Have you ever woken up late and rushed out the door without your cup of coffee? It makes a difference, doesn’t it? Your vision blurs and your eyelids droop. You can’t stay alert at that 9 o’clock business meeting or first hour class until your head starts to throb in pain. But don’t worry, relief is just down the hallway in a cardboard cup of cappuccino.
Caffeine is America’s #1 drug, and most Americans find their fix from coffee (Cherniske). Because of this dependency, some people feel guilty about including this delightful beverage in their daily routine. The truth is, however, that they shouldn’t. As a matter of fact, moderate consumption of coffee may even be beneficial to the body.
Why do we drink coffee? I sent a survey out to many of my friends, relatives and classmates. Most responded to this question by saying that they drank coffee because they liked the taste and because of the stimulating properties (it kept them awake and alert). When asked if they had ever considered cutting back, some stated that they had because they were concerned about the possible negative effects to their health.
Erroneous information has been published in magazine articles, hand-outs and brochures. Coffee has been accused of causing everything from osteoporosis and pregnancy complications to high cholesterol and heart disease. "Inevitably, some of the results of such research have been selectively reported in the lay media" (Caffeine & Women’s Health 4). According to Manfred Kroger, a retired food scientist from Pennsylvania State University, much of the early research on coffee was flawed. "Coffee lovers are more likely to do harmful things like smoke and drink alcohol in excess, so coffee was often falsely incriminated" (McAuliffe, par.2 ). The combination of these errors has resulted in "confusion and unnecessary anxiety" (Caffeine & Women’s Health 4).
The International Food Information Council Foundation and the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses assure women that there is no significant association between caffeine and many women’s health concerns. Extended studies show that moderate consumption of caffeine by expectant mothers did not effect birth weight nor cause birth defects in their newborns (Caffeine & Women’s Health 2). In their August 2005 brochure on Caffeine & Women’s Health, these organizations also give readers peace of mind that they need not be concerned about any association between caffeine and breast or ovarian cancers. Interestingly enough, a 1986 study led by the National Cancer Institute observed that those that drank coffee even had a slightly lower incidence of breast cancer (3).
The supposed link between osteoporosis and coffee consumption was based on the observation that more calcium is found in the urine of coffee drinkers. Bess Dawson-Hughes, director of the bone metabolism lab at Tufts University, says that any increased risk seems to be canceled out when coffee drinkers get their daily recommended allotment of calcium (McAuliffe 3). So if you currently drink it black, you may want to consider adding a splash of low-fat milk or creamer to your coffee.
Cholesterol is another health risk often linked to coffee. In the April Issue of Today’s Science, journalist Elisheva Coleman states that coffee does contain a class of compounds called diterpines. These compounds may play a part in raising cholesterol levels. However, the common paper filters used in home coffee makers remove them (Coffee Conundrum, par.8). Those who already have elevated cholesterol levels may want trade their French press for an American percolator, since the European boiling method does not filter out the diterpines.
So, "What about my blood pressure?" you may ask. I had the same question, since I am in pre-hypertension stage. "Is that rush from the caffeine in my morning cup of coffee going to kill me someday?" Have no fear. The U.S. Surgeon General’s report states that any rise in blood pressure from drinking caffeine is only temporary, and is less than what is produced by normal activities like climbing stairs (COFFEE AND CAFFEINE REFERENCE TOOL, par. 3). Another consolation is that the Scottish Heart Health Study conducted on 10,359 men and women concluded that there was no association between heart disease and drinking coffee (4).
Now that we’ve answered a few questions regarding prior claims to coffee’s association with health risks, let’s move on. Recent research has not only debunked the old myths, but studies have also uncovered some possible benefits from coffee. Both psychological and physiological benefits are now being attributed to coffee consumption.
We all enjoy that calming cup of afternoon coffee. It isn’t just the familiarity of the daily ritual that produces this effect. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice reports that "caffeine may increase dopaminergic neurotransmission and so potentially exacerbate psychotic symptoms" (Paton 233). Translation: One of the chemicals present in coffee could help people with psychological problems. A specific example would be the relationship between regular coffee consumption and depression. Based on a study of 80,000 American women, those who drank more than two or three cups of regular coffee a day reduced their risk of suicide by 33% (McAuliffe, par. 5).
Of course, we all know that coffee not only calms our senses, but also is important as a mental stimulant. In his article reflecting on his worldwide investigation of the world of caffeine, National Geographic Magazine journalist T. R. Reid reports, "As a mental stimulant it increases alertness, cognition, and reaction speed; because it combats fatigue, it improves performance on vigilance tasks like driving, flying, solving simple math problems, and data entry" (Reid, par. 36-37). Athletes use caffeine to enhance performance. The International Olympic Committee does forbid doses of more than 600 mg of caffeine per day (Henry par.6), but studies have shown that as little as 2-13 mg caffeine/ kg body weight 1 hour before exercise increases endurance (Iowa State, par. 4).
Harris Lieberman works for the Military Nutrition Division of the U.S. Army Research Institute. He confirms that caffeine makes people feel more energetic, thus improving their mood and feeling "generally better overall" (Lemonick, par.4).
Feeling good isn’t all in your head. Coffee not only has beneficial effects for the mind, but its components also benefit the body.
Common ailments such as pain, migraine headaches, and asthma can be countered with caffeine (Reid, par. 37). According to U.S. News & World Report, scientists suspect that nutrients potassium, niacin, magnesium, chlorogenic acids, and tocopherols found in coffee may lower the risk of diabetes (McAuliffe, par. 8). Antioxidants are helpers that balance the negative charges in the highly unstable free radicals that cause diseases in our bodies. Chemistry professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, Joe Vinson, has found that coffee is the largest source of these disease-fighters in our diet. His studies show that "coffee topped the list of foods that are densest in antioxidants, surpassing blueberries, broccoli, and most other produce" (4). According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, the development of colon cancer and development of gallstones may also be reduced by moderate intake of coffee. "If its benefits continue to mount, coffee may come to be viewed as a health food," jokes registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, Lona Sandon (1).
With the good news about coffee’s beneficial psychological and physiological effects comes the temptation to overdose. While researchers and medical professionals acknowledge these benefits, they also stress the importance of moderate consumption of this miracle brew. How we define "moderation" in regards to coffee "differs significantly between individuals, depending on their genetic makeup." According to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, a single cup daily is completely safe for everyone, and up to four cups a day is permissible for most (Coffee Conundrum, par. 11).
Your enjoyment of a cup of coffee morning, noon, or night can be exercised without guilt. So, go ahead. Stop by Starbucks or cruise into Caribou occasionally for a cup of cappuccino. Savor the flavor and aroma, knowing that drinking a few cups of coffee a day isn’t only a joy, but also can be beneficial to your health.
"Caffeine & Women’s Health." International Food Information Council Foundation and Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses August 2002.
"Caffeine for Athletes." Food and Nutrition Choices for Health. Iowa State University. <http://www.extension.iastate.edu/nutrition/supplements/caffeine.php>. Accessed 4/26/2006
Cherniske, Stephen. Caffeine Blues: wake up to the hidden dangers of America’s #1 drug. Warner Books. New York, 1998.
COFFEE AND CAFFEINE REFERENCE TOOL. Practice Nurse 09536612, 5/132005 Supplement 2, Vol. 29 Database: Academic Search Premier 12 Apr 2006.
Lemonick, M. MEASURING IQ POINTS BY THE CUPFUL. Time [serial online]. 2006; 167(3):94-95. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 12, 2006.
McAuliffe, Kathleen. "Enjoy!." U.S. News & World Report 139.23 (Dec 19, 2005): 67-68. Health Reference Center Academic. Thomson Gale. MINNEAPOLIS COMMUNITY TECHNICAL COLLEGE. 12 Apr 2006 <http://find.galegroup.com/itxinfomark.do?&contentSet+IAC-<http://find.galegroup.com/itx/infomark.do?&contentSet+IACdocuments&type=retrieve&tabID=T002&prodId=HRCA&docId=A139695515&source=gale&srcprod=HRCA&userGroupName=mnaminncom&version=1.0>.
Paton, Carol, and Beer, Dominic. "Caffeine: The forgotten variable." International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice 5 (2001): 231-236.
Reid, R.R., and Bob Sacha. "Caffeine." National Geographic 207.1 (2005): 2-33. Academic Search Premier. 17 April 2006. <http://search.epnet.com>