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The Pleasure and Pain of Coffee: How Confusing Can It Get?

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Confession: I am enamored with coffee. Namely, with that perfect, small little cup of café con leche whose wafting aroma seems to both soothe and excite me simultaneously. A magical potion that boosts my alertness, improves my daily concentration, and provides me with many opportunities to be socially engaged with others in cozy coffeehouses. In fact, I adore coffee so much that I coerced my coffee-virgin husband to "just give a Starbucks mocha a try," and now he's hooked, as in love with coffee as I am.

Does that mean I created a drug addict?

This is where all the confusion comes in. Based on the media, coffee can range from an evil drug to the cure for some of the worst-feared diseases. Have you heard of a coffee enema for supposed detoxification of the body and for healing after chemotherapy? Yes, it exists.

According to Dr. Walter C. Willet of Harvard School of Public Health, "Coffee is an amazingly potent collection of biologically active compounds," which translates to coffee having positive and negative attributes.

We know that coffee contains caffeine, described as an unhealthy supplement with no nutritional value. Most adults consume caffeine every day in the form of coffee, tea, cola, chocolate, or even in some over-the-counter pain medications. Since caffeine is known as one of the most widely-used psychoactive substances in the human food supply, numerous studies and extensive research have been conducted, documenting both benefits and disadvantages to human health.

Here are some of the physiological effects on the body that are considered negative:

Cardiovascular Problems and Stress: High caffeine intake releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that increase heart rate and force of heart muscle contractions, thereby increasing the blood pressure acutely. Irregular heartbeats, increased LDL cholesterol and homocysteine levels have also been associated with high caffeine levels.

Kidneys: Caffeine is a mild diuretic and acts on the kidneys by preventing absorption of water, thus increasing urinary output, and can cause dehydration.

Gastrointestinal Problems: Caffeine stimulates increased gastric acid secretion and promotes gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Blood Sugar Swings: Caffeine has an adverse effect in people with existing Type 2 diabetes, and appears to worsen the body's ability to metabolize blood sugar.

Emotional Disturbances: Anxiety and irritability are hallmark mood disturbances associated with caffeine withdrawal. It also reportedly "has the potential to contribute to many psychiatric symptoms."

Female Health Problems: PMS, miscarriage, stillbirths, low birth weight babies, menopausal problems such as hot flashes and osteoporosis all may be exacerbated by caffeine consumption. Women on birth control pills are particularly at risk since some studies have indicated that they tend to have a decreased ability to detoxify caffeine.

Nutritional Deficiencies: Caffeine inhibits the absorption of some nutrients and causes the urinary excretion of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and trace minerals.

Because caffeine consumption is so common, we overlook it as an addictive substance, requiring us to drink more and more to get the same physiological effects. That being said, Caffeine's addictive effects are much milder than those of other drugs. We should be hard pressed to place them in the same category as tobacco, alcohol, or other addictive drugs.

Moreover, there are some positive benefits to coffee and caffeine:

• Coffee is the single biggest source of antioxidants in the American diet. Antioxidants can help to stabilize free radicals and stop them from doing damage to the DNA of cells.

• Coffee contains minerals that, along with the antioxidants and caffeine, seem to exert a protective effect against the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Frank Hu, M.D., one of the authors of a Harvard study on the link, theorizes it may be because caffeine stimulates muscles to burn fat and sugar more efficiently.

• Caffeine in small doses has shown promise at increasing metabolism, particularly before exercise, and may be a way of boosting fat loss.

• Caffeine enhances our levels of brain activity, which typically results in quicker response times and a better short-term memory. This occurs by increasing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

• Caffeine releases a surge of dopamine, a special chemical messenger that activates neurons in the brain and brings us the sensation of pleasure, focus, and motivation.

• Coffee drinkers may be less likely to develop diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. Harvard researchers have found that men who drink four cups of caffeinated coffee a day are half as likely to develop Parkinson's disease as those who refrain from consuming caffeinated beverages.

• Research also shows that coffee can potentially lower your risk of several kinds of cancer, including skin cancer and high-grade prostate cancer.

So should we drink that delicious cup o' Joe next time?

Think of this: There is no one answer regarding diet, exercise, or lifestyle that will work for everyone. We each have different biochemical needs and regardless of any study, so if coffee does not feel right for you, then listen to your body.

And if you, like me, plan on continuing on with your love affair with coffee, try to consider these tips:

  1. Choose organic beans that have not exposed to pesticides.
  2. Darker roasts are better for you because the caffeine content goes down during roasting. Much like alcohol, which evaporates as it is "cooked," caffeine burns away during roasting, hence darker roasts being lower in total caffeine.
  3. The brew is another controllable method that, like roast, affects the caffeine content of coffee. Fine-ground beans and the drip method yield the highest caffeine content, as the grounds are in contact with the water for longer periods.
  4. Filtering coffee through a paper filter removes many of the components that are associated with cardiovascular disease and a higher LDL ("bad" cholesterol), so it is a good idea to use paper filters.
  5. Pay attention to your serving size! Based on information from the Mayo Clinic, eight ounces of generic brewed coffee contains 100-200mg of caffeine. A dose level of 400mg/day of caffeine is not associated with adverse effects, but it also depends on other health determinants that affect the metabolism of caffeine.
  6. Avoid excessive "extras" like cream, sugar, or syrups in your coffee.
  7. Take some "rest" days and try something different like green tea. Researchers theorize that green tea may increase our metabolism by expending energy, plus have a positive effect on fat breakdown.

I would rather obtain caffeine from a great cup of coffee than from soft drinks, energy drinks, or sources that can lead to many other unwanted health outcomes.

So my advice: Enjoy that delicious cup of great coffee -- in moderation!

For more by Roxana Shaw, click here.

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