Science and Coffee – May 29, 2010

I drink coffee, usually one cup per day, and have been told over and over by various well meaning people that I would be better off quitting. With that thought in mind, and from what I have read that it actually helps prevent Parkinson’s Disease and Colon Cancer, and its benefits for mental clarity; I have defended it, but with some unsureness about my perspective. I have also felt it was a bit worse for women than men, because, as far as I could tell, it generates breast lumps. But I have never read a study about that. So I decided to spend a few hours and see what science has learned about this herb.

I was surprised to find that the scientific opinion is that fibrocystic breast disease is not regarded as associated with coffee or caffeine, although one study did find a 61% in symptom improvement in women that went off coffee, suggesting that this issue is not completely resolved. From my own observations, coffee is a factor in forming breast cysts, but that accepted insight is not reflected in the literature. However, there is more solid evidence that drinking coffee is not related to breast cancer. Most studies show that it is not.

In general, studies show coffee fights cancer. There are studies showing an inverse relationship between drinking coffee and the incidence of several cancers; gliomas (a brain cancer), skin melanomas in women, colorectal cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, and possible benefits for other types such as neoplasms of the oral cavity, oesophagus, stomach, liver, ovary, kidney and lymphoid tissues. I did find one study indicating that coffee increases the likelihood of ovarian cancer, so this is still up in the air. But, considering the great prevalence of cancer in our society, coffee seems to be a beneficial substance. Of course, organic coffee, meaning no pesticides source, would be my recommendation.

Does coffee have other benefits besides cancer? The answer is yes. Drinking coffee is associated with decreased mortality from all causes when grouped together. Several studies show the incidence of Type ll Diabetes is favorably influenced by drinking coffee. The reason for this may be its effect on insulin receptors, which studies show makes them less sensitive. One might think that it would be bad to decrease their sensitivity, but it might also keep the receptors from being over stimulated and burning out. Whatever the reason, the long term effect on the impact of blood sugar regulation seems to be good. Also, coffee is not related to metabolic syndrome, a pre-diabetic condition. Coffee does raise both cortisol and insulin, both of which raise blood sugar, but for some reason this does not seem to produce a long term negative effect. Also, it is worth noting that studies show the endocrine effects of coffee occur at higher doses, and occur after the behavioral effects. As an aside, one study found that putting small amounts of sugar in coffee and drinking it during the day causes weight loss, not weight gain. This may seem counter intuitive, but on second thought, perhaps the sugar keeps hunger down and concentration up, so the total calorie intake is less but, the reason is not known. An alternative to white sugar would be to use honey, stevia or agave nectar which are healthier forms of sugar. I doubt sugar in general is good for your teeth though.

Coffee also adds antioxidants to the body, and studies show drinking coffee with milk does not affect their absorption. However, non-dairy creamer and sugar do lower their uptake. Coffee does also seem to be good for the liver, preventing fibrosis from alcohol. Doctors at the Gerson Institute in Mexico told me they have measured increased dumping of toxins from the liver with coffee enemas, but I ran across no studies to that effect. Coffee seems to be good for the brain producing mental clarity, possibly by increasing adrenaline by up to 32%. Some studies show it helps prevent mental decline in the old, and even helps with Alzheimer’s Disease. Studies also show it has a dramatic effect in preventing Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder of the brainstem. Coffee may also have a mild protective effect against glaucoma.

What are the negative effects of coffee? First, caffeine withdrawal headaches are a recognized phenomena in the literature, but it is regarded as an individual sensitivity issue rather than a predictable outcome of withdrawal. A more serious problem is that it negatively affects cardiovascular disease, particularly short term blood pressure increases and homocystine levels. However, it does not appear to be associated with stroke or hypertension. I don’t know why.

In general, coffee comes out well. Like anything, it can be overdone. But with moderate use the benefits seem to greatly outstrip the negative effects. I would recommend caution if prone to hypertension or stress or if pregnant. Otherwise, things look pretty good.

I have not included the references for this article. This is not meant to be a scientific document, but a Readers Digest version of what science has found. But I do have all the references and they could be published if there is a demand for them.

Robert Janda, MA, DC