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Health Benefits of Coffee Beyond a Temporary Jolt

by Andreanne Hamel(more info)

listed in antioxidants, originally published in issue 154 - January 2009

No longer just for waking up in the morning, coffee's disease-fighting health benefits give java junkies a few more reasons to love it

Coffee – for many, it's their first thought in the morning, even before getting out of bed. The bitter, velvety aroma coaxes young and old alike into the day. But did you know that your morning jolt of java could be more than just a way to jump-start the day? Research has proven in recent years that coffee beans contain properties that rid the body of disease-causing toxins and help prevent a variety of other ailments.

Coffee Beans Contain Properties that Rid the Body of Disease-causing Toxins

Once thought to only cause jitters, heartburn, and sleepless nights, a joint study by the London-based Institute for Coffee Studies and Vanderbilt University in 2001 turned the old notions of coffee's nutritional emptiness on their head when the study's results showed a significant presence of antioxidants in coffee beans.

Antioxidants, until recently the secret behind coffee's healthy benefits, are substances found in food that help slow the body's oxidation process. As we breathe and our cells absorb oxygen, free radicals are naturally produced as a by-product. While wording their development this way makes them seem harmless, free radicals can cause a variety of cancers and heart disease. To counteract their effects, antioxidants, found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and other foods, help cleanse the body of free radicals.

The most commonly known antioxidants are vitamins C, E, A, and selenium. We get these by consuming brightly coloured fruits and vegetables such as carrots, oranges, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens. Flavonoids, lycopene, and lutein, found in soy, tomatoes, cranberries, and red wine, also round out the antioxidant spectrum. While nutritionists would rather we consumed the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, a 2005 study by the University of Scranton found that Americans get more antioxidants from coffee than from any other nutritional source. Other similar studies by the same group also found that coffee contains as much as four times the antioxidants present in tea.

Coffee Shown to Improve Memory Function

Studies have shown regular coffee drinking can fight the effects of cirrhosis of the liver, bowel cancer, Parkinson's disease, and may help prevent the development of diabetes. More immediate effects include coffee's ability to stop a headache, boost a person's mood, and help control asthma. But for men and women over the age of 65, the good news doesn't stop there. In one Canadian study published in 2002 in the American Journal of Epidemiology,[1] a study of over four thousand elderly patients showed that regular coffee consumption, combined with regular activity, helped reduce the patients' risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Women aged 65 who drink three or more cups of coffee a day help slow the decline of their verbal skills.

More recently, a second French study on caffeine's effect on memory function had some researchers baffled. The study, first published in the August 7 issue of Neurology,[2] found that women aged 65 who drank three or more cups of coffee a day helped slow the decline of verbal skills normally seen in their counterparts who consumed less coffee. Women aged 85 in the study who also consumed three or more cups a day were found to be 70 percent less likely to suffer reduced mental clarity than women of the same age who drank less than a cup of coffee per day.

However, the same results were not found for men of the same age who consumed the same amount of caffeine. While an official answer hasn't been given by the study's researchers, French National Institute for Health and Medical Research director Karen Ritchie said, "it may be that men and women metabolize caffeine differently or that there is a hormonal interaction."

Coffee Shown to Improve Alertness over Extended Periods

It goes without saying that caffeine is the number one item people reach for when they need to stay awake or wake up, but physiologists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington found that caffeine may extend waking time for up to 68 hours.

The Army researchers found that the average human can only cope for 48 hours without sleep. After that, your body will literally shut down, forcing you to sleep and recharge your metaphorical batteries no matter how badly you fight it. Introducing caffeine at specific intervals during that time period allowed soldiers participating in the study to stay awake for as long as 68 continuous hours. [3]

The soldiers were given a caffeine-infused gum made by Wrigley called "Stay Alert". The gum was not successful when sold on supermarket shelves, but the Army has considered using it in sustained military operations and combat areas where soldiers often rely on little sleep. It contains 100 milligrams of caffeine per stick, the same as 6 ounces of regular coffee, but the gum happens to be more portable, since soldiers aren't likely to have the resources to brew or consume coffee in a combat zone.

Caffeine must normally be absorbed into the bloodstream by way of the intestines, a process that can take as much as an hour. With "Stay Alert", researchers found that tissues in the mouth helped speed up this process and let the soldiers feel more alert after just five minutes. This sounds like it's a good thing because, according to the soldiers in the study, the gum doesn't taste very good.  Sounds like civilians are better off enjoying their caffeine in coffee form.

Coffee Helps to Prevent Disease

It has been established that coffee can help maintain memory function into old age and keep one alert longer than normally possible, but some studies are also proving that it could save one's life too.  One such study, published by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2004,[4] showed that men drinking six cups of regular coffee per day were able to reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by half as compared to people who don't drink coffee. In the same group, the studied women reduced their risk of developing the disease by 30 percent.

Scientists think that caffeine decreases insulin sensitivity, a key factor in type 2 diabetes where sufferers' bodies often don't recognize the insulin their pancreases are producing. However, researchers also think the magnesium and chlorogenic acid found in coffee may also be the cause, and have yet to pin down a concrete answer for coffee and caffeine's diabetes-fighting abilities.

Coffee has also been shown to help the body resist the development of Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's is typified by muscle stiffness, tremors, slow movement, and the gradual loss of basic functions such as speech, balance, and writing abilities. In the United States, three percent of adults over the age of 65 are afflicted with this disease and even more have the chance of developing it as they age.

While it's the muscles that are affected by Parkinson's, the disease begins in the brain where the nerve cells, or neurons, which produce dopamine, begin to die off. Without dopamine, signals from the brain that control balance and movements are lost. It has been a challenge for scientists and doctors for decades to understand why these nerve cells begin to die off. A combination of lifestyle, genetic predisposition, and environment are thought to be at the root.

Studies tracking caffeine's impact on Parkinson's[5] have shown that coffee may help stimulate dopamine receptors, freeing up the body to properly receive signals from the brain that create movement. In a 27-year study of Japanese American men living in Hawaii, researchers found that men who drank four cups of coffee per day reduced their risk of developing Parkinson's disease by up to five times what was experienced by those in the study who did not drink coffee.

How to Reap Coffee's Healthy Benefits

You may be wondering what is the best way to reap these benefits? Does it matter if you drink regular drip coffee or does espresso pack a more healthful punch? Some studies have shown that caffeine itself is what gives coffee beans their antioxidants, meaning that regular drip coffee, not espresso as is sometimes popularly believed, might pack a more healthful punch.

Keeping that in mind, where the coffee beans themselves are concerned, a UK study by the University of Reading in 2002 found that medium-roast coffee contained more antioxidants than dark coffee, despite previous ideas that darker coffee equals greater nutritional content. A slightly older study done in Switzerland showed that a coffee bean's type can also cause antioxidant content to vary.  In that study, the green coffee beans of the Robusta variety were found to contain twice the antioxidant activity of that found in Arabica coffee beans.

Researchers still caution that all coffee consumption should be done in moderation, but it seems like there's plenty of reasons to drink up and enjoy this favourite brew.

Resources

1.    Lindsay, J. et al. American Journal Epidemiology  (5): 445-5. 2002.
2.    Bakalar, Nicholas. "Mental Abilities: Caffeine helps women, but not men, stay sharp". The New York Times. August 14, 2007. www.nytimes.com/2007/08/14/health/14ment.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin.
3.    Fleming-Michael, Karen. Caffeine gum now in Army supply channels. AR News, www.4.army.mil/ocpa/read.php?story_id_key=8471
4.    The Associated Press. "Study touts coffee's health benefits". USA Today. August 28, 2005. www.usatoday.com/news/health/2005-08-28-coffee-antioxidants_x.htm
5.    International Coffee Organization. "Coffee and Parkinson's Disease – An Overview". Positively Coffee. www.positivelycoffee.org/topic_parkinson_overview.aspx

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About Andreanne Hamel

As an avid espresso drinker, Andréanne Hamel finds very interesting the physical consequences of ingesting coffee. Her website specializes in helping its visitors – new and experienced – buy a home espresso maker, from the traditional Bialetti 12-cup Moka Express  to the semi-automatic Breville espresso machine. She may be contacted via email@my-best-coffee.com www.my-best-coffee.com

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