08/07/2012 03:09 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

The New Elixir: A Cup of Joe

The world's most widely used pick-me-up reduces your risk of neurodegeneration, depression, cancer and cardiovascular disease, and that's just the beginning of the story. Yes, I'm talking about that legal, over-the-counter beverage now available every other block. You know, brain juice, brew, liquid energy, morning mud, rocket fuel, wakey juice.


It may even be an ingredient in that fountain of youth we're still searching for. According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, coffee lowered all-cause mortality by over 10 percent after 13 years of follow-up.[1]

Before I summarize the remarkable medicinal properties this plant-based beverage has recently been shown to possess, let me flag the potential negative effects. They are few in number and undoubtedly the positive seems to dwarf the negative. However if you happen to suffer from one of these conditions, you might want to consult your doctor before changing your coffee consumption.

Coffee can increase blood pressure and intraocular pressure (a potential concern if you have glaucoma), make the anxious more anxious, and worsen tremors and insomnia.[2] There, that's it. Makes you wonder why it's gotten such bad press in the past.

While it is true that caffeine transiently increases blood pressure, it appears that when consumed in coffee, the increase is small and offset by protective effects. For instance, coffee beans are rich in antioxidants that decrease LDL and markers of inflammation.[3][4][5][6][7][8] Inflammation occurs early in the development of cardiovascular disease and is most commonly triggered by a sedentary lifestyle, stress, and processed foods.

Overall, coffee appears remarkably heart-friendly. It has been shown to substantially decrease the risk for coronary heart disease[4] and as little as two cups per day decreases the risk of heart failure.[9]

Recent research has demonstrated coffee's capacity to protect the brain as well. Investigators found that one to six cups per day reduce the risk for stroke by 17 percent.[3] A well-designed Swedish study followed female coffee drinkers for an average of 10 years and found a 22 to 25 percent reduction in stroke risk.[11]

Well that's great, you say, but can it help me lose weight? Yes, indeed. There is clinical evidence to suggest that by decreasing glucose absorption, coffee can facilitate weight loss, especially when combined with other measures.[15] It also improves glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, thereby decreasing one's risk for Type 2 diabetes.[12][13][14]

Coffee also appears to provide protection from a number of cancers through its antimutagenic and antioxidant effects.[16][18] Studies suggest different quantities are necessary to affect different cancers: prostate cancer -- six cups per day, estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer -- five cups per day, endometrial cancer -- four cups per day.[16][17][21]

When it comes to protecting your brain, studies have shown coffee to be a potent agent. Recent investigation demonstrated a protective effect in subjects with mild cognitive impairment, a condition that usually progresses to dementia. Those who consumed three to five cups of coffee per day and attained blood caffeine levels of >1200ng/ml showed no progression of their condition during the two to four years of follow-up.[22]

Coffee drinkers also appear to be at lower risk for Parkinson's disease. Recent research presented at annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology demonstrated that as little as three cups of coffee per day may block the formation of Lewy bodies, an early diagnostic sign of the development of Parkinson disease.[23]

The other remarkable brain benefit relates to mood. Just last year, researchers found that women who consumed two to three cups of coffee per day had a 15 percent lower risk for depression compared to women who drank less than one cup per week. And more coffee afforded more protection. Those drinking four or more cups per day had a 20 percent lower risk.[24] The investigators speculated that this antidepressant effect stems from coffee's antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities.[25][26][27]

If all that isn't a sufficiently broad spectrum to convince you that coffee might be the most exciting "new" gun in medicine's armamentarium, the list goes on.

What type of pathology remains? "Can it fight infection?" you ask. Yes, and not just any wimpy intruder. Coffee has also proven itself a potent force against one of the scariest bacteria, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA. The mechanism of this effect remains a mystery. However, subjects reduced the likelihood of having MRSA in their nasal airways by almost 50 percent by drinking coffee regularly, regardless of quantity.[28]

So bottoms up.

For once, a simple pleasure is the perfect prescription.

For more by Paul Spector, M.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.


1. Freedman ND, Park Y, Abnet CC, et al. Association of coffee drinking with total and cause-specific mortality. N Engl J Med. 2012;366:1891-1904

2. Pasquale L. Program and abstracts of the American Glaucoma Society 22nd Annual Meeting; March 1-4, 2012; New York, New York. Abstracts 23 and 83.

3. Larsson SC, Orsini N. Coffee consumption and risk of stroke: a dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Am J Epidemiol. 2011;174:993-1001.

4. Wu JN, Ho SC, Zhou C, et al. Coffee consumption and risk of coronary heart diseases: a meta-analysis of 21 prospective cohort studies. Int J Cardiol. 2009;137:216-225.

5. Natella F, Nardini M, Belelli F, et al. Coffee drinking induces incorporation of phenolic acids into LDL and increases the resistance of LDL to ex vivo oxidation in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86:604-609.

6. Gómez-Ruiz JA, Leake DS, Ames JM. In vitro antioxidant activity of coffee compounds and their metabolites. J Agric Food Chem. 2007;55:6962-6969.

7. Nardini M, D'Aquino M, Tomassi G, et al. Inhibition of human low-density lipoprotein oxidation by caffeic acid and other hydroxycinnamic acid derivatives. Radic Biol Med. 1995;19:541-552.

8. Montagnana M, Favaloro EJ, Lippi G. Coffee intake and cardiovascular disease: virtue does not take center stage. Semin Thromb Hemost. 2012;38:164-177.

9. Mostofsky E, Rice MS, Levitan EB, Mittleman MA. Habitual coffee consumption and risk of heart failure: a dose response meta-analysis. Circ Heart Fail. 2012;DOI:10.1161/CIRCHEARTFAILURE.112.967299.

10. Larsson SC, Orsini N. Coffee consumption and risk of stroke: a dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Am J Epidemiol. 2011;174:993-1001.

11. Larsson SC, Virtamo J, Wolk A. Coffee consumption and risk of stroke in women. Stroke. 2011;42:908-912.

12. Huxley R, Lee CM, Barzi F, et al. Coffee, decaffeinated coffee, and tea consumption in relation to incident type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169:2053-2063.

13. Sartorelli DS, Fagherazzi G, Balkau B, et al. Differential effects of coffee on the risk of type 2 diabetes according to meal consumption in a French cohort of women: the E3N/EPIC cohort study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91:1002-112.

14. Floegel A, Pischon T, Bermann MM, et al. Coffee consumption and risk of chronic disease in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Germany study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;95:901-908

15. Vinson JA, Burnham B, Nagendran MV, et al. Randomized double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of a green coffee bean extract in overweight subjects. Program and abstracts of the 243rd American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition; March 25-29, 2012; San Diego, California. Abstract 92.

16. Je Y, Hankison SE, Tworoger SS, et al. A prospective cohort study of coffee consumption and risk of endometrial cancer over a 26-year follow-up. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2011;20:1-9.

17. Wilson KM, Kasperzyk JL, Rider JR, et al. Coffee consumption and prostate cancer risk and progression in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2011;8;103:876-884.

18. Turati F, Galeone C, La Vecchia C, et al. Coffee and cancers of the upper digestive and respiratory tracts: meta-analyses of observational studies. Ann Oncol. 2011;22:536-544.

19. Galeone C, Tavani A, Pelucchi C, et al. Coffee and tea intake and risk of head and neck cancer: pooled analysis in the international head and neck cancer epidemiology consortium. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2010;19:1723-1736.

20. Song F, Qureshi AA, Han J. Increased caffeine intake is associated with reduced risk of Basal cell carcinoma of the skin. Cancer Res. 2012;72:3282-3289.

21. Li J, Seibold P, Chang-Claude J, et al. Coffee consumption modifies risk of estrogen-receptor negative breast cancer. Breast Cancer Res. 2011;13:R49.

22. Cao C, Loewenstein DA, Lin X, et al. High blood caffeine levels in MCI linked to lack of progression to dementia. J Alzheimer Dis. 2012;30:559-572.

23. Ross W, Duda J, Abbott R, et al. Association of coffee caffeine consumption with brain Lewy pathology in the Honolulu-Asia Aging Study. Program and abstracts of the 64th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology; April 21-28, 2012; New Orleans, Louisiana. Abstract #S42.005.

24. Lucas M, Mirzaei F, Pan A, et al. Coffee, caffeine, and risk of depression among women. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171:1571-1578.

25. Pasco JA, Nicholson GC, Williams LJ, et al. Association of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein with de novo major depression. Br J Psychiatry. 2010;197:372-377.

26. Ng F, Berk M, Dean O, Bush AI. Oxidative stress in psychiatric disorders: evidence base and therapeutic implications. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2008;11:851-876.

27. O'Connor A. Coffee drinking linked to less depression in women. New York Times. February 13, 2012. Accessed January 11, 2012.

28. Matheson EM, Mainous AG, Everett CJ, King DE. Tea and coffee consumption and MRSA nasal carriage. Ann Fam Med. 2011;9:299-304.

29. Pasquale L. Program and abstracts of the American Glaucoma Society 22nd Annual Meeting; March 1-4, 2012; New York, New York. Abstracts 23 and 83.