Ever Wonder What All Those Antioxidants in Your Coffee Actually Do?

Photo: Getty Images/Ceciangiocchi
Coffee lovers often point to coffee's antioxidants as proof that their favorite a.m. beverage is healthy, thankyouverymuch. It sounds like a fair argument—but what are antioxidants, anyway? And do they really outweigh the jitters and sleepless nights that caffeine can bring on?

To answer these questions, I turned to Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey, who knows basically everything there is to know about coffee. As he explains, antioxidants are key to helping us deal with the demands of daily life. "Antioxidants protect your body from inflammation by fighting free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can harm cellular structures," he says.

While our bodies naturally create free radicals, there are lots of lifestyle factors that amplify their production. These include chemicals in the environment, smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating a poor diet. And if free radicals aren't kept in check, they can contribute to all sorts of health issues, from benign (premature skin aging) to life-threatening (cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's...and many more.)

Yes, you could dial back on margaritas and French fries to reduce your free-radical exposure. But that's only part of the equation. Asprey says it's important to help subdue these damaging molecules with antioxidants, which are best consumed through whole foods. "Antioxidants are essential for the survival of all living things, and you can get a steady supply from both plant and animal food sources," he explains.

Vegetables and fruit are rich in these protective nutrients, as is—you guessed it—coffee. In fact, espresso and brewed coffee have more antioxidants than any other beverage, aside from red wine.

The benefits of coffee antioxidants

The antioxidants in coffee are linked to all sorts of positive health outcomes. "Studies show that coffee is extremely rich in antioxidants, such as hydrocinnamic acids and polyphenols, to name a few," says Asprey. "These specific antioxidants are especially efficient at neutralizing free radicals and preventing oxidative stress."

Here are a few of the reasons why that's important.

1. Coffee antioxidants can help reduce inflammation

Oxidative stress is the result of free radicals running rampant in your body—and it's closely linked to chronic inflammation. "Keeping inflammation low is key, because inflammation activates countless disease processes," says Asprey. (More on that in a minute.)

As mentioned before, coffee antioxidants are super effective at reducing free radicals—and, in turn, oxidative stress. "When you keep oxidative stress in check, your inflammation response is less likely to trigger," Asprey explains. That said, it's important to get a wide range of antioxidants in your diet for best results. So make sure to supplement your cold brew with plenty of polyphenol-rich berries, veggies, spices, nuts, seeds, and chocolate.

2. They may lower your risk of serious diseases

"Researchers have linked the antioxidant content in coffee to a reduced risk of many diseases, such as scarring of the liver, colorectal cancer, and heart disease," says Asprey. (Makes sense, given those anti-inflammatory superpowers mentioned above.)

And those aren't the only ailments that could be prevented by firing up your Keurig. Other studies have shown that regular coffee consumption may reduce one's risk of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, type 2 diabetes, and other types of cancer, such as those affecting the breasts and skin.

3. They may help you live longer

A recent study of 500,000 people showed that drinking coffee is associated with a lower risk of death—and that, surprisingly, the biggest reduction in mortality was found in people who drank six to seven cups per day. (Considerably more than the four-cup-per-day cutoff that doctors often recommend.) Since this was true for both caffeine and decaf drinkers, other coffee compounds seem to be responsible for lengthening lifespan. (What up, antioxidants?)

Are there any side effects of drinking coffee?

Okay, so it's clear that coffee antioxidants can be good for lots of people. But that's not to say that a cup of joe is the right choice for everyone.

Due to its caffeine content, coffee can exacerbate existing anxiety and sleep issues, and if anyone drinks too much of it, it can lead to nervousness, digestive distress, headaches, and a racing heart. Since coffee is acidic, it can also trigger heartburn. And if you're a slow metabolizer of caffeine—that's to say, your java buzz comes on immediately and lasts for hours—you may also have a higher risk of heart disease and high blood pressure when drinking any amount of coffee.

Bottom line: Listen to your body when deciding whether you should drink coffee. If it makes you anything but great, there are plenty of other ways to get your antioxidants—hey, even cake is fair game.

If you feel like your relationship with coffee is an unhealthy one, see how one writer healed her coffee addiction, and then check out these energizing adaptogenic herbs that can help you cut back on the caffeine.

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