Wait! Coffee is good for me?

A new study shows that coffee has many health benefits.

For some, coffee is the most refreshing part of their day.  For others it is the only way to get going in the morning.  A new study now tells us it has health benefits as well.  With the growth of Starbucks and their success in making coffee a mainstream addiction, just about everyone enjoys a cup of coffee on occasion, if not daily.  Keurig has also now made making a single cup of coffee easier than checking email (yes, even I have succumb to this as that is my Keurig pictured below). What used to be relegated to the likes of construction workers and shift workers such as nurses, is now seen in every profession.  Historically, coffee became more common in the United States after the Boston Tea Party when drinking tea was seen as “unpatriotic” (apparently even coffee can be political).  Furthermore, most would state they are more productive when they have some coffee.

Coffee has often been used for its short term benefits such as increased awareness, productivity and cognition.  This is due to the caffeine it contains.  Each cup of coffee contains about 95 mg of caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant that works on the brain.  It blocks adenosine and its drowsy effects and also directly stimulates the autonomic nervous system to heighten alertness. Caffeine has generally been considered safe by the FDA.  It would take about 10,000 mg to be lethal or about 100 cups of coffee.  Its half life is about 6 hours, so that morning cup of joe should last you all day.

In 1991, the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled coffee as “possibly carcinogenic” and linked it to bladder cancer.  In June 2016, this decision was reversed and the WHO stated it may actually be helpful in protecting against uterine and liver cancer. They stated it has other health benefits as well including decreased heart disease, diabetes and neurologic disorders. Strangely, the WHO still hedged and said that consuming “hot” beverages may still possibly cause esophageal cancer.  All of this was based on a review of over a thousand epidemiological studies.  This information from the WHO did not receive as much fanfare and press as a new article that came out last week.

The new study done on coffee was reported in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on November 22, 2017.  The authors did a large meta-analysis and concluded that coffee intake in amounts of about 3-5 cups a day was associated with many health benefits.  This was thought to be due to anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds instead of the caffeine.  These benefits include living longer, decreased heart disease, decreased cancer, decreased liver disease and decreased diabetes.  Wow! Does this mean we’ve had the wonder drug right under our nose this whole time? Unfortunately, we cannot be so quick to make this assumption.  

Based on these results, every doctor should start recommending every person take in 3-5 cups of coffee a day, right? Well, no.  Sorry to burst your bubble.  Those currently drinking coffee can continue though with a new clear conscience in regard to it affecting their health.  Remember that these studies were meta-analyses of observational data.  This tells us there is a link between coffee and the health benefits but it is only correlation not causation.  We cannot say for sure that drinking 3-5 cups of coffee will cause you to live longer or have decreased disease processes.  Coffee drinking is a complex social behavior associated with other behaviors that may be linked with the general decreases in illness and improved health.

In certain cases, drinking coffee can have negative health consequences as well. If pregnant, it can cause lower birth weights.  It can increase anxiety if predisposed and, if sensitive, it can cause irregular or rapid heart rhythms. It can increase your blood pressure and it has been linked with increased fractures in women.  So, unfortunately coffee is not all gumdrops and candy canes.  Which brings me to the next point: Most of the coffee we drink today has way too much fat and sugar.

While the BMJ study states that coffee can decrease the rates of diabetes, it obviously isn’t referring to my venti white chocolate mocha frappuccino.  Yeah, I said it.  That fancy “fru fru” coffee in your hand is not doing you any favors. At upwards of 500 calories in 1 cup, daily consumption of these drinks will definitely tip the scales (pun intended) towards type 2 diabetes, not away from it.  If you want to get the health benefits of coffee without going up 2 (or more) notches on the waist, it needs to be black or very low calorie.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a nice frappuccino, but it is a rare occurrence due to the calories it contains.

So what’s the takeaway?  In short: Coffee is safe!  Go ahead and enjoy it without worrying about your health.  Use it for its benefits such as increased awareness and cognition. If you’re taking a test today, have a cup or 2 of coffee to help improve your scores.  As for the long term health benefits, I would say the jury is still out.  I am definitely not going to start recommending it to my patients who do not already consume it based on this study just for the health benefits.  But if you are one of the 83 percent of adults who already consume coffee and don’t have any of the health conditions adversely affected by caffeine, go ahead and have another cup today (as long as it’s not over 5 cups).  You can rest assured your health will not be negatively affected and in fact, you may be doing yourself a favor in the long run.  Enjoy! (unless it’s a high calorie blended drink, then JUST SAY NO!)

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