Legend has it that around 1200 years ago an Ethiopian goat herder observed his animals energetically dancing around after eating the bright red berries of a local plant. Following the goats’ lead the young man and soon those of his region began eating the berries for energy. It wasn’t until a few hundred years later in Arabia that coffee became “coffee” when roasted beans were brewed and imbibed as a drink.
Coffee drinking, and growing, spread first to Africa and India, then Europe, Latin America, and finally Brazil where massive production and shipping changed coffee from an elite ritual to a drink for the masses. Our global love affair with that dark elixir of energy was born. America now consumes the most coffee in total but lags behind many northern European countries and even Canada in consumption per capita.
What Jives with Java?
The unroasted coffee bean has all the macronutrients, acids and caffeine but none of the flavor of it’s roasted cousin. It takes heat to turn carbohydrates and fats into aromatic oils, dry out the moisture, alter the acids, and unleash the smell and flavor of coffee.
Coffee beans, similar to cocoa beans and tea leaves, contain a few healthy vitamins and minerals, but it is the power-packed anti-oxidant chemicals called polyphenols that seem to be the real benefit to coffee drinkers. In fact, studies show coffee is the main source of anti-oxidants in our American coffee culture.
The anti-oxidant effect of coffee may be the link to lower rates of certain diseases in which oxidation and inflammation seem to play a role in their development. By protecting the body from oxidative stress the anti-oxidants in coffee may protect delicate organs such as the pancreas in diabetes and neurons in dementias.
Caffeine is the other component in coffee that clearly impacts health. It increases brain activity by blocking an inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine. More on adenosine later… The result is more norepinephrine and dopamine which lead to increased mental acuity markers such as mood, memory, reaction time and general cognitive function.
Metabolism and physical performance are also increased by caffeine intake, via the ramping up of brain chemicals that increase metabolism and also by encouraging the breakdown of fat stores to be used for energy production.
Health Benefits of Coffee
Despite it’s popularity, coffee has gotten a bad rap. Sometimes referred to as an addicting drug there have been many permutations in the medical community as to whether coffee is good or bad for your health. Recent research is suggesting that not only is coffee “okay” for your health, it may actually be beneficial.
Although they stopped short of actually recommending coffee for disease prevention, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee stated that moderate coffee consumption, up to about 5 cups or 400mg of caffeine is not associated with any long-term health risks. Better yet, they also noted observational data that showed coffee intake was associated with a lower risk of numerous diseases.
People who drink coffee live longer. A 2012 study from the New England Journal of Medicine, and a 2014 study from the American Journal of Epidemiology both show a significant reduction in all cause mortality for people who drink 3-4 cups of coffee per day.
Coffee is good for your heart. Research shows that people who drink a few cups of coffee daily have less heart disease and heart failure, and that it won’t increase the risk of abnormal heart rhythms. Perhaps the rich anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in coffee help prevent cholesterol oxidation, which is a necessary step in the formation of artery plaque. Along the same line, coffee drinkers have as much as 25% less risk of having a stroke.
Coffee is shown to improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels, and a recent study from the July 2015 edition of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that both caffeinated and decaf coffee lowered inflammatory markers that are associated with risk for diabetes. The study found that regular coffee drinkers had a 54% reduction in the development of type 2 diabetes.
Even the risk of cancer is lowered by coffee consumption. Lower rates of uterine, prostate, breast, oral and skin cancers are noted in regular coffee drinkers. Studies show that coffee exerts strong anti-oxidant, anti-mutagenic, and protective effects from chemical or radiation induced cancer stressors.
Of course coffee is well known as a “pick me up” that enhances our alertness and memory. But it also turns out that regular coffee drinkers have less dementia. Japanese researchers reported in 2014 that coffee prevents the progression of mild memory impairment to full blown dementia. Other research shows coffee lowers the risk of Parkinson’s dementia.
Our mood is improved by coffee as well, according to study author Michel Lucas, PhD, RD, from the Harvard School of Public Health. Coffee drinkers have a 20% decrease in the rate of depression, and a decrease in the rate of suicide. The interaction with “feel good” brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine may explain the improved mood, while the anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory properties may be responsible for preventing depression.
All this is not to say that coffee is risk free. Some people are very sensitive to caffeine and don’t tolerate coffee. Chugging down copious amounts of the black stuff can lead to high blood pressure, anxiety, tremors and insomnia. Withdrawal from caffeine can be an unpleasant process. And when studies point to 3-5 cups as being healthy, they are 6-8 ounce cups, not the “super size” 32-ounce mug!
And I’m not suggesting you pick up a Starbucks habit to prevent disease. We’re also talking about black coffee here, not the Caramel Macchiato doused with vanilla-flavored syrup, milk and caramel sauce. If you must, use a scant amount of sweetener and creamer, as these are not huge health hazards in the scheme of things.
I enjoy a cup of turmeric tea at 5am every morning, deferring the coffee intake for an hour or more, for two reasons. One, turmeric is good for about 300 health benefits so I strive to get a daily dose. Two, by deferring caffeine intake for an hour or more after awakening it helps prevent adenosine build up and the post coffee “crash” that can happen when the caffeine effects wear off.
I highly recommend Purity Coffee as they seek to make the healthiest, and tastiest, coffee possible. They only use organic, mold free beans roasted to just the perfect point to maximize the beneficial compounds in beans. Bottoms up!
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.