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Coffee: An Eye-Opening Overview of the Health Benefits and Risks of Coffee According to Recent Research

Coffee is one of few beverages that has endured through the ages and made its way into many Americans' morning (and sometimes afternoon and evening) routines. While coffee drinkers may disagree on the perfect roast and brew, they all have one thing in common: coffee is an indispensable part of their day.

Coffee is the most common "food" consumed at breakfast in America, according to the American Dietetic Association.

"Half of the adult population in this country are regular coffee drinkers … drinking an average of three to four cups of coffee a day," says Dr. Jim Lane, a researcher at the Duke University Medical School.

That works out to over 330 million cups of coffee a day, which explains why, after oil, coffee is the second most valuable commodity in the world. More than just a beverage, some experts even argue that coffee has intertwined itself with American culture.

"As you're working during the day, coffee become the equivalent of 'in-flight fueling station,'" says Bob Thompson, a professor of popular culture -- and an entire class on Starbucks -- at Syracuse University. "You grab a cup on your way to work, you've got your little commuting holder in your car, there's a pot at work ... I think it's really appropriate that oil and coffee look the same because in a lot of ways oil and coffee are doing the same job."

For decades, however, research has been pouring in about coffee's health effects -- to the tune of 19,000 studies -- often with conflicting results. As it stands, there is no consensus about whether coffee is good or bad for your health, just a lot of debate. Here we've compiled some of the most recent, and most talked about, coffee studies relating to your health … and left the rest up to you to decide.

Praise for Coffee

"Overall, the research shows that coffee is far more healthful than it is harmful," says Tomas DePaulis, PhD, research scientist at Vanderbilt University's Institute for Coffee Studies. "For most people, very little bad comes from drinking it, but a lot of good."

Drinking coffee in moderation (a few cups a day) is not only completely safe, it may even be healthy, according to Harvard's Women's Health Watch.

Regular coffee drinkers, says the report, appear to gain the following advantages over non-coffee drinkers:

  • A lower risk of type 2 diabetes

  • A reduced risk of gallstones

  • A lower risk of colon cancer

  • Improved cognitive function

  • A reduced risk of liver damage in people at high risk of liver disease

  • A reduced risk of Parkinson's disease

  • Improved endurance performance in long-duration physical activities

The improvements coffee drinkers seemingly receive are quite significant. For instance, when the Harvard researchers analyzed data from 126,000 people for a span of 18 years, drinking one to three cups of (caffeinated) coffee daily reduced diabetes risk in the single digits. Drinking six cups or more each day, however, reduced men's risk by 54 percent and women's by 30 percent.

Further, other studies have found that people who drink coffee regularly (as compared to those who do not):

  • Have an 80 percent lower risk of Parkinson's disease

  • A 25 percent reduced risk of colon cancer

  • An 80 percent lower risk of liver cirrhosis

  • A 50 percent lower risk of gallstones

  • A lower risk of alcohol-induced pancreatitis

And that's not all. "People who smoke and are heavy drinkers have less heart disease and liver damage when they regularly consume large amounts of coffee compared to those who don't," says DePaulis.

Finally, coffee has also been found to benefit asthma, headaches and mood and prevent cavities.

While some studies have found that coffee raises the risk of heart disease, others have found it lowers it. New research has uncovered that the discrepancies may be due to a certain genetic trait.

Coffee is Risky Business

Harvard researcher Frank Hu, MD maintains that, "People who already drink a lot of coffee don't have to feel 'guilty' as long as coffee does not affect their daily life ... They may actually benefit from coffee habits in the long run."

Other experts, however, disagree.

"I think on average, the consumption of caffeine probably does create a public health risk," says Dr. Lane. "We've been studying this for 15 years, and in every single study that I've ever done, both in the laboratory and studies of people's blood pressures when they live their normal lives, caffeine always raises blood pressure."

In fact, Lane says that many Americans drink enough coffee each day to raise their blood pressure to the point it increases their risk of heart attack or stroke from 20-30 percent.

"That might be 100 million people who are putting themselves at great risk of a heart attack, a stroke or early death as a result of the coffee drinking they do," he says.

Other health risk associated with coffee have also been uncovered, including:

  • Worsening of PMS symptoms in some women

  • Reducing fertility in women while trying to conceive

  • Insomnia, anxiety and irritability

  • Heartburn and indigestion

  • An increased risk of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women

  • A possible increase in the risk of heart disease (studies are conflicting)

Another recent study of more than 3,000 coffee drinkers in Greece found that coffee drinkers had higher levels of inflammatory substances in their blood than non-coffee drinkers. Inflammatory substances have been linked to higher rates of heart attack and stroke.

Do Genetics Play a Role?

A new study may be able to explain why there are so many conflicting reports when it comes to coffee.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Toronto, Harvard's School of Public Health and the University of Costa Rica (published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) found that a genetic trait that causes caffeine to linger in the body may alter coffee's effects on specific people.

Out of over 4,000 people, about half had a trait that made them "slow caffeine metabolizers." The other half was able to metabolize caffeine quickly.

While fast caffeine metabolizers who drank coffee showed a reduced risk for heart disease, "slow caffeine metabolizers" who drank two or more cups of coffee a day:

  • Were at least 36 percent more likely to have a non-fatal heart attack than those who drank little or no coffee.

  • Were more at risk if under the age of 50. This group was up to four times more likely to have a heart attack.

There currently is no way to tell whether or not you're a slow metabolizer of caffeine, so what's the answer?

Dr. Roger Blumenthal, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Medical School who was not involved in the study, said that even if the findings are confirmed, caffeine likely plays a much smaller role in heart attacks than other risk factors like high blood pressure, cholesterol and smoking.

The other thing to keep in mind, experts say, is moderation. Dr. Nieca Goldberg, an American Heart Association spokeswoman, said that while the study doesn't say people should cut out all caffeine, several cups a day may be too much for some people.

"One good message that we can give people is that life is about moderation," she says.

Recommended Reading

Salt: What You Really Need to Know About the Harmful & Healthful Effects of Sodium

It's Time to Relax: 15 Quick Tips to Help You Shift Your Gears to "Relax" Mode Quickly


Harvard Health Publications: Coffee Health Risks

Medical News Today March 14, 2006

WebMD: Coffee: The New Health Food?

CBS News: Caffeine Nation

Coffee Drinkers Have More Inflammatory Substances in Blood

MSNBC: Some Coffee Drinkers Risk a Real Jolt

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