Coffee: The Good, The Bad, and The Ayurvedic Perspective
In recent years, we have seen an astonishing amount of research being published touting the health benefits of coffee. The question is, do these studies negate the health risks reported in studies past?
We know that caffeine consumption is highly prevalent in our culture; studies between 2001 and 2010 reported that 89% of the adult US population consumed caffeine, with 64% of that caffeine intake being from coffee. (1)
In this newsletter, I will dive into this very controversial issue. When it comes to our health, is coffee a friend or foe? I will also discuss how different body types may react to coffee differently based on their constitution, and take a look at coffee through the Ayurvedic lens.
A Shift in Scientific Findings
Experts from the 23rd International Conference on Coffee attempted to explain why there is such a dramatic shift in the research on coffee from so negative, for so long, to mostly positive. They posited that in the past, researchers were actively searching for proof that coffee was detrimental to health while, today, researchers are actively searching for the possible benefits. (2)
Regardless of how the research about coffee shifted, we know that the plethora of contradictory facts has left many of us confused. Let’s take a look at some of the research on both sides.
The ongoing, multinational European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study collected data over a 16-year period from more than half a million men and women from 10 different countries. The ethnically diverse study explored the effect of coffee consumption on risk of mortality.
After 16 years of follow-up, almost 42,000 of the subjects had passed away from a range of conditions. With careful statistical adjustments for lifestyle factors such as diet and smoking, the researchers found that the group that drank the highest amount of coffee—the top 25%—had a lower risk for all-cause mortality (death by any cause), compared to those who did not drink coffee. (36)
Those in the top 25% of coffee drinkers had significantly less risk of dying from digestive, circulatory and cerebrovascular diseases.
The researchers also saw noteworthy positive changes in bloodwork that included lower C-reactive protein levels (a measure for inflammation), lower liver enzymes, lower Hemoglobin A1C levels (a measure for average blood sugar over a 3-month period), lower bad cholesterol and stronger immunity. (36)
Further findings show that if younger and middle-aged women drink one cup of coffee a day, they can reduce their risk of diabetes by 13%. (3,4,12) Then, a study was done on men and women aged 45-74 years of age who drank twelve cups a day and were found to reduce their risk of diabetes by 67%. (4,5,12) Twelve cups!
While there are many studies purporting the benefits of coffee consumption for healthy blood sugar levels, there are also studies that show the opposite effect. (42, 43) So, as we will see, the final answer to whether coffee does the body well is quite complex.
More Coffee Benefits
Men who consumed 6 or more cups of coffee a day saw an 18% reduction in prostate cancer risk and a 40% reduction of aggressive lethal prostate cancer. (6)
Four cups of coffee a day may reduce your risk of liver cirrhosis by 84%. (7)
The equivalent of five cups a day for five weeks began to reverse the damage from Alzheimer’s disease in the brains of mice by reducing levels of the abnormal protein amyloid-beta. (8)
One to four cups reduced the risk of Parkinson’s by 47%, and five cups a day reduced it by 60%. (9) In this study, the greater number of cups of coffee per day, the lower the risk of Parkinson’s disease.
And while there are many more studies citing the cardiovascular risks posed by coffee consumption, a recent study showed that women who drank 1-3 cups of coffee a day had a 24% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. (10) Similarly, drinking 4 cups a day yielded the highest risk reduction for mortality in general, while drinking 3 cups a day was linked with the highest risk reduction for mortality from cardiovascular-related diseases. (11) Not only is consumption of coffee linked to decreased risk of cardiovascular issues, but it’s also associated with decreased risk of obesity and degenerative brain functioning. (12)
High blood pressure, once the holy grail of anti-coffee publicity, is now being questioned. Studies have shown for years that coffee will raise blood pressure, (13) but new studies show that while the blood pressure will go up initially, if you continue to drink it daily for 8 weeks, the blood pressure will normalize. (14)
And let’s not forget the powerful effect coffee can have on our alertness and cognitive functions. Continually administered throughout the day, caffeine has been shown to sustain both our mental and psycho-motor performance. (15) Cuppa joe, anyone?
Note: Interestingly, most of the studies on coffee show the same benefits with or without the caffeine. So, if you are sensitive to caffeine but love the taste of coffee, consider a natural, water process, organic, decaf coffee.
What’s the Secret Ingredient?
If you take the caffeine out of coffee, the benefits cited above remain relatively the same. So, if it isn’t the caffeine that’s responsible for these benefits, then what is it?
There are about 1000 active constituents in the coffee bean, and only a few of them are understood. We do know that the coffee bean, the seed of the fruit, is loaded with antioxidants.
Perhaps the most powerful known antioxidant in the coffee bean is called chlorogenic acid, a compound that is most concentrated in the green, unroasted coffee bean, but dissipates somewhat in the roasting process. The weakening of this compound in the coffee bean’s journey from bean to beverage may be why we need such high amounts of coffee to reap its many benefits. Today, green coffee extracts and chlorogenic-rich slow roasts are available to deliver the benefits of chlorogenic acid without actually having to drink the dark roasted brew.
Most of the negative research on coffee can be linked to its impact on the nervous system. Coffee is a stimulant and increases the release of stress-fighting hormones, which are usually reserved for life or death, fight-or-flight situations. (16) The elevation of these hormones is detectable hours after consumption. Interestingly, studies show that similar effects on mood and autonomic response were measured in the body regardless of coffee’s caffeine level. (17)
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a steroid hormone that can decrease with the consumption of coffee. DHEA is responsible for cellular and tissue repair. It also enhances memory and cognitive function, protects against stress, and supports numerous physiological processes. (18)
Coffee consumption (including decaffeinated coffee) releases an addictive neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is a pleasure hormone and when the brain is bathed in dopamine, it never forgets the source. After the coffee rush wears off, the brain starts thinking about its next cup, so that when a coffee drinker drives by a coffee shop, they may be compelled to stop even if they were not previously thinking about coffee. This is the effect of dopamine on the brain – it’s the addictive, “I’ve-gotta-have-it” hormone. (19)
Dopamine may only be one mechanism for the addictive nature of coffee. Withdrawal symptoms such as painful headaches, nausea, vomiting, loose stools, depression, anxiety, and fatigue are common when a coffee drinker tries to stop. (20)
Other studies have found that coffee consumption may shorten lifespan, raise cholesterol and triglycerides, increase inflammation markers and, if you are a genetically-slow caffeine metabolizer, it may increase the risk of non-fatal heart attacks. (37)
Other studies show it may cause insomnia, fatigue, cerebral infarction, as well as cardiovascular complications and caffeine withdrawals. In women, it may interfere with contraceptives and postmenopausal hormone balance. (38)
Coffee has been accused of depleting the body of minerals like calcium, zinc, copper, and iron, but these studies were effectively disproven, as the amount of minerals that may be mal-absorbed with coffee is too small to cause any type of mineral deficiency. (40,41) Magnesium depletion has also been purported, but I have not been able to find any science to back this up.
To summarize, coffee:
- Raises homocysteine levels – a major risk factor for heart disease. (21)
- Raises blood pressure. (22)
- Raises cholesterol. (23)
- Is associated with heart irregularities. (24)
- Increases inflammation. (25)
- Can damage the nervous system. (26)
- Interferes with neurotransmitters in the brain. (27)
- Alters DNA repair. (28)
- Increases risk of kidney stones. (29)
- Lowers bone density in women. (30)
- Interferes with sleep. (31)
- Is linked to erectile dysfunction. (32)
- Is linked to increased symptoms of gastric reflux and heartburn. (33)