Once upon a time in the forests of Ethiopia, a goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his goats were particularly fond of a specific kind of berry. These berries, he observed, gave his goats quite a bit of energy. In fact, upon eating the berries, his goats could travel for much longer distances, oftentimes more alert and energetic than Kaldi himself. Kaldi told the local abbot about his discovery, and the abbot decided to try a few of the berries himself. He brewed them into a drink and found that after consuming his new cocktail, he too felt more alert and energetic.
The abbot told some monks. The monks told neighboring monks, and slowly—as news traveled back in the 11th and 12th centuries—word got to the Arabian Peninsula. From there these berries, or beans, found on the beloved coffee plant began to be cultivated and traded and made their way across the globe. True story.
For hundreds of years, people have been enjoying coffee in all its glorious forms. In recent years it has become a culture all its own thanks to Starbucks, which started the craze, and the thousands of other retail coffee houses that have popped up around the world. It has become much easier and more convenient and delicious to grab a cup of joe any time of day, turning that one-cup morning habit into a two- or three- or four-cup daily treat. Nearly every office has a Keurig for a quick fix at the 3 p.m. slump. Iced coffees are bottled for the ready at any convenience store.
But what is all this coffee doing to us? Every detox diet tells us to kick the coffee habit while we cleanse. Does that mean it’s bad? Are we overdoing it? The health risks of coffee have been well documented for years: It can make you anxious, disrupt your sleep, disturb your bowels, and cause high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Yes, all of this is true. But let’s take a look at more recent research studies and see if these documented potential risks are ones that are worth taking.
First let me say this: Coffee intake affects sexual hormones. For women, it increases some forms of estrogen levels and lowers other forms, such as estradiol estrogen, because of the numerous phytoestrogens it has. That said, phytoestrogens can protect the body positively or negatively. High coffee intake has been shown to decrease the risk of estrogen receptor (ER)-negative breast cancer in postmenopausal women, but it may increase the risk of ER-positive breast cancer in premenopausal women.
It can also increase the risk of cyst formation in breasts or ovaries. If you are prone to cysts, slow down on the coffee. If you’re not, drink away.
Pregnant women are advised to keep coffee intake to one cup per day or less, as high amounts of caffeine can lead to low birth weight and 10 percent lower testosterone levels in male babies. For men, caffeine intake increases the levels of testosterone released in the body by stimulating the adrenal glands. The increase in these hormones is not very significant unless you are consuming at least six cups per day. It will help a workout, let’s say, but won’t send you into a steroid-type rage any time soon.
For men and women alike, the health benefits of coffee appear to be numerous. Bear in mind that most of these studies are observational, yet there is something to be said about large numbers of the same observations. In 2012, for example, the New England Journal of Medicine published a huge study, the results of which indicated that people who drank one or more cups of coffee a day lived longer than their non–coffee-drinking counterparts. The longer lives came to those who drank between four and five cups per day.
The increased longevity is a result of the number of major diseases that coffee intake protects us from, including cardiovascular disease, heart failure and stroke, colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes, liver disease including liver cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and multiple sclerosis.
Caffeine, which is found even in decaffeinated coffee in small amounts, is a stimulant. It temporarily blocks adenosine (the hormone that depresses the nervous system and helps us go to sleep) in the brain and increases the release of norepinephrine and dopamine. This leads to improved brain function, reaction time, focus, and general cognitive function. And it can suppress the production of chemicals involved in the inflammatory process that cause multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative diseases. In animal studies, caffeine has helped to protect against blood–brain barrier (BBB) leakage, which disrupts the BBB’s ability to prevent toxins and bacteria from entering and damaging the brain, which can wreak all sorts of havoc.
How exactly coffee helps protect the body from other harmful diseases still remains a mystery. We know it is loaded with polyphenols, antioxidants that play an integral role in ridding our system of harmful metals and toxins. It contains several essential vitamins and minerals but in relatively small amounts. Perhaps the combination of everything stimulates liver function, thus promoting detoxification throughout the entire body.
Research has shown time and again that coffee intake decreases one’s risk of liver cancer significantly (by 40 percent) and cirrhosis of the liver by 84 percent. The liver is the largest organ in the body and is responsible for so many things, including the regulation of blood composition, the removal of toxins, the processing and storing of nutrients, and the breaking down of drugs and alcohol.
If caffeine is supporting healthy liver function, and a healthy liver is essential to a healthy body, then perhaps this—along with its positive impact on the brain—is the magical power the bean beholds. Perhaps not. Kaldi and the monks had their theories; this one is going to be mine.
Whatever you take away from this article or others examining the pros and cons of a satisfying cup or three of joe, I hope you feel at least a bit more comfortable knowing that the overall consensus is positive. There should be no guilt as you enjoy your latte or cafe cubana. Relish in the deliciousness. It’s good for you—or at least it is better for you than it is bad—and I, for one, will take that as a double thumbs up.