Drink to Your Health: The Health Benefits of Coffee
Straight coffee has a bunch of health benefits from reducing fatal heart disease to disease prevention and several things in between.
If you love coffee as much as we do, you might know it’s part of a balanced breakfast (or pre-breakfast, or mid-morning break, or post-lunch ... you get the idea). And you might have heard conflicting information over the years about whether it’s a vice or a virtue. In 1991, coffee was listed as a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organization. But we’ve come a long way, and the good news is that the latest scientific consensus tells us coffee isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the body too.
Below we’ve listed research-backed findings on some of the recognized health benefits of coffee.
A quick caveat: Scientific studies of coffee’s impact on health almost always pertain to coffee served black. Some of the benefits may be nullified if you’re drinking all your coffee with cream, sugar and/or artificial sweeteners.
🦠 Disease prevention
According to the New York Times, caffeine is one of more than a thousand chemicals in coffee. Ounce for ounce, it’s one of the world’s highest natural sources of antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory effects that can counter heart disease, cancer and a number of chronic conditions. It’s thought that antioxidants can reduce what's called “oxidative stress” –– the effect of free radicals, which cause cellular damage in the body.
It also contains chemicals called polyphenols, which can inhibit the growth of cancer cells and lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Plus, coffee is rich in essential nutrients, including:
- 11% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- 6% of the RDI for Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
- 3% of the RDI for manganese and potassium
- 2% of the RDI for Vitamin B3 (niacin) and magnesium
These might seem like tiny amounts, but considering most of us who love coffee have more than one cup every day, the numbers add up.
And that’s not all: “Coffee is abundant in bioactive compounds that promote health,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic, says AARP.
Research published in 2020 in the New England Journal of Medicine on coffee’s health benefits shows that these compounds may improve the gut microbiome (aka the “good” bacteria we need for digestion and immunity).
❤️ Heart health
The European Society of Cardiology tells us that up to three cups of coffee per day is associated with a lower risk of stroke and fatal heart disease, according to new research presented in August at ESC Congress 2021.
"To our knowledge, this is the largest study to systematically assess the cardiovascular effects of regular coffee consumption in a population without diagnosed heart disease," study author Dr. Judit Simon of Budapest, Hungary’s Heart and Vascular Centre.
That backs up research published in February 2021 in Circulation: Heart Failure, an American Heart Association journal, says that “the association between caffeine and heart failure risk reduction was surprising,” says the senior author of the study, David P. Kao, M.D., assistant professor of cardiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, Colorado.
“Coffee and caffeine are often considered by the general population to be 'bad' for the heart because people associate them with palpitations, high blood pressure, etc. The consistent relationship between increasing caffeine consumption and decreasing heart failure risk turns that assumption on its head.”
Kao does go on to note that the jury’s out on whether increasing coffee consumption might decrease the risk of heart disease the same way quitting smoking, losing weight or exercising can. So don’t think your Americano habit will cancel out any obviously bad habits.
🧠 Brain gain
A review of recent research in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences suggests coffee’s bioactive compounds may have a “neuroprotective” effect, warding off Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. There are many studies that suggest this, but comparatively little is known about why this is the case.
But we can take note of a 2018 study from the Krembil Brain Institute, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, in which researchers tested the compounds found in different beans, including light roast, dark roast, and decaffeinated coffee. They discovered that the compounds known as phenylindanes prevent the buildup and clumping of proteins known as beta-amyloid and tau, which are known to lead to Alzheimer's. Since a longer roast leads to an increase in the amount of phenylindanes, the study concludes that dark roast coffee is the best choice for neuroprotection. So fire up that French press!
However, we’re going to channel your mom here and remind you: Everything in moderation. The University of South Australia published a study in July that found (through the brain scans of more than 17,000 people ages 37 to 73) that drinking six or more cups of coffee a day led to their brains literally shrinking (by volume) and posed a whopping 53% increased risk of dementia.
We’re going to go ahead and say six cups of anything besides water is just too much.
⚖️ Weighty matters
Speaking of moderation, there’s a lot of evidence that coffee can help us maintain a healthy weight (if we’re also choosing healthy food and moderate movement).
First of all, it’s a low-calorie beverage that (provided no natural or artificial sweeteners are added) doesn’t spike an insulin response. Yet it does stimulate metabolic activity — and for many, it suppresses hunger. Certainly, it spikes energy levels, which itself can help us live a more active lifestyle.
But coffee contains chlorogenic acid, a compound that slows down the production of glucose in the body and helps break down fat cells and fatty acids. That means coffee may actually help us burn fat even when we’re just sipping it on the couch.
😍 Good-mood juice
Last but not least, let’s reiterate what you probably already know if you’re here on Social Brew’s site: Coffee sparks joy.
Put in scientific terms, the caffeine in coffee acts as a stimulant to the central nervous system. It makes us feel more alert and energetic, but it can improve our mood, too –– by blocking the receptors of the neurotransmitter chemical adenosine while also elevating serotonin and dopamine.
It helps with focus, too: A 2012 study showed that caffeine improved response times and vigilance as well as information processing and some proofreading tasks.
However, more isn’t more when it comes to mental focus: There was little difference between the effects of up to 100 mg of caffeine per day and 300 mg or more. Plus, too much caffeine (shocker) can negatively affect our sleep, which can worsen depression in people who already struggle with it.
Finally, we have to ask. Is coffee addictive? Well, yes — for some of us, at least. Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today that “coffee makes us feel so good because it is able to tap into virtually every reward system our brain has evolved.”
But as long as it’s part of a balanced approach to wellness, it’s one of life’s great pleasures.
BRB, putting the kettle on and rinsing out the Chemex. Cheers!