Coffee and I have had a distant, distrustful relationship — that is, until recently. I was warned early of the “evils” of coffee. I saw how addictive coffee could be for some people, so I reasoned that it was better not to start. However, I live in Portland, where coffee is an important part of the culture.
The year my second daughter was born that changed. I was so tired from lack of sleep and I thought some coffee would help. It certainly did! I was up until the wee hours of the morning, wide awake. I stayed away from coffee for a couple of months after that experience.
These days, I'm not really committed to being either a coffee drinker long-term or a coffee teetotaler. So, I thought I'd look into some of the studies on coffee, and here's what I learned.
Why you should drink coffee
1. Coffee and cancer: There are so many studies on coffee and health, I'm sure I am not going to touch on all of them. Overall, coffee drinkers are found to have lower rates of certain cancers, including skin cancer, colon cancer, endometrial cancer and prostate cancer. There is some discussion about whether coffee promotes estrogen-dominant breast cancers or not, but this 22-year follow-up paper found that there was no link to estrogen-dominant breast cancer in pre-menopausal woman with either caffeinated or decaf teas and coffee consumption. However there was a slight correlation between breast cancer and postmenopausal women. A 2015 study by the World Cancer Research Fund International found a strong link between coffee consumption and a decreased risk of liver cancer.
2. Coffee and diabetes: Another benefit to coffee drinkers (at least those who drink four cups or more per day) is a significant decrease in risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Preliminary research seems to point to three proponents of coffee for this effect: caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid and caffeine.
3. Coffee, dementia and Alzheimer's disease: Coffee also shows promise in decreasing risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. One study found a decrease in risk of Alzheimer’s disease with long-term caffeine exposure. Another study found that consumption of coffee and tea were linked to lower risks of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. For that 2009 study, about 1,4000 people in Finland and Sweden were followed for two decades and those who reported drinking 3-5 cups of coffee each day were 65 percent less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer's disease, compared to those who didn't drink coffee or only drank it occasionally. And, in case you were wondering, roasted coffee beans have the best brain-protecting elements.
4. Coffee and Parkinson's disease: There has also been a link to decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease among coffee drinkers. However, recent research cautions women taking replacement hormones against drinking coffee, as the two combined could increase your risk. There may be an explanation on why some people are protected from Parkinson’s disease when drinking coffee. About 25 percent of the population has a gene, GRIN2A, that appears to protect them from developing Parkinson’s disease if they drink coffee. If you don’t have that gene, you may not get the protective benefit of drinking coffee.
5. Coffee and aging: Caffeine may counter age-related inflammation. A 2017 study found that older people with lower levels of inflammation — which is believed to contribute to conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, Alzheimer's, depression and more — also happened to be coffee drinkers. The more caffeine they drank, the more protected they were from this age-related inflammation.
6. Coffee and living longer: Two 2017 studies publishes in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicated that coffee drinking led to a longer life, and that it did so for multiple ethnicities. The first study, conducted by a team from the University of Southern California, found that higher coffee consumption among more than 215,000 participants in both white and non-white populations resulted in a lower risk of death due to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and kidney disease, among other conditions. The second study, led by the Imperial College London and International Agency for Research on Cancer, considered half a million Europeans from 10 different countries. Those who consumed three cups a day tended to live longer than non-coffee drinkers and saw a reduced risk of death from circulatory diseases and diseases related to the digestive tract. In both studies, decaff drinkers experienced the same results as those who drank regular coffee.
7. Coffee, depression and MRSA: If that wasn’t enough, some studies also show less depression in coffee drinkers and that coffee drinkers are to less likely to be carriers of the superbug, MRSA.
I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to go out and get an espresso. So what’s the hold up? Why do some doctors, health experts and nutritionists caution against drinking coffee? Here are a couple of reasons.
And why maybe you shouldn't ...
1. Pregnant women: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated in August 2010 that moderate caffeine consumption — less than 200 mg per day, which is the amount in about 12 ounces of coffee — doesn't appear to have an impact on premature birth miscarriage, or fetal growth. The effects of larger amounts of caffeine during pregnancy are unknown.
2. Coffee drinking can lead to nutritional deficiencies: Coffee can block the absorption of certain minerals, including iron. This can obviously be a problem. But more then that, it is a powerful appetite suppressor for many. If you drink coffee instead of eating a well-balanced meal, you can end up with deficiencies of macro and micronutrients, which can lead to a host of problems. And don’t think that this appetite-suppressing effect will help you lose weight long-term, because you can turn down your metabolism rate when you don’t eat enough.
3. Drinking coffee can lead to sleeping issues, irritability and anxiety: If you are stimulating your body for a fight-or-flight response with coffee, sleeping won't be the most likely first response from your body, hence why many people suffer from sleep issues when they drink coffee. Caffeine can also make you shaky, irritable or anxious.
4. Caffeine can also interfere with GABA metabolism: GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that's produced in the brain, nervous system and GI tract. It helps you with stress management and exerts a calming influence. I’ve taken it as a supplement to help me sleep before. Caffeine can prevent the binding of GABA to GABA receptors, which is another reason why caffeine can make some people feel more anxious.
5. Caffeine might lead to metabolic syndrome and weight gain: In a 2013 study conducted on mice, Australian researchers found that drinking more than five or six cups of caffeinated coffee a day increased the risk of metabolic system and led to weight gain.
What's the right answer for you?
This is where I am now on the “coffee issue”: Coffee is a highly sprayed crop, so I almost always buy an organic brand to avoid a high pesticide residue. Coffee, in my mind, should also be bought fair trade as workers are often abused in the industry. This makes coffee much more expensive, which also limits my coffee drinking.
When it comes to coffee and my health, I've had a lot of issues with overwhelming tiredness in the past. While coffee could have helped me survive some hard days with more ease, I took the hard route and rebuilt my health using food and nutrition. It was worth it.
Coffee should never be a substitute for good energy caused by good health. (When I was writing my salad cookbook, I got such a huge energy boost from all the salads I was stuffing my face with all day, that I didn’t even want to drink regular coffee — I didn’t need any more energy!)
To get all the benefits that coffee has to offer, it seems you have to drink a lot of coffee. (Many studies found a positive effect from those who drank four or more cups of coffee per day.) I've found it reassuring to read about the possible benefits of drinking coffee, as I hope that all of my coffee-loving extended family will reap the benefits.
So, for now, I am enjoying coffee on a somewhat regular schedule, but not every day or even every week. I'm definitely not drinking enough to reap the health benefits found in the above studies, but I drink it for the enjoyment. Whatever your situation, I hope you've found a good balance, too.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in May 2012 and has been updated with new information.