A Healthier Tomorrow – Is Coffee Good for You?

A Healthier Tomorrow – Is Coffee Good for You? 

Imagine a Healthier Tomorrow   

By Alison H. Page

I love coffee.  Where I grew up, coffee was a staple of life, and a ritual.  It was the smell of coffee that we woke up to in the morning and the aroma that filled the house at the end of the day.  When my father arrived home from work, my mother would have a pot of coffee waiting for him to enjoy as he relaxed in his chair and watched the evening news.  We kids, there were nine of us, frequently shared in the ritual.  I am not sure when I actually started drinking coffee, but I can’t remember I time when I didn’t. 

Over the years, there have been many varying reports on the risks and/or benefits of coffee as the research has evolved.  Well, this year we have had some good news!  Generally, coffee is good for you!

The latest assessments of the health effects of coffee and caffeine, its main active ingredient, are reassuring indeed. Their consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of all kinds of ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, gallstones, depression, suicide, cirrhosis, liver cancer, melanoma and prostate cancer.

In fact, in numerous studies conducted throughout the world, consuming four or five eight-ounce cups of coffee (or about 400 milligrams of caffeine) a day has been associated with reduced death rates. In a study of more than 200,000 participants followed for up to 30 years, those who drank three to five cups of coffee a day, with or without caffeine, were 15 percent less likely to die early from all causes than were people who shunned coffee. Perhaps most dramatic was a 50 percent reduction in the risk of death by suicide among both men and women who were moderate coffee drinkers, perhaps by boosting production of brain chemicals that have antidepressant effects.

As a report published by a research team at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded, “although current evidence may not warrant recommending coffee or caffeine to prevent disease, for most people drinking coffee in moderation “can be part of a healthy lifestyle.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Most of us have lived through decades of sporadic warnings that coffee could be a health hazard. Over the years, coffee’s been deemed a cause of conditions such as heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, pancreatic cancer, anxiety disorder, nutrient deficiencies, gastric reflux disease, migraine, insomnia, and premature death. As recently as 1991, the World Health Organization listed coffee as a possible carcinogen. In some of the now-discredited studies, smoking, not coffee drinking (the two often went hand-in-hand) was responsible for the purported hazard.

That’s not to say coffee warrants a totally clean bill of health. Caffeine crosses the placenta into the fetus, and coffee drinking during pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage, low birth weight and premature birth. Pregnancy alters how the body metabolizes caffeine, and people who are pregnant or nursing are advised to abstain entirely, stick to decaf or at the very least limit their caffeine intake to less than 200 milligrams a day, the amount in about two standard cups of American coffee.

Coffee can also disrupt your sleep.  Caffeine locks into the same receptor in the brain as the neurotransmitter adenosine, a natural sedative, blocking the ability of that natural sedative to help you fall asleep. 

Caffeine is one of more than a thousand chemicals in coffee, not all of which are beneficial. Among others with positive effects are polyphenols and antioxidants. Polyphenols can inhibit the growth of cancer cells and lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes; antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory effects, can counter both heart disease and cancer, the nation’s leading killers.  It turns out, coffee is the number one antioxidant in the American diet.

Of course, not all cups of coffee are equal.  How the coffee is brewed matters.  When brewed without a paper filter, as in French press, Norwegian boiled coffee, espresso or Turkish coffee, oily chemicals called diterpenes come through that can raise artery-damaging LDL cholesterol. However, these chemicals are virtually absent in both filtered and instant coffee.

Also countering the potential health benefits of coffee are all the things people like to add to their cup of joe, like cream and sweet syrups, that can convert this calorie-free beverage into a calorie-rich dessert.  For example, a 16-ounce Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino has 51 grams of sugar, 15 grams of fat (10 of them saturated) and 370 calories.

At Western Wisconsin Health, we strive to make the healthy thing to do the easy thing to do.  So, coffee is free throughout our facility for employees, patients, and visitors.  I guess you would say it is an extra “perk.”