Diet and Nutrition

Coffee for Health: Yay or Nay?

February 24, 2019

We’re not afraid of controversy, but this is a topic that really stirs up serious emotions. Coffee drinkers and lobbyists keep telling us how healthy coffee can be - up to four cups a day! That can’t be correct, can it? Well, let’s find out. We'll take an unemotional, scientific look at the pros and cons of coffee and let you decide for yourself.

We’ll start with a pro-coffee stance. Coffee does in fact contain essential nutrients like B vitamins, manganese, potassium and magnesium. Organic coffee is also extremely high in antioxidants and helps to fight free radicals in the body that cause inflammation or disease. The main active compound in coffee is the stimulant caffeine, which boosts energy, brain function, metabolism and exercise performance. Studies show that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of liver cancer, diabetes and neurodegenerative brain diseases and tend to live longer and report being happier. Sounds good so far, right?

Now let’s look at a few of the downsides to drinking coffee. The caffeine in coffee can cause serious anxiety, disrupt sleep, and create co-dependence. Additionally, decaf coffee is made using chemical solvents to remove the caffeine from the coffee beans. So decaf coffee does not contain many of the same health benefits regular coffee contains.

Turns out coffee has both good sides, and not-so-good sides.

Certainly, even before the pandemic demand and desire for a Starbucks on every major city corner came to be, coffee was the morning ritual to get working people up and out the door. Coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world, behind only petroleum, and has become a mainstay of the modern diet. It was first used in the 16th century as an aid for people to concentrate better, then made its way to Europe around the 17th century to become the breakfast beverage of choice for many instead of beer or wine.

Coffee health benefits

Coffee beans, especially organic ones that are not sprayed with pesticides, do boast a lot of health benefits such as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, anti-diabetes, and antihypertensive properties.  It is thought that the polyphenols in coffee may be a major reason for its health benefits. Although researchers are not exactly sure how polyphenols work to benefit health, they have a few theories. For example, they hypothesize that polyphenols are easily absorbed into the small intestine which has a positive impact on gut microbiota. The gut health benefits are thought to come from the polyphenol in coffee known as coffee hydroxycinnamic acids.  Other benefits of this polyphenol include improving fat metabolism.

Polyphenols are antioxidant compounds that help lower chronic disease risk by helping to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. The major polyphenol found in coffee is known as chlorogenic acid. Roasting can impact the antioxidant content of coffee, with medium roasting found to provide the most antioxidant content.

The caffeine found in coffee can also be beneficial, but only in certain amounts. Too much caffeine has adverse health effects. Caffeine can increase release of dopamine, noradrenaline, and glutamate. Dopamine can improve blood flow, noradrenaline can prevent blood pressure from dropping too low, and glutamate plays an important role in brain health such as aiding learning and memory.

Some bad news for coffee lovers

Yes, there are many researchable health studies saying coffee is incredible for our bodies, but there are many other research reports with a more negative outlook. A famous study that was recently published showed that people with type 2 diabetes experienced adverse health effects after consuming coffee. Their coffee intake was correlated with insulin spikes and increased blood sugar after a meal. Additional research has shown that the caffeine in coffee might be the culprit responsible for the secretion of higher levels of insulin from the pancreas. For some, coffee can be pretty dangerous.

Here are even more warnings related to coffee consumption:

  • Coffee is extremely acidic and is associated with digestive discomforts, indigestion, heartburn, GERD and dysbiosis (imbalances in your gut flora).
  • The caffeine in coffee increases catecholamines, also knowns as stress hormones.  Drinking coffee elicits a stress response which releases cortisol and increases insulin.  Insulin, then, increases inflammation, and this makes you feel bad.
  • Because coffee is a diuretic, urinary excretion is elevated and important minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium are leached away faster, creating a possible deficiency. An imbalance in your electrolyte status can lead to serious systemic complications.
  • Constituents in coffee can interfere with normal drug metabolism and have negative effects on the adrenal and thyroid glands.
  • Normal detoxification process in the liver is not as optimal when coffee is consumed in great amounts.

How much coffee should I drink each day?

Now that we’ve discussed some of the arguments on both sides of the “Is coffee healthy” question/controversy, it appears that coffee may not be for everyone, and even small amounts of coffee can yield both positive and negative health results. Even with some beneficial properties, too much coffee can lead to symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, and anxiety (aside from the other warnings listed above). The well-rounded answer here is that coffee consumption benefits and adverse health effects are dependent on the individual. Drinking coffee in moderation can provide the best potential health benefits for those who do not have chronic health disease, blood sugar management, or adrenal fatigue issues.

Regarding the overall question of how much is safe to drink, research shows that the “average” person can safely consume about 300-400 milligrams of caffeine, or 3-4 cups a day, assuming each cup contains 75 to 175 mg caffeine. Therefore, about 3-4 cups a coffee each day is the recommended maximum limit that has been shown to be safe and provide health benefits. The biggest problem with our modern coffee consumption is that most people are drinking 3 times that amount and lacing their beverages with all kinds of gunk including sugar and inflammatory sweeteners and creams. If you do choose to drink 3 cups a day, then make sure you are drinking 8-10 cups of water throughout the day and boost your intake of vitamin C as well. This will better ensure your immunity and hydration levels stay high.

If you don’t like drinking plain black coffee hot, there are plenty of ways you can inject the benefits of coffee into your day such as:

  • Iced coffee with a splash of plant-based milk like almond, hemp, cashew or coconut milk.
  • A shot of coffee added to your protein shake for an energy-boosting, protein-rich portable morning meal replacement.
  • Blend a shot of espresso with a banana, a tablespoon of almond butter, and a splash of plant-based milk alternative for a caffeinated twist on your smoothie.

Bottom line

Coffee is great for certain people, but not everyone. For those who can handle coffee and are in optimal health, coffee provides energy, antioxidants, and feel-good-mood-lifting benefits, but the type of coffee here also matters (organic and medium roast is best) and it must be consumed in moderation (3-4 cups a day max). Stay away from adding too much sugar or cream in your coffee and make sure to consume your coffee early in the day to prevent interruption of your sleep. If you do have questions about whether or not coffee is your friend or foe, please ask your health care professional.

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