March 12, 2015 -- Many people kick-start their day with coffee. Could it also give your health a boost?
Recent studies say a few jolts of java daily are good for the brain and heart, and they protect against certain cancers. But hold that coffee cup -- other research says it's not a safe habit for everyone.
Here, doctors and nutritionists weigh in.
What Makes Coffee Healthy?
"It's anything but clear as to where the benefits come from," says Marc Leavey, MD, a primary care doctor at Lutherville Personal Physicians in Maryland. That's because coffee has hundreds of ingredients. Some occur naturally in coffee beans, and others are created when roasting or brewing.
Two potentially healthy ingredients are:
- Phytochemicals. Don't let the word "chemical" scare you. These are healthy antioxidants made by plants. Antioxidants reduce inflammation and help cells grow better.
- Caffeine. You probably already know coffee is full of this stuff. How much depends on the bean and how you brew it. But even decaffeinated kinds have some traces of it.
"Coffee provides caffeine, a stimulant that keeps our brains active, and plenty of antioxidants that can help prevent many common chronic diseases, such as diabetes," says Brian Doyle, MD, a clinical instructor at the UCLA School of Medicine.
What Are the Health Benefits?
Coffee boosts your alertness and helps you beat fatigue. More and more studies show that people who drink three to five 8-ounce cups a day could be protecting their health in many other ways.
Possible benefits include a lower risk of:
- Alzheimer's disease
- Endometrial cancer
- Heart attack
- Liver cancer
- Parkinson's disease
- Skin cancer, including melanoma
How Much Is Too Much?
"We recommend not drinking more than five cups [of coffee] per day," says Miriam Nelson, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and a member of the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Five cups is about 400 milligrams of caffeine, according to the FDA. They say that much caffeine a day is safe for healthy adults who aren't pregnant.
Drinking a lot of caffeinated coffee can temporarily raise your blood pressure, especially if you have borderline-high or high BP. It can also trigger other heart problems, which might lead to an emergency room visit or a hospital stay, Nelson says.
Guzzling a lot of java might also cause a bellyache or make you feel jittery or shaky. You should probably cut back or switch to decaf "if you notice tremors when you drink multiple cups a day," Doyle says. Having too much caffeine can cause sleep problems, too.
Over time, getting too much caffeine in general can lead to bone loss or fractures. Drinking unfiltered, caffeinated coffee regularly may also raise your total cholesterol and your level of the so-called “bad” cholesterol, LDL.
Does It Matter How I Make It?
Yes. Use a paper filter. It removes the substances in coffee that cause spikes in artery-clogging cholesterol. These substances are called cafestol and kahweol. They're found in the oily part of coffee, but are left behind in paper filters. If you make your java without a filter (in a "French press," for instance), that lets these unhealthy items flow through to your cup.
Decaf and instant coffee seem to have lower amounts of the healthy antioxidants. Still, several studies suggest that even decaf might lower the risks of heart disease and diabetes, says Roger Clemens, DrPH, an adjunct professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Southern California.
Full-strength (caffeinated) coffee likely gives you a bigger health boost. But, again, you might want to avoid it if you have high blood pressure or anxiety problems.
And watch the sugar and cream. While these items don't "turn off" the perks of coffee overall, too much sugar and fat in your diet can be a health-buster.
"Have a few of those [sweetened, creamy cups of joe] a day, and the calories can add up," Leavey says. "Make it a frappe latte and a few a day could be a pound a week."
If I Don't Drink Coffee, Should I Start?
All the experts mentioned in this article answer "no" to that.
"There's no evidence to say if you don't drink coffee, you should start," Nelson says. You can make a lot of other lifestyle changes to improve your health. Get regular exercise, and don't smoke.
"If, however, I had a patient who for some reason needed a little bit of a gentle ‘pick-me-up’ throughout the day, coffee may be a better solution than taking a prescribed pill," Doyle says.