hype about Green tea containing high levels of antioxidants, coffee actually contains more on a per-cup measurement.
Other less scientific studies on coffee consumption have shown a reduction in gout symptoms, gallstones, post-exercise muscle pain and in reducing heavy metals dissolved in tap water. One study even suggested that coffee consumption reduces dental plaque and cavities.
Lest one think that this article is one-sided, there are a few effects of coffee consumption that can be adverse to your health. First the stimulant effect can interfere with sleep, particularly if consumed close to bedtime. Second, some studies have shown that the stimulant effect can contribute to rapid heartbeat in persons who are sensitive to its effects. In addition, some studies have found coffee consumption increases cholesterol and raises the risk of osteoporosis. Yet other studies did not validate these conclusions. Coffee consumption in pregnancy has been linked to an increased risk of stillbirth and a few studies have also identified a higher prevalence of iron-deficiency anemia in coffee drinkers.
In summary, if you enjoy your morning coffee, you may partake of it secure in the knowledge that it is probably not causing you any serious harm and may be improving your overall health and longevity. As with everything moderation is the key – 2-6 cups per day maximum. If you experience any heart palpitations or pounding, it’s probably worthwhile to cut back and consult with your primary health provider.
References: http://www.statisticbrain.com/coffee-drinking-statistics/; Wikipedia.com; The World Journal of Biologic Psychiatry, July 2, 2013; Archives of Internal Medicine, September 26, 2011; New England Journal of Medicine, May 17, 2012; Popular Science February 21, 2013
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