However, like all things that are delicious and that I imbibe regularly, I've started to have doubts and fears about the health effects of my coffee consumption. It seems like my entire Instagram feed is filled with snaps of healthy herbal teas, matcha lattes, and people waxing poetic about how they feel so much better after quitting coffee. Is there now something wrong with my morning habit?
Thankfully, registered dietician Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RD, is here to spill the tea—or rather, java—on the benefits of coffee for the latest episode of You Versus Food. And for all those taken by the allure of coffee, I promise you that she has some pretty great news.
What are the benefits of coffee?
Coffee is actually pretty good for you, Beckerman told me (as I let out a massive sigh of relief). "Coffee, when consumed in moderation with minimal amounts of sugars and creamers, can be a healthy addition to an otherwise healthy and balanced diet." And each cup includes an impressive array of health benefits:
1. It gives your brain a jolt of energy.
Yes, due in part to the large dose of caffeine, but it's a little more complicated. "The caffeine in coffee increases the stimulant norepinephrine and the laser-focus chemical dopamine in your brain," she says, helping you feel more alert and ready to tackle your to-do list.
2. Coffee is rich in essential nutrients.
The short list: vitamin B5 (for making red blood cells), manganese (for bone development and metabolism), potassium (for lower blood pressure), magnesium (for energy production and sleep), and niacin, which Beckerman says helps convert said vitamins into useable energy.
3. It's packed with antioxidants.
Antioxidants can help reduce inflammation and mortality risk. "Believe it or not, in a typical Western diet, most people are getting more antioxidants from coffee than from fruits and vegetables combined," Beckerman says. (Please eat some more fruits and vegetables!)
Due to its potent antioxidant and caffeine content, coffee may help combat chronic illness, including cancer. "There's a strong link between caffeine preventing breast cancer in women who are genetically susceptible to it, so that's a health benefit," says FitnessGenes CEO and co-founder Dan Reardon, MD. "There's also strong evidence of coffee being connected to better cognitive function and mental stimulation."
4. It's a great pre-workout beverage.
Beckerman says coffee can help boost physical performance. "It stimulates your nervous system and signals fat cells to break down body fat," she says. It also increases epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, which may help you run (or cycle) faster. But because coffee can help your digestive system stay regular and even facilitate bowel movements, just remember to plan ahead so you don't end up mid-run with the, well, you know—runs.
5. Coffee may help with seasonal allergies.
This icing-on-the-cake perk is largely due to coffee's potent caffeine content. "Caffeine helps with sleepiness as we all know, but it can also help with congestion," immunologist Purvi Parikh, MD, previously told Well+Good. "With allergies, you get inflammation and congestion of your blood vessels, and then you get inflammation in your nose, too, because basically your nose is blocked up from the allergic reaction. And the same thing happens in your head. You're basically feeling the congestion in your sinuses, in your head, and that can make people feel tired and fatigued." Caffeine is especially helpful when taken with other allergy medicines, especially the kind that make you drowsy. "The anti-inflammatory effects [are] why they say coffee can help with a lot of other medical problems, too, that are driven by inflammation," adds Dr. Parikh. "There's some links with coffee preventing dementia and coffee preventing cancers."
Learn more about the many health benefits from coffee from Beckerman by watching this video:
Are there any risks or downsides to this glorious drink?
Unfortunately, yes. And most are related to the amount of caffeine each cup contains. "Caffeine can cause anxiety and disrupt sleep, as it can lead to overstimulation, restlessness, and jitteriness," says Beckerman. Caffeine stimulates your nervous system, and in excess, can potentially trigger your fight-or-flight response, making anxiety worse. This isn't the case for everyone; some people can drink coffee all day and have no issues whatsoever. But for people who have existing issues with anxiety, coffee can exacerbate the problem.
Caffeine also stimulates your heart rate and breathing, which Beckerman says can make people feel jumpy. Drinking too much coffee or caffeine of any kind (more than four cups per day) can cause unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects, like elevated blood pressure, headaches, muscle tremors, and insomnia.
It's also an addictive substance. "When people drink [coffee] often, they can become tolerant to it," Beckerman says. Then when you take away coffee, she says people might experience symptoms of withdrawal.
Coffee affects everyone a bit differently, making some people more sensitive to its potential ill effects than others. So don't be super concerned by these potential downsides. Limit your intake to a reasonable amount and you should be good to go.
If you're prone to the shakes, try this coffee alternative for energy without the jitters:
I live under a rock and have never heard of coffee. What's the best way to drink it to reap the most benefits of coffee?
Since coffee in an IV drip is generally not advisable (sorry, Lorelai Gilmore), Beckerman suggests drinking it black or with a splash of milk to cut back on unnecessary sugars or calories. "Cappuccinos, lattes, and flat whites are also good options," she says, because that gives you some extra vitamin D and calcium thanks to the milk content. And while a morning coffee (or two) is fine, Beckerman recommends cutting yourself off after 2 p.m. to avoid sleep-related issues.
For every cup of coffee you drink, Beckerman says you should also be drinking a cup of water to prevent dehydration. (Sorry, you're probably going to have to pee a lot.)
How do you know when—and how much—is best for you?
Okay, so coffee definitely has some good-for-you cred. So how much is the right amount to drink for the most benefits? "People metabolize it at different speeds," Dr. Reardon says. "So there's a variation when people should consume coffee." He adds that when too much is consumed—and at the wrong time—it's linked to causing high blood pressure.
Some people can order a shot of espresso as an after-dinner nightcap and have no problem falling asleep a couple hours later, while others can't have any caffeine after 4 p.m. or they'll be up all night. So how do you know where you fall?
You could get your DNA tested (according to Dr. Reardon, you want to look at "a gene called CYP-182 to see how fast caffeine is broken down and its compounds are released in the body"), but a far easier option is just making an educated guess by paying attention to your body post-cup of joe. If you feel its effects almost immediately? That means you metabolize coffee quickly. Whereas if it takes a bit to kick in, you likely metabolize it on the slower side.
Figuring this out impacts more than just the timing of your Starbucks run—one study showed that people who metabolize coffee slowly are at a greater risk for having a heart attack. However, if your body can handle the caffeine, another study conducted on lab mice found that the cells inside your blood vessels benefit the most after four to five espresso shots per day. Meaning, select proteins inside of older cardiovascular cells begin to act like younger ones, improving your overall heart health.
So yes, fast metabolizers can tolerate more coffee than slower metabolizers—which means that they can drink it later in the day with way less problem. And if you do metabolize well, consider sipping four to five espressos per day to look out for your heart.
Bottom line? Coffee drinkers, rejoice! You can keep sipping in peace. If anyone needs me, I'll be cracking open a cold brew to get through the afternoon.
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