Coffee and Your Health: Panacea or Poison?

For years, the battles have raged on in the medical community over coffee and its purported detrimental effects on your health. Long considered a poison, coffee has been thought to cause high blood pressure (eventually contributing to heart disease), diabetes and ulcers.

However, in recent years, the medical and mental health communities have shown coffee to actually have several benefits to your health, as many as 51 to be exact. What was once thought a poison might now be a panacea, especially to mental health.

Let’s examine how caffeine in coffee affects you and a few of the benefits of drinking coffee:

Coffee’s Caffeine Affects Your Brain Chemistry

Among all sources of caffeine, coffee offers the highest doses, almost double that of tea. It is little wonder that coffee accounts for 80% of U.S. adult’s caffeine intake daily.

What makes caffeine so sought after?

Caffeine is one of the few psychoactive drugs that is uniquely both water- and lipid- soluble. This makes caffeine able to pass the blood-brain barrier and directly affect the central nervous system. It affects our brains by mimicking adenosine in our brains and other parts of our bodies, counteracting it and helping us to be more alert and awake.

Here’s how it works: adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, a chemical produced by neurons throughout the day that inhibits activity. The more adenosine produced by neurons over the course of day, the more tired we become. Adenosine’s job is to quiet our neurons from expending energy and eventually lead us to sleep at the day’s end.

Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors in the nervous systems from receiving the signals to decrease energy expenditure. In turn, the brain amps up it’s own neuro-stimulants dopamine and glutamate, which push the brain to more activity. This stimulation can go on for hours, especially since caffeine has a half-life of five hours (half of the caffeine is metabolized by your body after five hours).

Since caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, the body will, in turn, produce more adenosine. This leads to your body requiring more caffeine to overcome the additional adenosine now being produced. Hence a caffeine addiction is born – you must drink more coffee to get the same buzz and degree of wakefulness.

Six Mental Health Benefits From Drinking Coffee

In recent years, many studies have been conducted that show coffee and its main agent caffeine have a myriad of positive benefits to both mental health and physical health.

Coffee, when consumed in moderation, provides important antioxidants, vitamins and minerals like magnesium, niacin, riboflavin (vitamin B2), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), manganese and potassium. These all help keep the body healthy and, along with caffeine, can contribute to the following mental health benefits:

1. Coffee May Help Battle Depression – A joint study from the National Institutes of Health and the AARP discovered that people who ingested four or more cups of coffee each day were 10 percent less likely to be depressed than someone who did not drink coffee at all. The Harvard School of Public Health determined that 2-4 cups of coffee can account for a 20 percent reduction in the risk of depression. Researchers are proposing that caffeine aids in the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline, which helps coffee act as a mild antidepressant.

2. Coffee May Reduce the Risk of Suicide – That same research conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the World Journal of Biological Psychiatry found that drinking two to four cups of caffeinated coffee daily reduces the risk of suicide in both men and women by a surprising 50 percent over those who drank one cup or no caffeinated coffee at all.

3. Coffee May Reduce the Onset of Alzheimer’s – The Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center conducted a study showing that drinking about 3 cups of coffee per day could prevent you from developing Alzheimer’s or, at the very least, delay the onset of the disease. A 2002 case study showed that caffeine exposure has a significant inverse relationship to Alzheimer’s, with regular coffee drinkers (those ingesting 135.7 to 198.7 mg of caffeine) having a lower risk of developing the disease.

4. Coffee May Delay and Reduce Dementia – Dementia, unlike Alzheimer’s, is not a disease but a group of symptoms varying in intensity; symptoms such as confusion, odd changes in behavior, and difficulty remembering recent events, names or conversations. One study showed a significant reduced risk of dementia for people who had higher levels of caffeine in their blood. This research concluded that individuals in their midlife who drank 3-5 cups of caffeinated coffee per day were found to have a decreased risk of dementia by 65%.

5. Coffee Aids In Memory Retention – Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that caffeine enhances certain memories at least up to 24 hours after it is consumed. The group of participants in the study who were given caffeine during the memory trials were quicker to recognize the differences between two similar images seen 24 hours apart, leading the researchers to conclude that caffeine aids in a deeper level of memory retention.

6. Coffee Improves Overall Brain Health – Recent research has shown that coffee triggers your brain to release the growth factor Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF activates your brain stem cells to convert into new neurons (called neurogenesis), improving your overall brain health. Increasing neurogenesis has also been shown to have an antidepressant effect, helping overcome depression.

Two Health Warnings Regarding Coffee Consumption

As with anything in life, too much of a good thing can harm you. There is a fairly new condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a short-term mental disorder called caffeine intoxication.

Caffeine Intoxication is a disorder that occurs when a coffee drinker experiences five or more of the following symptoms shortly after consuming caffeine: restlessness, nervousness, excitement, red face, gastrointestinal upset, muscle twitching, rambling speech, sleeplessness or rapid and irregular heartbeat. The intoxication must also meet a standard DSM test to diagnose the disorder – it must cause distress or impair the drinker’s ability to function.

This temporary disorder can be reversed by stopping the ingestion of caffeine, but that may lead to another diagnosis, one of caffeine withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can include headache, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, depressed mood and other issues. However, these symptoms are also temporary and will take care of themselves in short order.

The second health warning is to avoid all forms of caffeine during pregnancy. Just as caffeine passes easily through the blood-brain barrier, it also passes easily through the placenta.

Research has shown that consuming caffeine during pregnancy can result in a wide range of problems for your baby, including increased risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, birth defects such as cleft palate, increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and decreased fetal cardiac function.

Aside from over-consumption of caffeine and consuming caffeine during pregnancy, drinking coffee has a wide range of health benefits, both for your mental health and your physical health.


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