For a long time, we’ve heard to cut down on our coffee intake because it’s not good for us. Now, the health benefits of coffee are getting all the rave. So is coffee off the bad list? It can be difficult to make good health choices when you hear conflicting medical news. I hope to clear up some of that confusion today.
Coffee is the most popular beverage around the word today next to water. According to the National Coffee Association's 2013 online survey, 83 percent of American adults drink coffee every day, and according to the 2015 Zagat Coffee Survey Results, the average American drinks 2.1 cups of coffee a day, which increases with age.
So is coffee good or bad? The short answer is - It depends!
And your genes play a big role in this too.
Basic Coffee Chemistry
Coffee is loaded with pharmacologically bioactive compounds that act just like drugs in the human body. There are 2 key compounds in coffee that make a large impact on your body’s chemistry (and health) with every cup you drink - Antioxidants (the good) and Caffeine, a stimulant(the ugly). And like any and every drug, it’s important to know and weigh out the risks versus benefits as they relate to you individually, to best determine if it’s in your best interest to consume. Or at least help you pick your battles wisely like in the case when a lactose intolerant eats a dairy product, for example a piece of cake at a birthday party, knowing they’ll have to pay the consequential digestive price later.
Coffee Fun Fact
Coffee beans are naturally green. The beans turn brown once roasted for the flavor and aroma many aficionados love. The darker the roast, the less the antioxidant content. Light and medium roasts are preferred for maximized antioxidant protection.
Benefits of Coffee
1. Coffee's magic lies within its massive antioxidant properties. Antioxidants in coffee, such as Chlorogenic Acids and other Polyphenols, slow the aging process, and counteract the damaging effects of excess free radical oxidation caused by the world we live in. Anything you can think such as: Indoor/outdoor pollution, drugs, cigarette smoke, processed and sugary foods, tap water, fragrances, pesticides, household chemicals, etc., all expose us to large levels of toxicity that can weaken our body causing us illness and premature aging. Antioxidants fight this toxicity and help our bodies physiologically cope.
2. Cleaner Arteries for Cardiovascular Function and Erectile Protection. Keeping in mind we have arteries running throughout our entire body, a study conducted on 25,000 people found that, compared with people who didn’t drink coffee, those who drank 3-5 cups of coffee regularly had a lower risk of having calcium deposits in their coronary arteries, which is an indicator of heart disease (the coronary arteries are the vessels that bring oxygenated blood to the heart muscle.) Those who drank 3-4 cups had the lowest risk of developing clogged arteries, but the risk went down with just 1 cup per day. Although not clear yet, researchers believe coffee’s effect on arteries may be due to it’s many antioxidants.
3. Reduced Risk of Prostate Cancer. Several recent studies(see references below) within the last 5 years have observed a strong association between coffee consumption and the risk of prostate cancer – reduced risk of prostate cancer, as well as, fatal and high grade prostate cancers. The association, again, seems to be related to coffee’s non-caffeine antioxidant properties.
4. Supports Blood Sugar. Research suggests the Chlorogenic Acids in coffee reduce carbohydrate adsorption from the digestive tract, which helps lower blood sugar and insulin spikes. Maintaining blood sugar balance throughout the day is essential to keeping a healthy weight and diabetes prevention and management.
5. Increased alertness, accelerated metabolism, and enhanced sports performance related to coffee's natural alkaloid, caffeine, is mainly responsible for coffee's captivating allure. Some other lesser studied benefits include: lower risk of multiple sclerosis and protection against alcoholic liver disease.
Coffee's Adverse Effects
Before you coffee-minded readers push the gas on drinking more coffee, it’s important to also review the negatives of coffee.
The Caffeine in coffee is the unfortunate disruptor in this enchanted coffee fairytale. Although the sports performance and physical endurance benefits of caffeine are well studied and known, it is a stimulant drug that, like all stimulants, comes with a price to pay. Caffeine directly stimulates your sympathetic nervous (fight or flight) system increasing catecholamines like adrenaline and noradrenaline. These are great compounds to have when you need a boost like when you’re running away from a bear, or more relevantly today, when you’re sleep deprived and stress surplused (yes, I made up the word), and need to push through the hustle and bustle of your days and deadlines. But being under the control of your fight or flight system unopposed all day, everyday, can really bruise your body and deteriorate your health by putting you in a catabolic state. This constant state of damage and breakdown has numerous undesirable side effects, such as chronic fatigue, depression, mood swings, anxiety, high blood pressure, joint and muscle pain, muscle loss, dry skin, erectile dysfunction, and sleeplessness. Without even knowing it, we reach for that next cup to mask some of the side effect symptoms that the caffeine itself is perpetrating, not realizing the damage we’re causing.
Do The Benefits Outweigh The Negatives?
It depends on your body! For some, the negatives associated with drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages are apparent due to some of the basic symptoms like anxiety, sleeplessness, and dry skin; but for others not so much. The way to know for sure is by having your genes tested to know how your body is prone to be being affected. A study, published in 2014, linked about a half-dozen genetic variants in human DNA to the volume and frequency of people's coffee-drinking behavior. A few more have been discovered since. The following 2 genes are, in my opinion, the most important for evaluating the risks vs benefits of drinking coffee.
Coffee has a greater effect on people who metabolize caffeine more slowly. The reason for this is that our genetic makeup, which determines the activity of the enzyme CYP1A2, is important for the metabolism of caffeine. Caffeine is metabolized in the body by the enzyme Cytochrome P450 1A2 (CYP1A2) in the liver. Every person has two copies of the gene which makes the enzyme CYP1A2 (one copy from each parent). There are 2 variations of this gene which affect how quickly a person metabolizes caffeine. The CYP1A2*1A variety (“allele”) makes an enzyme that metabolizes caffeine very rapidly. However, the CYP1A2*1F allele metabolizes caffeine slowly. Individuals who have two copies of the fast CYP1A2*1A allele are fast caffeine metabolizers; whereas people who have at least one copy of the slow CYP1A2*1F allele are slow caffeine metabolizers. Researchers have shown through several studies that people who metabolize caffeine more slowly, when ingesting large quantities of coffee, are much more susceptible to complications associated with high blood pressure and have an increased risk of heart attack. Given the results of previous research, slow caffeine metabolizers should not drink more than one cup of coffee a day.
Take Home Point: If your system does not metabolize and get rid of caffeine effectively(slow caffeine metabolizer), you will suffer from its negative side affects more than benefit from its antioxidant benefits (the risks outweigh the benefits).
COMT (Catechol-O-Methyl Transferase) is a Phase Two Detoxification enzyme that inactivates catecholamines and estrogen molecules. The caffeine in coffee releases catecholamines, epinephrine and norepinephrine, responsible for our fight or flight mechanisms and negative side effects. If COMT is functioning normally, heavy coffee intake is associated with a reduced risk of CV disease. If COMT is dysfunctional, you can't break down the catecholamines, and we experiecne chronic catecholamine overload. The vascular toxicity of chronic catecholamine overload outweighs the benefits of the antioxidants, and cardiovascular(CV) risk increases; as well as the other side effects mentioned.
Take Home Point: If you have a genetically dysfunctional COMT enzyme, drink coffee/caffeinated drinks cautiously. If you're like me and have, both, a dysfunctional CYP1A2 AND COMT, then you're highly susceptible to the negative impact of coffee, and you may want to consider decaf or another non-caffeinated beverage of choice still high in the good antioxidants:)
What's The Best Way To Drink Coffee?
To maximize coffee's health benefits, drink it:
- Accordingly to your genetic makeup
- Lightly to moderately roasted
- Ideally, drink your first cup after 9am for adrenal protection, and your last before 5pm or so that it doesn't affect quality of sleep.
Yu X. et al. (2011) Coffee consumption and risk of cancers: a meta-analysis of cohort studies. BMC Cancer, 11:96.
Wilson K.M. et al. (2011) Coffee consumption and prostate cancer risk and progression in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. J Natl Cancer Inst, 103(11):876-84.
Discacciati A. et al. (2014) Coffee consumption and risk of nonaggressive, aggressive and fatal prostate cancer – a dose-response meta-analysis. Annals of Oncology, 180(8):763-7.
Cao S. et al. (2014) Coffee consumption and risk of prostate cancer: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Carcinogenesis, 35(2):256-261.
Zhong S. et al. (2014) Coffee consumption and risk of prostate cancer: an up-to-date meta-analysis. Eur J Clin Nutr, 68(3):330-7.
Lu Y. et al. (2014) Coffee consumption and prostate cancer risk: an updated meta-analysis. Cancer Causes and Control, 25(5):591-604.
Liu H. et al. (2015) Coffee Consumption and Prostate Cancer Risk: A Meta-analysis of Cohort Studies. Nutrition and Cancer, 67(3):392-400.
World Cancer Research Fund International/American Institute for Cancer ResearchContinuous Update Project Report, ‘Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Prostate Cancer. 2014’. Available at: www.wcrf.org/sites/default/files/Prostate-Cancer-2014-Report.pdf
Additional source: coffeeandhealth.org; Coffee consumption and bladder, kidney and prostate cancers