Published April 8th, 2022 at 11:00 AM
It’s 7 a.m. and I’m guzzling my favorite waker-uppers — a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin. I know the muffin, delicious though it is, is loaded with things that aren’t very healthy. But what about the java? Is it good for me, bad for me or an okay antidote for those Monday morning blues?
Ask Dr. Frank Hu, a research scientist and professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms, “Drink your coffee — it’s good for you.”
Hu knows. In 2018, he completed a 20-year study on the effects of coffee consumption on the human body.
“Coffee is probably the most consumed beverage in the world, and until 20 or so years ago, there was much controversy over whether or not it was unhealthy,” he said. “There were claims about all kinds of health risks that were disproven once more rigorous studies were done.”
He added, “The research findings now are remarkably consistent. Unless there is some compelling reason to avoid it, coffee consumption — anywhere from three to five eight-ounce cups a day — is beneficial and actually has the ability to help minimize the risks of developing a number of serious health conditions.
“There were claims about all kinds of health risks that were disproven once more rigorous studies were done.”
According to a comprehensive survey of American coffee drinking habits, released in March 2020 by the National Coffee Association, seven in 10 Americans drink coffee every week, and 62% drink coffee every day. The average American coffee drinker has just over three cups every day.
So besides being a great way to start your day, what makes coffee so good for you?
Hu says, “Coffee is a very complex substance, containing not just hundreds, but perhaps thousands, of bioactive compounds that have the ability to reduce the risk of chronic disease.”
Coffee’s phytochemicals, including polyphenols (micronutrients found in plant-based foods) improve the gut microbiome, regulate glucose metabolism, enhance fat burning, and improve the basal metabolism rate (BMR).
Besides slowing or preventing cancer growth in animals, they have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetes, and antihypertensive properties.
In fact, a 10-year study of over 500,000 people, reported in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that drinking coffee was inversely associated with mortality. In other words, people who drink coffee live longer than those who don’t.
The amount of bioactive chemicals in a cup of coffee depends on many factors, such as the method of brewing, the amount of water used, and the type of coffee bean. A standard, eight-ounce cup of black coffee has from 95 to 165 milligrams of caffeine.
Research studies and meta-analyses found on electronic databases such as PubMed, Medline and Google Scholar consistently show that coffee consumption of three to five cups of filtered, caffeinated coffee per day is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases.
This includes coronary artery disease, stroke, heart failure, metabolic syndrome, cardiac arrhythmias and death from cardiovascular causes. It has no substantial effect on blood pressure even for those with hypertension.
A paper filter is the most effective type of filter for trapping diterpenes, the oily compound in coffee that, if consumed, prevents the intestines from regulating the amount of cholesterol absorbed and excreted and which could raise cholesterol levels.
Coffee, once on the World Health Organization’s list of possible carcinogens, was removed from the list when studies over the years found that it actually reduced the risk of many types of cancers.
The antioxidants in coffee are believed to reduce inflammation and diminish oxidative stress in which an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants leads to cell and tissue damage and the development of chronic diseases, including cancer.
Multiple studies have found that coffee consumption reduces the risk of liver, endometrial, prostate, melanoma, oral, pharyngeal, colorectal cancer (especially in women), and post-menopausal breast cancer.
As if the above reasons aren’t enough for you to head out to your favorite café or pour yourself a cup of joe, there are numerous other ways in which coffee drinking seems to be good for you.
A 2020 article in the New England Journal of Medicine pointed out that coffee is a major source of chlorogenic acids, which, along with anti-tumor effects, may help to lower blood glucose levels and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. It is also correlated with liver health, lessens the odds of developing gallstones and gallbladder cancer, and is associated with a reduced risk of chronic kidney disease.
Coffee also appears to be protective against some neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cognitive decline. It appears to slow the accumulation of the amyloid protein in the brain, a key factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Coffee drinkers also are at a lower risk of depression and suicide.
A 2021 study by the Waterloo School of Optometry and Vision Science shows that caffeine increases alertness, visual acuity, decision making and stimulus processing, all important components in safe driving.
Coffee’s cancer-reducing possibilities aren’t across the board, however.
A study in International Journal of Cancer concluded that a higher level of coffee consumption was associated with an increased risk of lung cancer, although the researchers noted that the results might be muddied by smoking habits since smokers often accompany a cup of coffee with a cigarette.
It’s important to discuss possible caffeine-drug interactions with your healthcare provider. Some medications that may interact include cold or allergy medications, certain psychotropic (psychiatric) or stimulant medications, anticoagulants, and some drugs used to treat asthma or diabetes.
A recent study found consuming large amounts of coffee daily may increase the risk of glaucoma more than three-fold, but only in individuals who have a strong genetic predisposition to higher eye pressure.
Coffee late in the day can cause insomnia and may reduce the quality of sleep. For some people, large quantities of caffeine can cause anxiety, jitteriness, agitation or rambling thought or speech.
Heredity, body weight, age, medications, medical conditions and other factors affect how your body metabolizes the caffeine in coffee. Whether or not you have health issues, deciding how much coffee you can safely drink is an individualized decision which should be discussed with your healthcare provider. But it’s pretty clear that, for most people, its many benefits can make drinking coffee both a pleasant and healthful part of your daily routine.
“I think it’s important to dispel the myths about coffee because so many people enjoy it,” Hu says.
I agree. Now, if someone would just tell me that my blueberry muffin is super-healthy because it contains fruit, my mornings would be guilt-free.
This article first appeared on Next Avenue, a nonprofit news site created by Twin Cities PBS. Barbra Williams Cosentino RN, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Queens, N.Y., and a freelance writer whose essays and articles on health, parenting and mental health have appeared in the New York Times, Medscape, BabyCenter and many other national and online publications.