Coffee’s Role in Neurological Health: The Benefits of Coffee for your Brain: Part 2
Last month I dove into the world of coffee. Media attention over the last few years has left everyone’s head spinning. Is it helpful or harmful to health? Is it friend or foe?
This week, we’ll take a closer look at the role coffee may play in the health of your brain. More specifically, can it prevent or delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases?
Well, if you are one of those coffee-lovers, you can rejoice! Many recent reports indicate that moderate consumption of coffee may actually lower the risk for common neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases!
In fact, one recent European study showed that coffee consumption was able to slow the progression of dementia in men over a ten year period.
It has also been shown that coffee can affect brain vascular dementia and maintain cognitive function.
We’ve all heard of dementia, but have you ever heard of vascular dementia?
It is a general term that describes problems with reasoning, judgment, memory, and other thought processes that is caused by brain damage from impaired blood flow to the brain. When brain cells are deprived of oxygen and nutrients, a decline in thinking skills, or dementia, results.
Vascular dementia can be caused by either a stroke or small vessel disease. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted, while small vessel disease happens through a process called atherosclerosis - the thickening and hardening of blood vessels. Over time, blood can no longer flow freely through the vessels.
Both of these processes impair blood flow to the brain and contribute to neurodegenerative disorders.
But for some, coffee may actually decrease their risk! Read on to find out how.
Coffee - Friend or Foe to Your Brain?
As discussed last month not all people metabolize caffeine at the same speed. Nor is everyone affected by it the same way.
The effects of coffee and caffeine on the body and mind also differ between people. This is partly due to the speed at which each person metabolizes caffeine, our body’s ability to become more tolerant to its effects after long-term use, and genetics.
Concerning coffee being a risk factor for disease, again many factors are at work here. With this in mind, let’s look at how coffee can affect the brain and whether coffee drinkers have higher or lower risks of disease - including neurodegenerative diseases that are becoming more prevalent in today’s society.
This is Your Brain on Coffee
Coffee does many things that can positively affect brain health.
Coffee increases dopamine - Dopamine is the happiness neurotransmitter and is involved in feelings of pleasure, mood, and alertness. By increasing dopamine levels, our mood is lifted, we become happier, and less likely to slip into depression. This is also an important consideration when it comes to delaying the onset of Parkinson’s Disease.
It improves memory recall - The caffeine in coffee can improve short term memory recall and sharpen mental skills. In fact, one study showed that drinking coffee produced the same mental state as that experienced by people participating in Qui Gong!
It stimulates the nervous system - Caffeine’s short-term stimulating effects on the central nervous system has been well documented.
It can reduce depression - Recent studies have shown that as a central nervous system stimulant, 4 cups of coffee per day reduced a woman’s risk of becoming clinically depressed by 20%. Another study demonstrated a 53% decrease in suicide rates in both men and women who drink the same amount. Why? In addition to caffeine's antioxidant properties, and ability to increase dopamine, coffee also reduces inflammation in parts of the brain. As depression is related to reduced levels of dopamine and inflammation, correcting these issues may reduce depression.
Coffee can reduce brain inflammation - Relieving depression isn’t the only benefit of reducing brain inflammation. Rather, a reduction of inflammation allows neurons to send messages from one part of the brain to another faster, which can improve processing speed, memory, and cognitive performance. Additionally, inflammation in the brain is indicative of all disease, especially Alzheimer’s, so reducing it can reduce your risk of developing dementia.
Coffee and MCT Oil
Despite all these benefits of coffee for your brain, what if you could boost your brain power with coffee even more?
You can by adding the healthy fats found in MCT oil!
MCT stands for Medium Chain Triglycerides. They are extracted from coconut oil and have the ability to increase metabolism and provide sustained energy. Adding it to coffee can actually slow the absorption of the caffeine. So if the effects of your regular coffee wear off quickly, try adding a little MCT and see how you feel after one or two cups.
One word of caution when trying MCT oil is that you should start with only a small amount, as it can have laxative effects. Slowly increase the amount you use starting with 1 teaspoon and increasing the amount up to 2 tablespoons per day. Of course, stop at the amount that you find optimal for your neurological health and energy requirements.
Another cautionary note here is that since MCT is an oil, it may be hard to adequately blend into your coffee. Stirring it with a spoon just won’t cut it! You may have to pull out the blender to ensure it mixes well. And while you’re at it, try adding a dollop of full-fat coconut milk (from a can) to your blender. It will elevate your coffee to latte status!
Compounds in Coffee that Help the Brain
Coffee contains many different components, most notably caffeine, polyphenols, antioxidants, trigonelline, niacin, potassium, diterpenes, and acrylamide. Most of these substances have proven helpful to brain health and may work to decrease one’s risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
Potentially beneficial compounds in coffee:
Caffeine - Caffeine can stimulate cognition by increasing concentrations of serotonin and acetylcholine while blocking receptors in your brain that make you sleepy. Caffeine can also stabilize the integrity of the blood-brain barrier to protect the nervous system.
Polyphenols - Polyphenols reduce the harmful effects of free radicals and LDL oxidation, which can prevent the hardening of arteries in the brain and reduce one’s risk of vascular dementia. Reducing oxidative stress in the brain is important, as too much increases one's risk for Parkinson’s Disease. One of the most important polyphenols found in coffee, chlorogenic acid, has powerful antioxidant properties and may prevent the destructive effects of free radicals on neurons in the brain.
Antioxidants - Antioxidants can reduce your risk of developing chronic degenerative diseases while keeping your brain sharp as you age. Caffeine is actually a powerful antioxidant, so consuming it can protect against Alzheimer’s.
Trigonelline - This is a neuroprotective agent. It activates antioxidant enzymes which work to create balance in the brain’s blood vessels and enhance the creation of new neuronal pathways. New pathways result in increased brain plasticity and faster retrieval of thoughts and memories.
Niacin - Niacin, or vitamin B3, is a part of many cellular processes. It is an antioxidant in brain mitochondria (energy producing cells) and is thought to protect against cognitive decline. In fact, a coffee drinker’s main source of dietary niacin often comes from coffee.
Potentially harmful compounds in coffee include:
Diterpenes in unfiltered coffee - These can increase cholesterol levels that may increase the risk of developing cerebral atherosclerosis and vascular dementia. The good news is that using a filter may help, as many of the diterpenes will soak into the filter paper. Some experts believe coffee brewed without a filter can actually increase the risk of dementia due to the higher concentrations of cholesterol created by the diterpenes.
Acrylamide - Acrylamide may have some neurotoxic effects. It may inhibit neurotransmission, increase oxidative stress, and damage dopaminergic neurons.
Despite these potentially harmful effects, the healthy compounds in coffee outnumber the harmful ones, resulting in a greater net positive effect. So coffee does more good than harm.
Though not all studies report the same findings and other elements come into play when determining coffee’s effects on individuals, the consensus is that coffee is not hazardous to health.
On the contrary, in many cases, it may help stave off dementia and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Of course, individual factors, including metabolic rate and genetic as well as environmental factors are taken into account when determining the role caffeine plays in the mechanism of disease.
Coffee and Neurodegenerative Disease
Disruption of the blood brain barrier has been implicated as a catalyst for a number of neurodegenerative disorders, including dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
As Parkinson’s progresses, dopamine levels in the brain progressively decrease. As this happens, symptoms worsen. Patients develop tremors and have increasing difficulty with movement and walking. Once you have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, drinking coffee may not help, but it shouldn’t make matters worse.
If you do not have the disease, then the consumption of coffee may actually reduce your risk of developing it.
The same holds true for other neurodegenerative diseases.
Caffeine has proven protective effects against dementia, Alzheimer’s, and preserving cognitive function. Most studies done on the topic show favourable outcomes in the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases, with a moderate consumption of 2-3 cups of coffee per day.
Part of this disease reduction may be due to coffee’s antioxidant properties and part due to its ability to increase insulin sensitivity.
Can coffee postpone or even prevent the onset of dementia? No one knows for sure, but studies thus far indicate that it just might!
What Determines the Effects Coffee has on Brain Health?
For coffee to be neuroprotective, several factors must be taken into account.
The amount of polyphenols in coffee depends on the quality of the beans themselves as well as how the coffee was brewed.
Those who metabolize caffeine at a slower rate showed a stronger risk for developing Parkinson’s.
Smokers process caffeine at a higher rate, making it a challenge to determine a connection between smoking and neurodegenerative disease. Despite this, smoking creates oxidative stress in the brain, which may promote the development of Alzheimer’s.
Too much caffeine can increase your risk of disease. Most of coffee’s benefits occur when intake is below 300 mg of caffeine per day. That’s equivalent to about 3 cups. If you exceed this amount, many health benefits are reversed: positive mood turns to irritability, focus dissolves into jitters, and calm productivity flips into stress and anxiety. Besides, too much caffeine can decrease blood flow to the brain, which is bad news for its health.
In summary, the cumulative evidence about coffee’s ability to reduce one’s risk of neurodegenerative disease is substantial. However, it is not conclusive enough to form a positive conclusion. With what we currently know, we can conclude that drinking coffee does not constitute a risk to our health.
As most people drink it for pleasure, any added and unexpected health benefits would be an added bonus.
So coffee drinkers, sip on!
As always, I welcome your feedback. Please let me know what you think about this article by contacting me or commenting below. I’d love to hear from you!