Huffpost Healthy Living

Is Coffee Bad Or Good For Your Health? Two Experts Debate

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IS COFFEE BAD
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It's been linked to decreased risk of skin and prostate cancers. It might lower depression risk in women. It could protect you from Type 2 diabetes. It might stave off Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. And it tastes good.

Uh, where do we sign up?

Over the past few years, a body of scientific evidence has built up pointing to the many health benefits of coffee. No wonder more than 50 percent of Americans enjoy a daily java fix. But before you grab a celebratory cup of joe (or seven), consider this: Coffee is also an addictive stimulant that could come with enough side effects to give some experts the jitters.

We sensed a serious debate, er, brewing. And so we asked HuffPost Wellness Editor Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald and HuffPost blogger Mark Hyman, M.D., to break down both sides of the coffee debate.

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Coffee is a health food.

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Who makes the better argument?

Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald Wellness Editor, The Huffington Post; Doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine; Nutritionist; Animal Welfare Advocate

Sometimes I think coffee is so enjoyable, it seems like it has to be bad for you. Hot, delicious, with the little stimulating kick of caffeine -- how could it not be? And yet it's true: For most people, regular, moderate coffee consumption is not harmful to your health.

In fact, one of the best parts of my job is getting to tell a person that he or she doesn't have to give up their morning cup of coffee. As a clinician, a significant part of my day with patients involves nutritional counseling, which means I often find myself encouraging people to eat less sugar, more vegetables, and fewer processed foods -- a necessary but sometimes challenging process! But, for most people, that morning cup of Joe can stay. And often, the look in their eyes when I tell them they don't have to give it up is priceless.

I don't suggest that people can keep drinking coffee simply for the pleasure it brings (though, enjoyment and health are far from antithetical), but also a spate of recent studies have shown that drinking a couple cups of coffee a day just isn't bad for you. According to an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "Our results suggest that coffee consumption is not harmful for healthy adults in respect of risk of major chronic disease." Coffee drinkers don't have a higher rate of heart disease or cancer -- or any other major health problems.

And not only that, but there's lots of evidence to show that coffee is actually good for you. The same article in Clinical Nutrition finds that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of diabetes. Other research has show that coffee can lower your risk of several kinds of cancer, including prostate and skin cancer -- and a can lead to a very modest reduction in almost a dozen other types of cancer.

A recent study out of the University of South Florida and University of Miami found consuming higher levels of caffeine (which came from coffee among those tested) is linked with a delayed onset of Alzheimer's disease. In fact, drinking coffee has even been suggested to increase longevity.

And there's evidence that coffee has mental health benefits as well. The results of one study suggested, "Women who consume two to three cups of caffeinated joe per day had a 15 percent lower risk of depression than non-coffee drinkers."

Another study pointed to decreased stroke risk among women who regularly consumed coffee,

and a recent study pointed to decreased risk of heart failure among those who fulfill their jones for java.

The abundance of studies supporting the benefits of coffee can actually be supportive to our health, because it reduces the stress around a habit that we may have erroneously believed was not good for us. It's nice to have some relief from the "food police." When our chosen rituals can be enjoyed without guilt, there is a benefit to our emotional health. Additionally, the benefits of coffee can extend beyond what the studies show, to the psychological, societal and cultural benefits of the world's most popular beverage.

For millions of people, the morning's first cup of coffee is a comforting and much-looked-forward-to ritual, one that can make dragging yourself out of bed and commuting to work a little bit more bearable -- maybe even add a bit of joy. (And, as recent studies have shown, smiling is good for your health too!)

A good cup of coffee can lead to sensory delight. Obviously, the taste of a good cup of coffee is without parallel -- but even a bad cup of coffee has its charms. The appeal of coffee, however, is not limited to a single sense.

The strong, distinct aroma of coffee -- released from grinding beans or even just walking by a coffee shop -- also brings pleasure, which increases dopamine in your brain (which has been correlated with happiness and health). The sight of a coffee shop can often bring a feeling of relief. There's an element of touch: gripping a hot cup of coffee on a brutal winter's day, or the chill of a delicious iced coffee (more appropriate on days like the ones most of us have been having).

And for true enthusiasts, even the sound of the beans grinding can invoke delight, as can the whirring of a milk-steamer or the barista's chatter. Perhaps even on a larger level, the sound of a potential suitor finally asking, "Would you like to meet for coffee?"

That social element of coffee is unparalleled. Coffee appeals to our sense of serving and being served. Offering someone a cup of coffee and receiving a cup of coffee has become kind of a universal symbol of hospitality

Coffee shops can be inspiring gathering places -- one of the few public spaces we have left. People gather in groups to chat, meet for first dates, or sit quietly and read. They host music shows, hang local artists' work, and are places to hang fliers, advertise apartments for rent or look for missing cats.

Like all things, coffee is best enjoyed in moderation (more notes on how to do that below, but the key word in the sentence might be "enjoy," since providing enjoyment is what coffee does best!

How to keep your coffee consumption healthy:

Before you order that extra large triple latte, keep in mind that more experts agree it is best to limit your intake to one to two cups a day. Use common sense -- some people are sensitive to caffeine and should limit or choose decaf. Too much caffeine can contribute to insomnia, nervousness, anxiety, gastrointestinal issues, and heart rhythm concerns. Pregnant woman and those with blood pressure issues should check with their doctor. Also, excess sugar and cream in those fancy coffee drinks are not recommended.

Tips for healthy coffee:

1) If choosing decaf, go for Swiss water process decaf vs. the chemical solvent process.

2) It is best to choose organic coffee when possible. Conventionally-grown coffee is a heavily sprayed crop.

3) If you are watching your cholesterol levels, use paper coffee filters to remove chemicals responsible for elevated cholesterol.

For more by Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald, click here.

For more on personal health, click here.

Mark Hyman, MD Practicing physician

Coffee is the magic elixir that keeps America humming. Before indoor plumbing was available and potable water was everywhere, Americans drank beer for breakfast and all through the day, resulting in a slow start to our nation's prosperity. Then, in the 1600s, coffeehouses became popular in America. Caffeine and coffee replaced the alcohol and beer and the industrial revolution was off to a great start. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Internet boom and technology revolution started at the same time as Starbucks. It helped America focus!

It is certainly why I started on coffee during medical school. Everyone else was doing it, and it seemed a great way to help me cram for anatomy and biochemistry exams. But I quickly noticed a droop every afternoon: My brain shut down, my eyes became heavy and I could only "cure" it through another cup of coffee. During my emergency room days I would power up with a quadruple espresso and work from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Just like a drug addict, I needed more and more just to stay barely functional. My sleep was difficult, more interrupted and less restful, and I woke tired and need my "fix" of java.

So I decided to "detox" and kick my drug habit. After a few days of headache and total exhaustion, I felt renewed energy, woke up alert and ready to embrace the day and felt steady energy all day long. My sleep deepened, and the low-grade irritability and anxiety I felt disappeared. I realized I was living on borrowed energy.

The truth is that not everyone responds to caffeine the same way. Some metabolize coffee differently than others. Our detoxification pathways are genetically determined. That is why some people have one cup in the morning and can't sleep for days and others can have a double espresso after dinner and hit the pillow and fall into deep sleep. The gene involved is called CYP1A2. You can get a lab test to find out if you have trouble detoxifying. The good news is some may be better than others at tolerating caffeine and may be able to enjoy that coffee.

But there are many reasons for us to take a second look at our national coffee habit and obsession. Americans sleep about 1.5 hours less a night than 100 years ago, at great detriment to our cognitive function and health. Coffee has a lot to do this with the wide-ranging health impact of sleep deprivation on our health, including heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. To learn more about this link read, Lights Out, Sleep, Sugar and Survival.

There are some benefits of coffee. Coffee is the single biggest source of antioxidants in the American diet. Researchers claim it can prevent Parkinson's and ward of Alzheimer's, Type 2 diabetes and depression. It can help with focusing and reading and may make you more productive.

So why don't we just put it in our water supply?

• First, coffee is a drug. And using it recreationally is certainly fine, or for the occasional pick me up when you just couldn't get enough sleep. But there is a dark side of coffee and caffeine.

• It is addictive. It requires you to drink more and more to get the same "high" and eventually is needed just to feel "normal." Headaches, exhaustion and other biological signs of withdrawal put it clearly in the camp of addictive drugs.

• It stimulates the release of dopamine, which helps us focus, pay attention and remember. But it depletes those neurotransmitters over time and loses its effectiveness.

• It stimulates the release of stress hormones, including adrenalin and cortisol. This may lead to palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, and even spikes in blood sugar and insulin.

• It increases homocysteine (increasing risk for heart disease, depression, cancer and dementia) and depletes vitamins and causes mineral loss, including magnesium the relaxation mineral.

• It causes urinary excretion of calcium and contributes to osteoporosis.

• It can cause diarrhea, reflux and heartburn.

• It may interact with common medications such as Tylenol, causing liver damage.

• Coffee increases risk of stillbirths and iron deficiency in mothers and babies.

Occasional use of addictive legal drugs such as alcohol, sugar, or caffeine causes no harm, but regular, habitual use and addiction may cause significant risk. But more importantly, it has a negative effect on the quality of life for many who drink it -- they sleep poorly and are more tired and irritable and anxious. For something that is supposed to give you more energy, it usually offers only a brief lift with increasingly-diminishing returns. The surprising thing many former coffee drinkers discover is that they have more energy, not less, when they finally kick the habit. Try a drug holiday -- you might be surprised at the lift you get, much better than coffee.

For more by Mark Hyman, M.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated the coffee bean was discovered in the 1800s. It was first cultivated in the 15th century and became popular in America in the 1600s.

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