Americans' love affair with coffee seems to deepen with each new year — and each new gourmet coffee emporium that pops up on Main Street USA. Over half of Americans enjoy coffee everyday; in 2008, the number of those who partook in gourmet coffee drinks daily increased by 17 percent. Yet despite the growing national addiction to java, many feel an uneasiness about indulging in this daily brew. Studies dating back to 1981 initially found links between coffee and pancreatic cancer as well as cardiovascular disease, and caffeinated beverages were once thought to cause dehydration and bone loss. But researchers have brewed up a fresh pot of evidence over the past decade that contradicts these early negative findings and, in fact, shows that coffee has a host of unforeseen health benefits. From lowering the risk of developing Parkinson's disease to preventing cavities, coffee's energizing aroma, its characteristic taste, and its jolt of rejuvenating caffeine all play a part in the benefits it confers.
Wake up and smell the coffee: your morning cup has been shown to improve alertness and boost concentration. A Japanese study that examined rats that had been deprived of sleep for a day showed deficits in genes important to brain function. When the rats were exposed merely to the aroma of coffee, nine genes were restored to near normal levels and two were pushed above normal, suggesting that just smelling coffee brewing may have positive effects in sleep-deprived humans. Consuming caffeinated coffee has also been shown to improve memory and the ability to perform complex tasks in individuals who lacked adequate sleep. Those who consumed just one cup reported an improved sense of energy, alertness, sociability, and sense of well-being.
Caffeine has long been demonized as a stimulant that can provoke restlessness, anxiety, elevated blood pressure, and insomnia, but in moderate amounts, it actually demonstrates protective health benefits. Those who regularly drink caffeinated coffee are 80 percent less likely to develop Parkinson's disease. Caffeine is thought to slow the degeneration of dopamine-producing cells implicated in Parkinson's, since caffeinated coffee also appears to cut the risk of Type 2 diabetes. A Harvard study found that men who drank six or more cups daily lowered their risk by 54 percent, while women who drank the same amount lowered theirs by 30 percent (the gender difference is attributed to the fact that caffeine and estrogen need the same enzymes to be metabolized). Decaffeinated coffee also reduced diabetes risk, but by half as much as the real deal. Caffeine accounts for coffee's benefits in controlling asthma and alleviating headaches as well. In prolonged or irregular exercise, caffeine improves performance and endurance while protecting against post-exercise muscle pain. Researchers at Rutgers University have found that caffeine can act as a "sunscreen" in mice; epidemiology studies suggest that caffeinated coffee drinkers have a lower risk of skin cancer.
- has been shown to improve memory and the ability to perform complex tasks in those who lack adequate sleep
- is thought to slow the degeneration of dopamine-producing cells implicated in Parkinson's by up to 80 percent
- appears to cut the risk of Type 2 diabetes
- helps control asthma and alleviate headaches through the presence of caffeine
- boosts blood enzymes that are widely believed to protect against colon cancer
- is linked with an 80 percent drop in the likelihood of developing liver cirrhosis
Yet caffeine isn't the only substance in coffee with health advantages. Coffee is in fact extremely rich in antioxidants, more so than even antioxidant powerhouses such as green tea and red wine. One such antioxidant formed in coffee's roasting process boosts blood enzymes widely believed to protect against colon cancer. Drinking two cups of coffee daily is, in turn, associated with a 25 percent reduced risk of colon cancer. Coffee's antioxidant compounds may also have heart protective effects; the Iowa Women's Health Study found that women who drank one to three cups of coffee daily cut their risk of cardiovascular disease by 24 percent. Antioxidants fight free radical damage, which may explain why people who smoke and are heavy drinkers are less likely to suffer from heart disease and liver damage when they regularly consume large amounts of coffee. Consuming two cups daily is linked with an 80 percent drop in the likelihood of developing liver cirrhosis. Coffee drinkers are 50 percent less likely to develop liver cancer than nondrinkers.
Of course, none of these benefits would be as appealing were it not for the pleasures of coffee's distinctive taste. Its rich, bitter flavor comes courtesy of a compound called trigonelline. Italian researchers have identified it as an antibacterial with anti-adhesive properties, which accounts for coffee's ability to help prevent cavities — that is, if you eschew gourmet coffee concoctions loaded with sweeteners. Brewed coffee has undoubtedly been burnished with new respect in the medical world, but, unfortunately, that doesn't mean a mocha frappucino has been elevated to health food.
(Updated: 07/12/13 MG)