To Brew or Not to Brew? Expert Advice on Coffee’s Health Benefits
Why does coffee remain such a beloved beverage? And what is fueling its rise and domination in the drinks market?
There are several factors, according to Steven Schreiber, owner of Two Rivers Coffee, a large-scale coffee and tea distributor in Brooklyn.
“It’s addictive, legal, and pretty cheap,” he said. “It increases productivity, and it encourages socialization.”
Coffee has always been popular, but in the last few decades, it’s also become chic.
“It used to be you’d get your coffee in New York from a cart vendor for 65 cents, and have your coffee in one hand and your cigarette in the other. But it’s not like that anymore,” Schreiber said.
“Now, you see people coming from the gym and those who are more health-conscious drinking coffee.”
The coffee market is moving away from the large cans of generic grounds to organic, regional, and socially responsible coffee. According to Schreiber, consumers want a beverage they can feel good about.
“Even in the convenience industry, people are switching from ‘Big Gulps’ to coffee. Coffee has grown so much because there is less guilt involved,” he said.
The rise of coffee’s feel-good status rides a wave of positive health research. Several studies comparing coffee consumption with disease prevalence suggest that coffee may significantly reduce the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, as well as gallstones, cancer, strokes, and many other chronic health issues.
Researchers see coffee much differently now than in the past. Starting in the 1950s, population studies pointed to harmful effects associated with coffee, suggesting it caused ulcers and heart attacks. But critics of these studies point to a failure to control for crucial factors such as smoking and poor eating–common habits among some coffee drinkers.
As a result of new research and an effort to debunk old myths, many doctors now support coffee consumption.
One is naturopathic doctor Keri Layton, who says that if patients are looking for a lift, coffee is a superior choice.
“If people are having trouble facing their day, and they’re deciding between an antidepressant or a cup of coffee … I think it’s a reasonable midstep,” she said.
Given what researchers have discovered about coffee, Layton believes it may even be considered a health food.
“I think a proper dose of good-quality organic coffee, for the right person, can confer some benefits,” she said.
The words “quality,” “dose,” and “right person” are key–and this is at the heart of how many doctors frame their coffee advice.
Drink High Quality, Check Your Sensitivity
When it comes to quality, keep in mind that coffee is one of the most chemically contaminated crops in the world–not only from the pesticides and fungicides used to grow it, but also because of the chemicals involved in processing it.
“It’s important that people drink clean coffee, locally sourced or organic, to get the maximum beneficial properties,” Layton said.
However, drinking too much coffee can hinder the benefits, Layton added. Lori Chong, a dietician at the Ohio State Wexner medical center, agrees. Chong compares coffee consumption to alcohol: a little may be fine, but too much can hurt our health.
“If you’re drinking too much caffeine on a regular basis, you’re in danger of getting more of the negative side effects than the positive ones,” she said.
Chong says a safe upper limit for most people is 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, which breaks down to about four strong 12-ounce cups of Maxwell House, or one 20-ounce cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee with a turbo shot.
However, many people, such as children, pregnant women, and people with anxiety or sleep disorders, show sensitivity to caffeine at much smaller doses.
Our sensitivity to caffeine can also change throughout our lives and with our habits. Smokers, for example, need twice the amount of caffeine to get the same rush.
A woman’s sensitivity to caffeine varies throughout the month. “Caffeine will be metabolized differently around ovulation than during menstruation, so that anxiety effect and its impact on the bowels may be worse midcycle,” Layton said.
Scientists no longer believe that coffee causes ulcers or heart problems, but there is evidence that suggests it can irritate these conditions.
Diabetes is another ailment exacerbated by caffeine. Although research shows that a daily coffee can help prevent diabetes, it can also make it worse for those who already have it, because caffeine decreases insulin sensitivity.
A Good Source of Caffeine
People recognized coffee’s stimulating nature from the very beginning. According to legend, the coffee plant was first discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder about 1,300 years ago. He saw that some of his goats had extra pep after munching on the bitter red beans, so he brought some back to his village.
Caffeine is the most popular psychoactive drug in the world, but it’s also where a lot of coffee’s health benefits come from. A 2005 study revealed that coffee is our top dietary source of antioxidant polyphenols (much more than green tea, grape juice, or blueberries), and much of this antioxidant power has been traced to caffeine.
Research has shown that decaffeinated coffee doesn’t demonstrate the same healing benefits as the caffeinated stuff. In addition, the solvents often used to remove the caffeine just add more toxic chemicals to your brew.
There are lots of high-caffeine choices in the marketplace today, but your best bet is still coffee, says Alexandra Allred, a personal trainer, wellness coach, and kinesiology instructor. She notes that coffee is natural and has been embraced by many cultures for hundreds of years, whereas energy drinks are merely “caffeine contraptions.”
“Our bodies don’t know what to do with that synthetic caffeine. It’s shunted to our liver, and our bodies don’t know how to process it,” Allred said. “Get a cup of coffee. Your body knows exactly what to do with it, and it will process it beautifully.”
Too Much of a Good Thing
While caffeine has positive qualities, it is still a drug. It creates dependence (for example, constipation may result if you suddenly stop drinking coffee) and withdrawal can result in headaches.
Caffeine can also contribute to tension, both mental and physical. Jordan Rothstein, a certified massage therapist for over 30 years, has seen a strong correlation between people using stimulants (such as coffee, tea, and chocolate) and having tense, rigid muscles. For this reason, he calls coffee “a cup of pain” and “liquid stress.”
“If I’m working on someone who has stopped using these drugs–and they are drugs–the next time I go to treat them, their body feels more relaxed before I even do anything. If they feel rigid, I ask if they started using again,” Rothstein said.
People often reach for caffeine when they feel tired, but this energy fix is a kind of illusion. “Caffeine can’t provide energy, only chemical stimulation, an induced emergency state that can lead to irritability, mood swings, and panic attacks,” wrote author Stephen Cherniske in his book “Caffeine Blues: Wake Up to the Hidden Dangers of America’s #1 Drug.”
Caffeine’s energy illusion works by blocking a brain chemical called adenosine. In response, the brain increases other chemicals such as norepinephrine and dopamine, and stimulates the adrenal glands to make stress hormones, making us feel more alert.
According to chiropractor and clinical nutritionist Ron Ledoux, this chemical mechanism is why coffee can help with weight loss, athletic performance, and mental clarity. Coffee is also a “great herb” to treat acute problems, such as asthma attacks, which can be resolved with a jolt of adrenaline, Ledoux adds.
However, caffeine becomes problematic when we rely on this energy illusion to get us through life because we fail to get any real energy from rest. Eventually, coffee forces the adrenal glands to produce more adrenaline than it has the reserves for, resulting in adrenal burn out.
“If your adrenals are really taxed, then coffee can be detrimental to you. You’re whipping a tired horse,” Ledoux said.
Integrative holistic doctor Rachel Carlton Abrams works near Silicon Valley. She sees this destructive side of coffee a lot in her practice. “I have all these crazy people working 16 hours a day. They get through the day with coffee, but it contributes to depleting their adrenals and their eventual fatigue and breakdown.”
The Right Dose for You
Like other drugs, coffee’s addictive nature can sometimes make it hard to judge a proper dose, and because individual sensitivity to caffeine can vary so widely, one size does not fit all. Some people do fine with more, while others can crash and burn with just a little.
According to Abrams, caffeine sensitivity can be traced to our genetics. People who have defects in their COMT gene cannot break down adrenaline. For these individuals, coffee has a much stronger impact.
Genetic testing can identify this defect, but Abrams says anyone can see it without a test.
“Pay attention to how you feel and interact with other people when you drink coffee,” she said. “Are you happier, more bubbly, and thinking and concentrating better? Fine. Are you irritable, angry, and anxious? Then coffee is not so good for you,” she said.
Acupuncturist Katerina Pozzi Baratta gives similar advice from a Chinese medicine point of view: “If someone has very hot symptoms—easily agitated, a ruddy complexion, or prone to angry outbursts—they’re not going to do as well with coffee as someone who is at the colder, damper end of the spectrum, because coffee is hot and drying.”
Adding Yin to Coffee’s Yang
Adding sugar diminishes coffee’s health effects (don’t expect to stave off diabetes with a caramel latte), but there may be some wisdom to adding cream.
Baratta says that coffee’s hot, dry nature can be tamed with something cool and damp, like milk, or in the case of bulletproof coffee, grass-fed butter.
“A fatty, moistening, grounding element balances out the agitating, upward-moving energy of coffee,” she said.
While milk can cushion coffee’s energy a little, Baratta says, we still have to exercise restraint.
“Like tobacco, it is something that can have a hold on you, so you can’t really use it with good judgment anymore,” she said.
“We want to make sure it’s not in control of us, and that we’re using it within moderate, reasonable boundaries.”