Whether it’s a simple cup at home or a multisyllabic venti drink served up by a barista, coffee is the unofficial drink of the nation. More of us drink more coffee than any other beverage except for water. But there’s one pastime that might be more popular than drinking coffee: wondering if all that coffee is good for us.
In recent years, scientists have found many reasons for the coffee drinkers of the world to rejoice, if not relax. “You can be confident that moderate amounts of coffee are completely safe, and there seem to be some real benefits,” says Dr. Carl Lavie, a cardiologist and nutrition expert with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Health experts with the US government agree. According to the draft of the 2015 update to national nutrition guidelines, a moderate coffee habit — three to five cups a day — can be part of a healthy diet. According to the report, there’s even strong evidence that coffee drinkers tend to live longer than non-drinkers.
Coffee is a complex brew. In addition to caffeine, it brims with antioxidants and other compounds. As Lavie explains, nobody knows exactly which parts of coffee should get the credit for the apparent health effects. Although most research has focused on regular coffee, studies suggest that decaf has important health powers, too. It’s clear that there’s a lot to like in that cup — as long as you don’t load up your drink with a lot of cream and sugar.
Here’s a closer look at some of the perks of coffee.
Sharper memory. Coffee is the beverage of choice for late-night study sessions, and for good reason. A recent experiment by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that the caffeine in a cup of coffee can help the brain store and retrieve memories.
Better workout. Caffeine is a bonafide and completely legal performance-enhancing substance — up to a point. Runners and cyclists can go faster and farther if they’re fueled up with the caffeine found in a couple cups of coffee, but more than that isn’t helpful, and at high levels it’s considered a banned substance (about 17 cups’ worth). And another bit of good news — there’s no sign that reasonable amounts of caffeine makes it easier to become dehydrated.
Heart health. A modest coffee habit seems to be helpful for the heart. A 2014 study in the journal Circulation found that people who drank three to five cups of coffee each day had a lower risk of heart trouble than people who didn't drink any. In 2013, Lavie and his colleagues at Pennington reported that regular coffee drinkers were less likely to suffer heart failure and strokes. Surprisingly, even though a shot of caffeine can briefly make the heart race, coffee drinkers are also less likely to have atrial fibrillation and other heart rhythm disorders. Lavie speculates that caffeine itself may be helpful for the heart, but that’s not the whole story: A 2008 study of nearly 130,000 people found that decaf drinkers were slightly less likely than non-coffee-drinkers to suffer heart-related deaths.
Diabetes protection. Studies show that regular coffee drinkers are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than non-drinkers, possibly because coffee influences insulin, the hormone that regulates sugar. But according to a recent report from Harvard University, people who already have diabetes should consider going easy on coffee — or switching to decaf — because in some people, caffeine might make it harder to control blood sugar levels.
Improved cancer odds. For whatever reason, coffee and cancer don’t seem to get along well together. Studies have found that coffee drinkers are less likely than non-drinkers to develop ovarian cancer or certain brain cancers. In 2014, the World Cancer Research Fund concluded there was “strong evidence” that drinking coffee is linked to a lower risk of liver cancer. And among men who have received treatment for prostate cancer, coffee drinkers are less likely to have the cancer return or spread.
Banishing the blues. Coffee undoubtedly energizes the mind. Now, there’s growing evidence that a coffee boost can also ward off depression. A 2011 Harvard study of nearly 51,000 women found that those who drank four cups a day were about 20 percent less likely to be depressed than women who rarely or never drank coffee. On the other hand, caffeine can ramp up anxiety in some people who are sensitive to its effects.
Help for Parkinson’s disease. Doctors have known for a while that regular coffee drinkers are less likely than others to develop Parkinson’s disease. Recently, studies have shown that moderate amounts of caffeine can also improve the motor control in some people with the disease.
Put it all together, and there are plenty of reasons to feel good about a cup of coffee (or three). People who don’t drink coffee already shouldn’t necessarily feel left out. There are plenty of other ways to protect the heart and stay healthy. But if coffee is already a part of your life, relax and enjoy!
Editor: Deepi Brar
Bhatti SK, O'Keefe JH, and Lavie CJ. Coffee and Tea: Perks for Health and Longevity? Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. November 2013. [Link]
Interview with Carl Lavie, MD, Professor of Medicine at the Ochsner Clinical School affliliated with the University of Queensland School of Medicine and consultant at the Pennington Biomedical Institute.
Rob van Dam, MD. Ask the Expert: Coffee and Health. The Nutrition Source by the Harvard School of Public Health.