For years, I have been warning many of my patients about the potentially negative health effects of drinking coffee. Recent new studies, however, have concluded that coffee consumption might not be bad for you after all, and may actually decrease your risk of developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, and even some forms of cancer. So with this new evidence in mind, many of you have asked if I’ve changed my position on coffee consumption. My answer is yes and no.
Coffee contains a natural blend of polyphenol antioxidants, bioflavonoids, vitamins, and minerals that all work together to give coffee its physiologic effects. There are literally thousands of different natural chemical compounds in your brew, and science now suggests that the synergy between them is what gives coffee its magic. Studies have shown that coffee works as a powerful antioxidant and is highly anti-inflammatory. It’s these two mechanisms working together that explain the benefits coffee has on the modern diseases affecting us today, as most of these conditions are a result of oxidative damage and inflammation burning out of control.
Let’s start with a brief review of the studies supporting coffee consumption.
- A 2014 study found that coffee consumption was protective effect against type 2 diabetes.
- Another study of 8000 men over 30 years found that higher coffee and caffeine intake is associated with a significantly lower incidence of Parkinson’s disease. In fact, coffee is so preventative against Parkinson’s that some pharmaceutical companies are working on experimental drugs that mimic coffee’s benefits to your brain (Source).
- A 2011 study found that the components of coffee help protect you from Alzheimer’s disease.
- Recent studies have found that coffee may be protective against many types of cancer including prostate, breast, and colorectal cancers.
- An overseas study found that women who drank more than 3 cups per day had an impressive 55% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and 25% lower risk of death from all causes.
Although these new findings support potential health benefits of coffee consumption, I would still proceed with caution. It’s important to understand that these are population-based studies. This means that the findings represent an average response of the entire population, and not individual responses. For instance, the average response in the final study cited was a 25% lower mortality rate for the entire group of female coffee drinkers. Obviously, some individuals had greater than a 25% decrease in mortality and some had less (and others, no doubt, had an increase in mortality from drinking coffee). The take-home message is that we all respond differently and uniquely to the effects of coffee. As with any decisions regarding your health, it’s best to make them based on how you will respond and not how the average person may respond.
Avoid Coffee If…
For most of us, the research suggests that drinking coffee is not harmful and may even be beneficial. However, there are some who should definitely avoid coffee.
I recommend avoiding coffee if:
- You have insomnia. Coffee is associated with insomnia, especially when consumed in excess or later in the day. If you’re always tired, not sleeping well, have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, wake up feeling really tired in the morning or have energy crashes in the afternoon I would strongly advise limiting or avoiding coffee.
- You have weak adrenal glands. Coffee consumption is also associated with adrenal fatigue and imbalances of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The caffeine in coffee acts as a stimulant and really pushes the adrenal glands hard. If your adrenals are weak or overworked, if you have a hard time recovering from injuries or illness, or if you tend to crash after exercise or exertion then caffeinated coffee would not be a smart choice.
- You have any adverse reaction to drinking coffee. If drinking coffee gives you “the jitters,” makes you feel overly hyper, makes your heart fluter, upsets your digestion in any way, gives you headaches, or becomes addictive in that without it your energy crashes, I would suggest avoiding it.
- If you can’t live without it. If you rely on coffee to get out of bed in the morning, to have a bowel movement, to avoid headaches or to get you through the day, then you are using coffee as a crutch and you may be masking a deeper health concern. There is nothing wrong with the occasional cup of joe, but using it as a drug can burn out your adrenal glands, creating a cycle of relying on it more and more.
If you determine that coffee doesn’t cause you adverse effects, remember that when it comes to achieving any therapeutic benefits from coffee, quality matters. Here are five considerations for coffee drinkers:
- Choose Organic: Coffee is one of the most heavily spayed crops and is now showing up in many “dirty dozen” lists of foods that should be purchased organic. The most up-to-date estimates are that the average acre of conventional coffee is sprayed by about 250 pounds of chemical fertilizers and “tons” of pesticides. By most reports, roasting does degrade many of these harmful chemicals but some pesticide residues still show up in our cups. Choosing organic coffee will minimize your exposure to these toxins, and also limit the exposure to farmers and others tending to coffee crops. Organic is always best for our bodies and for the environment, and is my preferred choice whenever possible.
- Whole Bean: You’ll want to purchase whole bean coffee that smells and tastes fresh, not stale; if your coffee does not have a pleasant aroma, it is likely rancid. Grind it yourself to prevent rancidity, as pre-ground coffee may be rancid by the time you get it home.
- Skip The Sweetener: If you’re interested in the health benefits, drink your coffee without sugar or artificial flavorings. Adding sugar could contribute to insulin resistance and inflammation. Adding organic whole cream, coconut oil, or butter à la “bullet proof coffee” is a healthy and tasty option.
- Brewing Methods: I prefer using a french press to brew my coffee. This avoids potential exposure to dangerous chemicals. If you use a “drip” coffee maker, be sure to use non-bleached filters. The bright white ones are chlorine-bleached, and some of this chlorine will leach from the filter during the brewing process. Bleached filters are also notoriously full of dangerous disinfection byproducts, such as dioxin. Using the popular K-cup® may expose you to chemicals contained in the plastic cups, although according to Keurig’s website, “K-Cup® and Vue® packs do not contain BPA and are constructed using FDA-approved food safe materials. We also use FDA-approved food safe materials in our K-Cup® and Vue® brewing systems, and neither system contains BPA within its water paths (as of January 1, 2010 for our K-Cup® system).”
- Coffee Mugs: Please be careful about the container you use. Avoid plastic and Styrofoam cups that can leach toxic compounds. Your best bets include glass, ceramic, and stainless steel travel mugs.
To summarize, I consider coffee a “grey area” food: It’s not harmful to everyone, it may be beneficial to the majority, but it should be avoided by others. My recommendation is that everyone should take a 30 day hiatus from coffee to test its effects. After 30 days, reintroduce it in moderation and judge your own unique response. Personally, I’ve gone long periods without coffee while recovering from my own heath issues, and now I’m able to enjoy it occasionally. If I have too much, my body lets me know in its own way and I’m happy to obey. So listen to your body and take your current health status into consideration. If you choose to drink coffee, select a high-quality organic brand, prepare it properly, and enjoy it in a safe container.
What are your thoughts? Is coffee a staple part of your day? Have any of you had to give up coffee to support your health? Let me know in the comments below!