More than Just Caffeine: 6 Major Health Benefits of Coffee

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog

Whether your cup of choice comes from a cafe or a k-cup, there’s little question it’s an important part of our daily lives. But coffee has also been a controversial topic when it comes to health. Many of my colleagues encourage their patients to make the switch to green tea, claiming that it's far healthier. But what does the science really say about coffee, and caffeine, in general?

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

Many people rely on coffee to get them out of bed and through the day, but coffee is definitely more than a means to an end. The simple act of brewing coffee can be a sensual experience— the whir of the grinder, the intoxicating aroma as it brews, and that deliciously bitter first sip. Some people have elevated this ritual into an art form, sourcing the finest single origin, fair trade beans and investing in cutting edge equipment that makes Mr. Coffee look like a toy. Others prefer a minimalist approach, a Keurig or Nespresso, to make their morning ritual simpler – but make no mistake, they’re no less enthusiastic about their cuppa Joe!

Whether your cup of choice comes from a cafe or a k-cup, there’s little question it’s an important part of our daily lives. But coffee has also been a controversial topic when it comes to health. Some patients have said to me, “Doc, I know coffee isn’t that good for me but I’m not going to give it up!” Feeling almost guilty for their love of their morning brew. Many colleagues encourage their patients to swap coffee for green tea, claiming it is far healthier.

So what does the science say about coffee, and caffeine, in general?

Amps Up Energy
This one’s a no-brainer, right? One minute you can barely keep your eyes open, and the next you’re ready to take on the world. Coffee truly is an exceptional energy booster. The caffeine in coffee blocks adenosine, a molecule that triggers drowsiness, and upregulates neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and GABA, all of which contribute to feelings of wakefulness, energy and happiness. Sounds pretty awesome. For most people, drinking 2-3 cups of coffee before noon will not interfere with sleep, as it leaves plenty of time for the adenosine to build and then dissipate during the night.

Improves Focus
Caffeine is considered a “smart drug” (also known as a nootropic) because of its ability to sharpen focus. In one experiment looking at the effects of coffee consumed at different times of the day and night, caffeinated coffee had a beneficial effect on alertness and improved performance on a variety of tasks no matter when it was consumed, and “the effects were often very large.” Another study compared the effects of regular coffee, decaffeinated coffee and placebo on cognition and mood in both older and younger adults. Consumption of 220 mL of regular coffee containing 100 mg caffeine led to higher ratings of alertness and overall mood, and less mental fatigue when compared to placebo. Tiredness and headache ratings were also lower following regular coffee compared to placebo and decaffeinated coffee. Interestingly, decaf coffee also increased alertness Those consuming decaffeinated coffee also experienced increased alertness, as well as less jitteriness and an increased sense of relaxation. Coffee contains more than 1000 compounds; numerous compounds in addition to caffeine likely contribute to its overall effects.

Longer Life
Really? Could drinking coffee increase your lifespan? Well, some research suggests that it’s possible. A recent study found an association between drinking coffee and a decreased risk of early death, regardless of how much coffee you consume. Similar effects were also seen with decaffeinated coffee, suggesting that coffee itself, irrespective of caffeine, has a beneficial effect on health and possibly even lifespan.

Protects the Liver
The liver is definitely under assault these days from high fructose diets, excessive alcohol consumption and environmental exposures. Could coffee be beneficial? Coffee acts as a potent antioxidant and regular consumption is associated with a lower risk of liver fibrosis and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. A 2014 study published in the journal Hepatology suggests that drinking two or more cups of coffee per day could lower the risk of death from liver cirrhosis by 66%. In another study, Italian researchers found that coffee consumption could cut liver cancer risk by about 40%; drinking three cups of coffee a day could bump this number up to 50%.

Lowers Risk of Type-2 Diabetes
Clearly, a low glycemic load diet coupled with regular physical activity is your best defense against type 2 diabetes, but coffee consumption may offer some additional benefit. Looking at data from three large studies, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that participants who increased the amount of coffee they drank over a four-year period had an 11% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to study participants whose coffee-drinking habits didn’t change. Even more remarkably, those who decreased their coffee consumption by more than a cup per day during the study period actually increased their type 2 diabetes risk by 17%. A 2014 systematic review found that the incidence of type 2 diabetes decreased by 12 % for every 2 cups/day increment in coffee intake, 11 % for every 2 cups/day increment in decaffeinated coffee intake and 14% for every 200 mg/day increment in caffeine intake.

Pumps up athletic performance
Many athletes are aware of the edge 1-2 cups of coffee can give you when consumed before a workout. A review of 46 studies found that when caffeine was consumed (3-6 mg per kg of body weight) there was a small but evident effect on endurance and powerlifting. In athletic competitions, where the difference between winners and losers is often by a very small margin, drinking coffee 30-60 minutes before the event might make the difference.

Safety Of Caffeine
When scientists looked at caffeine consumption, they found the “evidence generally supports that consumption of up to 400 mg caffeine/day in healthy adults is not associated with overt, adverse cardiovascular effects, behavioral effects, reproductive and developmental effects, acute effects, or bone status.” On average, an eight-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains around 100 mg of caffeine. Drinking 2-3 cups of coffee in the morning is well within what is considered safe; however, beware that the very large size coffee drinks sold at popular coffee shops can contain 300-400mg per 16-20 ounce serving. Also, if you are drinking caffeinated sodas or energy drinks in addition to your coffee, your daily intake of caffeine can add up quickly.

Next time you sit down to savor a steaming mug of coffee, take a moment to reflect on the many ways this beverage benefits your health. Whether you’re headed for work, hitting the gym, or simply taking some time for yourself, coffee does your body (and your spirit) good.