The Surprising Health Benefits of Coffee: Part 1

The Surprising Health Benefits of Coffee: Part 1

Be sure to see my  delicious pumpkin latte recipe .

Ah, the smell of freshly brewed coffee. There’s nothing like it!

Or is there? Coffee is one of those things - you either love it or you hate it. You like the taste or you don’t. It may provide boundless energy and make you hyper or it may not.

The problem is, one day headlines say coffee is good for you and the next day you are advised to avoid it! Who do you believe when coffee is the world’s second most popular drink, after water?

And what’s the truth behind coffee’s effects on your body? What role does coffee play in our health? Is it safe for everyone?

To help answer these questions and more, we should begin looking at how coffee is metabolized, its effects on the mind and body, health benefits that may come with its consumption, and whether coffee drinkers have higher or lower risks of certain disease. Then I’ll give you some things to consider when deciding if coffee is right for you or not.

NOTE: Coffee does not equate to caffeine. Coffee contains between 50-400 mg of caffeine/cup, averaging around 100 mg/cup. Coffee is one of the most popular ways to consume this stimulant. But… a cup of coffee contains a lot of things over and above the caffeine. These include not just water, but antioxidants, and hundreds of other compounds, as well. These antioxidants and compounds are the reason drinking a cup of coffee is not the same as taking a caffeine pill. As for decaffeinated coffee? It has a lot less caffeine but still contains some. As we continue, it is assumed we are referring to the caffeinated variety.
— Kelly

Caffeine Metabolism

Different people react differently to the effects of caffeine, and there is actual science behind why. Several factors come into play, including your genetics and how much coffee you're used to drinking.

Not all people metabolize caffeine at the same speed. How fast you metabolize caffeine will impact how you’re affected by it. In fact, caffeine metabolism can be up to 40x faster in some people than others. But what does this all mean?

Well, about half of us are “slow” metabolizers of caffeine. We can get jitters, heart palpitations, and feel "wired" for up to 9 hours after having a cup of coffee. The other half of us are "fast" metabolizers of caffeine who get energy and increased alertness for only a few hours after drinking it.

This is part of the reason those headlines contradict each other so much - because we’re all different!

How we brew coffee at home. Japanese pour-over.

How we brew coffee at home. Japanese pour-over.

It also helps explain why your friend can drink bottomless cups of coffee, while you get wired off a few sips. The other part of this equation lies in your genes. Genetics play a major role in how quickly we metabolize caffeine. In fact, there are several mutations of genes that affect how our body breaks down caffeine. This also goes to explain why there’s so much variation in how different people are affected by coffee and caffeine.

Coffee’s Effects on Our Body

The effects of coffee, and caffeine, on the mind and body also differ between people. This is partly due to each individual’s metabolism as previously mentioned. But it also has to do with your body’s amazing ability to adapt, or become more tolerant, to long-term caffeine use. Many people who start drinking coffee feel the effects a lot more than people who already consume coffee every day. And yet other considerations in how coffee affects us lies in how large of a cup we fill, how strong the coffee, and the quality of the beans used.

Here’s a list of some effects coffee can have on us, though they usually decrease with long-term use:

  • It stimulates the brain, improving focus and mental resilience

  • It increases dopamine to boost your mood and further improve your cognition

  • It improves short term memory recall

  • It speeds metabolism

  • It boosts energy and exercise performance

  • It can be a diuretic, and

  • It increases your stress hormone cortisol

So, while most of these effects are positive, you need to see how each of these affect you then decide if it’s worth reaching for that second (or third) cup. 

Health Benefits of Coffee

As mentioned, coffee can have some positive effects on our bodies and brains. Lets take a closer look at the top health benefits to see what coffee may be able to do for you, especially in terms of disease acquisition. In fact, numerous studies have been done to determine the health effects of coffee and whether coffee drinkers are more or less likely to acquire certain conditions.

Here’s a quick summary of the major health benefits of coffee:

  • It lowers your risk of Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s (be sure to check next week’s post for more information about this)

  • It reduces your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by enhancing insulin sensitivity

  • It lowers your risk of certain liver diseases

  • It may lower your risk of certain cancers and heart disease

  • It can improve memory and brain function

  • It has antioxidant benefits to fight the signs of aging

  • It can accelerate fat loss, and 

  • It can improve exercise performance

If you’d like to find out more, be sure to read next week’s blog post when I discuss the specific role coffee plays in brain health.

If you are sensitive to caffeine and opt for decaf, you’ll be happy to know that many of these same health benefits still exist.

What’s super-important to note here is that coffee intake is just one of many, many factors that can affect your risk for the diseases listed above. Please never think regular coffee intake is the only thing that can help you overcome these risks. You are health-conscious and know that eating a nutrient-rich whole foods diet, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep and exercise are all critical things to consider for your disease risk. It’s not just about the coffee! [quote]

Why Coffee Wakes You Up

Have you ever wondered what it is exactly that gives you that morning buzz after your first cup? Do you know people who cannot even function before they’ve had their coffee “fix?” Maybe that person is you!

Well, it all has to do with a neurotransmitter called adenosine.

Adenosine is part of your natural sleep cycle which builds up in your brain during the day (when you’re awake). The result of this build up is a gradual slowing down of your mental functions. You may have noticed that by the end of the day, you can’t process any more information and may feel mentally fatigued. That’s because enough adenosine has accumulated in your brain to cause low brain activity and make you tired. As we sleep, the adenosine is broken down until enough of it disappears, allowing us to wake up. 

What does this have to do with caffeine? 

Well caffeine looks a lot like adenosine to your brain cells. When you drink that morning coffee, the caffeine fills up the receptor cells in your brain, preventing adenosine from taking their usual position there. In temporarily stopping the adenosine from getting in to slow brain activity, we feel more alert and energized.

This same mechanism also explains why most of us are better to avoid caffeine later in the day, as it can interfere with sleep. 

Bottom line: blocking adenosine in the morning is great as it can help you feel sharp. The adenosine is still being produced, you just can’t feel its sleepy effects because the caffeine has temporarily blocked them.

Should you drink coffee or not?

There are a few things to consider when deciding whether or not you should drink coffee. But please keep in mind that no one beverage can make or break your long-term health (except maybe soda).

For susceptible people, coffee can cause:

  • Caffeine addiction and withdrawal symptoms like headache, fatigue, and irritability

  • Jitters, and

  • Sleep disruptions

Caffeinated coffee is also not recommended for:

  • People with an irregular heartbeat

  • People who often feel anxious

  • Those who have trouble sleeping

  • Women who are pregnant

  • Children and teens

If none of these apply to you, then monitor how your body reacts when you have coffee. Does it:

  • Give you the jitters?

  • Increase anxious feelings?

  • Affect your sleep?

  • Give you heart palpitations?

  • Affect your digestion or cause heartburn?

  • Give you a reason to drink a lot of sugar and cream?

Depending on how your body reacts, decide whether these reactions are worth it to you. If you’re not sure, I recommend eliminating it for a while and see what difference that makes. 

Toxins in Coffee?

If you are a coffee-lover who is not affected negatively by the caffeine and have no intention of giving it up - no problem! 

I would recommend, however that if you are going to drink coffee, you may as well drink the best quality coffee you can. Help support the economy of third world nations by choosing fair trade, quality beans.

For those of you who are coffee nerds (like my husband - sorry Joe), you may already be there and have your favourite single origin organic blends. For you, I say brew on!

For those of you not quite there yet, let me plant a little seed (pardon the pun)… many beans that are inexpensively sourced and unethically harvested contain unhealthy compounds called mycotoxins

Mycotoxins are toxic byproducts produced by fungi often found on coffee beans, grains, and nuts. They are susceptible to mold, and can grow quickly depending on the humidity, temperature and rainfall during harvesting cycles. Different processing methods also create different amounts of toxins in the coffee, based on how long the beans have been allowed to ferment and how damaged they were before roasting.

Unfortunately mycotoxins, as their name suggests, are toxic. Prolonged exposure can lead to disease and health problems including certain cancers, hormone imbalances, and a weak immune system.

So, just like the importance of eating (and paying a bit more for) quality and organic fruits and vegetables, you should also consider the quality of the coffee beans you use. 

Not all coffee is created equal. [quote]

You are more likely to discover that ethically sourced and harvested beans are cleaner and contain fewer mycotoxins, if any, as compared to conventionally grown. The plus side of sourcing quality beans is that your coffee will taste better than ever and you can rest assured that you are taking yet another positive step towards a healthier you!

If you enjoy your morning brew but may be looking for a different recipe to spruce it up, here is one for a pumpkin spice latte - perfect as we roll into fall!

In summary, though coffee has often gotten a bad rap, it actually has proven health benefits. It improves brain function, combats free radicals, and can reduce your risk for certain diseases. Coffee is also a healthy source of polyphenols and antioxidants.

However, just like most good things in life, too much caffeine can cause problems like impaired brian function, a decrease in insulin sensitivity, nervousness, stomach discomfort, the jitters, and decreased exercise performance. Moderate coffee consumption (1-3 cups per day), on the other hand, will only do good for most people. 

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Email me or comment below with your favourite way of enjoying your morning java. 

And be sure to come back next week to read all about coffee’s effect on brain health. You won’t want to miss this one!

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