Is coffee good for you? Hold on, coffee lovers. We’re not about to tell you to give up your beloved coffee habit. We just want you to be aware of coffee health risks and benefits, so you can decide for yourself how MUCH coffee is right for you.
Rest assured – we’re coffee drinkers ourselves.
Here’s the good news about coffee.
A number of studies show sipping a cup of steaming java may lower your risk of a number of health problems including type 2 diabetes, gall bladder disease, Parkinson’s disease, colon cancer, and, possibly, dementia.
Where do these health benefits potentially come from? Coffee is a good source of natural antioxidants including one called chlorogenic acid.
In fact, the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet is coffee. When you look at the amount of antioxidants in coffee and consider how much people drink every day, it’s easy to see why coffee comes out on top from an antioxidant standpoint.
So what’s not to love about coffee?
Recently, a study caused us to cut back a bit on the amount of coffee we drink and ask again “Is coffee good for you?”
Coffee Health Risks: Is Heavy Coffee Consumption Unhealthy?
Let’s see what research shows.
A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2013 show that men under the age of 55 who drank more than four cups of coffee a day had a 56% greater risk of mortality. Women who drank that amount had double the risk of mortality. A bit disturbing, isn’t it?
Since this was an observational study, it doesn’t show cause and effect. Some other factor that heavy coffee drinkers have in common may account for the findings rather than drinking coffee itself. Add to that the fact that a number of studies show coffee has health benefits.
To us, this study is a reminder to enjoy things in moderation, including coffee. It’s probably not a good idea to keep blindly keep refilling your coffee cup. Whatever happened to drinking good old water anyway?
We should also mention some other reasons to drink coffee in moderation.
Coffee Can Cause Digestive Unrest
If you have acid reflux, sipping even one cup of coffee can aggravate the symptoms. Even people who don’t have acid reflux can experience digestive upset when they drink coffee.
Coffee produces chemicals called catechols that stimulate acid production by cells that line your stomach. Even decaffeinated coffee has this effect.
If you’re sensitive to the acid in coffee, dark roast is a better choice. It contains a chemical called NMP that blocks the action of catechols so you get less acid production when you drink coffee.
Special low-acid coffee is also available. We’ve tried it and it doesn’t taste significantly different, just lower in acid.
Caffeine has a stimulating effect on the gastrointestinal tract. If you have irritable bowel syndrome, sipping caffeinated coffee can make your symptoms worse. That’s true of any caffeinated drink including tea and soft drinks.
Still, coffee isn’t all bad for your digestive tract. It stimulates your gallbladder to contract. This is why it lowers the risk of gallstones.
Coffee Increases Stress Hormones
Coffee increases “flight or fight” hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare your body for action by raising your heart rate and blood pressure.
On the plus side, there’s no strong evidence that coffee causes heart disease.
In fact, some research shows people who drink moderate amounts of coffee have a lower risk of heart failure.
On the other hand, if you have heart disease or high blood pressure drinking coffee could be a problem. Talk to your doctor before filling up your coffee cup.
Is Coffee Good for You: Caffeine Withdrawal Headaches
Have you ever skipped coffee for a day or two and experienced an annoying headache that just wouldn’t go away?
When you’re used to drinking coffee and you abstain, it increases blood flow to your brain. This increase in blood flow can trigger a caffeine withdrawal headache.
Once you’re accustomed to drinking caffeinated coffee every day, cutting back abruptly can leave you feeling zapped of energy.
Caffeine blocks receptors in your brain called adenosine receptors that promote relaxation. When you block these receptors, you feel more alert and energized. Some people feel their most creative after they’ve had a few cups of coffee.
When you stop drinking coffee, the receptors are no longer blocked and you feel less alert and more fatigued. Plus, your brain lays down more adenosine receptors to compensate for the ones that are blocked by caffeine.
Once you stop caffeine, you have lots of open adenosine receptors that cause you to feel relaxed and fatigued. You can avoid unwanted fatigue due to caffeine withdrawal by cutting back on caffeine slowly.
Coffee Health Risks: Are You Caffeine Sensitive?
Not everyone metabolizes caffeine at the same rate. If you’re a slow metabolizer, caffeine stays in your system longer. If that’s the case, caffeine could cause you to have sleep problems because the caffeine in that late morning cup of coffee is still in your system.
Everyone’s system is a little different. Pay attention to your body. If you get jittery when you drink coffee or have sleep problems, cut back or switch to decaf.
Interestingly, a study showed slow caffeine metabolizers had a higher risk of a non-fatal heart attack, while fast metabolizers had a LOWER risk for heart attack.
How your body responds to caffeine depends on your genetics and how you metabolize it.
Don’t forget that some medications can alter caffeine metabolism. The list of medications that can do this is long. Check with your doctor to find out if you’re taking drugs that can affect how quickly you metabolize caffeine.
Grapefruit juice can affect caffeine metabolism too! We recommend not drinking grapefruit juice or eating grapefruit if you’re taking medications. Grapefruit juice alters the blood levels of a number of drugs.
What about Decaffeinated Coffee?
Decaffeinated coffee is one way to reduce the jitters but choose your decaf with care. Most of the decaffeinated coffees, especially inexpensive ones, are decaffeinated using an organic solvent called methylene chloride. We don’t like the idea of methylene chloride in our coffee, even if it is a trace amount.
Look for decaffeinated coffee that’s naturally decaffeinated using the Swiss water method. This method doesn’t use methylene chloride. The average caffeinated cup of coffee has between 100 and 150 milligrams of caffeine whereas decaf usually has around 4 milligrams. Big difference!
Avoid Non-Filtered Coffee
Non-filtered coffee, coffee made in a French press or Turkish coffee, contain chemicals called cafestol and kahweol that can raise your cholesterol level. Filtering coffee removes these compounds. If you have cholesterol issues, stick with filtered coffee.
Should You Buy Organic Coffee?
Coffee is one of the most heavily sprayed with pesticides of all crops. Roasting the beans does reduce the quantity of pesticides on coffee beans but we still recommend drinking organic, free trade coffee whenever possible.
If you brew your own coffee at home and use filters, look for ones that are unbleached and are free of a chemical called epichlorohydrin. Find out more about epichlorohydrin by reading this article. It’s also a chemical in tea bags. Yes, it’s challenging to avoid toxins!
Be aware that some filter cones are made of plastic and contain BPA. Stick with porcelain combined with an unbleached filter.
The Bottom Line?
So what’s the final word on coffee health risks? Coffee is a healthy beverage, rich in antioxidants, but it’s best to drink it in moderation.
We recommend no more than three cups a day. Decaffeinated is an option if you caffeinated coffee makes you nervous but make sure it’s naturally decaffeinated.
Watch what you put in your coffee too! It’s not hard to turn an almost calorie-free cup of coffee into a nutritional disaster with sugar, cream, and flavorings.
We hope if we see you at Starbucks, you’re not drinking a Frappuccino! Hopefully, we won’t be either.
Have you heard about the controversy about acrylamides in coffee? Read more about it here.
Am. J. Epidemiol. (2000) 152 (11): 2034-1038.
American Cancer Society. “Caffeine and Heart Disease”
WebMD. “Coffee in Moderation May Lower Heart Failure Risk”
Medscape. “Heavy coffee drinkers with slow caffeine metabolism at increased risk of nonfatal MI”