The Buzz on Coffee

The latest research shows your morning pick-me-up may be brimming with health benefits.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 07, 2008
5 min read

There's good news for the 108 million Americans who wake up and smell the coffee each day. The latest research findings suggest your morning java may be better for you than you think.

Coffee is a rich source of disease-fighting antioxidants. And studies have shown that it may reduce cavities, boost athletic performance, improve moods, and stop headaches -- not to mention reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, liver cancer, gall stones, cirrhosis of the liver, and Parkinson's diseases.

But before you run out to your local coffee shop, there are a few points to consider about coffee.

Over the years, some 19,000 studies have looked at the health impact of drinking coffee. "Overall, the research shows that coffee is far more healthful than it is harmful," Tomas DePaulis, PhD, research scientist at Vanderbilt University's Institute for Coffee Studies, tells WebMD. "For most people, very little bad comes from drinking it, but a lot of good."

The studies have shown that regular coffee drinkers can reduce their risk of Parkinson's disease by 80%, the risk of colon cancer by 25%, the risk of cirrhosis of the liver by 80%, and cut the risk of gallstones in half. In one study, people who drank 2 cups a day of decaf coffee had half the risk of rectal cancer, compared with tea or caffeinated coffee drinkers.

The amount of coffee consumed in the studies has varied widely. But in the research into type 2 diabetes and liver cancer, the more you drink, the lower your risk appears to be.

So just what does coffee contain that gives it such healthful properties?

Coffee beans contain disease-ravaging antioxidants, called quinines, which become more potent after roasting. According to an American Chemical Society news release, coffee is the leading source of antioxidants in American diets -- in part because we drink a ton of it.

This type of antioxidant, along with the magnesium found naturally in coffee, affect blood sugar levels and are thought to be responsible for the link to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

Coffee also contains trigonelline, an antibacterial compound that not only gives it a wonderful aroma but may be a factor in preventing dental caries.

Caffeine is another ingredient that offers health benefits. In the Parkinson's studies, evidence points to caffeine as the factor at work in retarding the disease. Caffeine also helps ease head pain, which is why it's widely used in headache medications.

Caffeine can stimulate the brain and nervous system, and thus help fight fatigue and boost athletic performance. Two cups of coffee can usually give you an athletic boost.

Researchers are quick to point out that caffeine is a drug, and can be abused if you use it in place of a good night's rest or a healthy diet.

The caffeine content of coffee varies widely, depending on the bean used, the size of your cup, and how it is brewed. A standard 8-ounce cup of drip coffee has 85 milligrams of caffeine, while a standard dose of pain reliever with caffeine usually has 120 milligrams.

We each have our own thresholds for caffeine. Most people can tolerate two cups of coffee each day with no problem. But more than that may cause nervousness, rapid heartbeat, palpitations, sleeplessness, and irritability. It can even lead to health problems such as osteoporosis or high blood pressure. Of course, if you skip your usual morning cup, you can develop a caffeine withdrawal headache.

While coffee is the main source of caffeine for many people, it's also found in energy drinks, soft drinks, tea, chocolate, and over-the-counter cold and headache medicines. All these sources can add substantially to your daily caffeine total.

You might be surprised to learn that the "energy" from the popular energy drinks comes in part from their caffeine content. Energy drinks are not required to list their caffeine content on their labels, even though they can have twice as much as caffeinated soft drinks. So consumers have no way of knowing just how much caffeine they're getting. If you're a fan of energy drinks, contact the manufacturer or go to its web site to learn how much caffeine is in your favorite drink.

It amazes me how many people at Starbucks and other coffee houses order the high-calorie special coffees, laden with whipped cream, flavored syrups, and/or cream. Those add-ons can take a zero-calorie cup of coffee and turn it into more than a meal's worth -- as much as 570 calories per cup.

Here's the rundown for a few common coffee additions:

  • 2 tablespoons of flavored liquid nondairy creamer = 80 calories and 4 g fat.
  • 1 tablespoon of plain liquid nondairy creamer = 25 calories, 2 g fat.
  • 1 tablespoon half-and-half = 20 calories, 2 g fat.
  • 1 tablespoon cream = 50 calories, 6 g fat.
  • 1 tablespoon whipped cream = 90 calories, 9 g fat.
  • A drizzle of Starbucks caramel syrup = 25 calories.
  • 2 tablespoons flavored syrup = 80 calories, no fat.
  • 2 pumps of flavored sugar-free syrup = 0 calories.
  • 2 tablespoons malt = 90 calories, 2 g fat.
  • 1 tablespoon mocha syrup = 25 calories, 0.5 g fat.
  • 1 teaspoon sugar = 15 calories.

The next time you order your favorite joe, try it black or with nonfat milk and/or artificial sweeteners to get the health benefits without the extra calories.

Researchers are cautious about making public health claims. But it certainly appears safe to keep drinking that delicious, aromatic, pick-me-up cup or two of coffee each day.

Just be sure to keep your intake moderate, to be on the safe side. If you experience palpitations, a rapid heartbeat or any symptoms associated with caffeine overload, talk to your doctor about your coffee intake. The same goes if you're pregnant, nursing, or have high blood pressure, heart disease, or osteoporosis.