Of all the relationships in my life, by far the most on-again, off-again has been with coffee: From that tentative dalliance in college to a serious commitment during my first real reporting job to breaking up altogether when I got pregnant, only to fail miserably at quitting my daily latte the second time I was expecting.
Now the relationship has turned into full-blown obsession and, ironically, I often fall asleep at night dreaming of the delicious, satisfying cup of joe that awaits, come morning.
While I love the mere ritual of drinking coffee, I definitely rely on the caffeine to make me feel more alert, energetic and often just plain better. Yet because I don’t like feeling dependent on anything, I occasionally wonder whether I should give it up. Can something that tastes and feels this good not be bad for you?
Rest assured: Not only has current research shown that moderate coffee consumption isn’t likely to hurt you, it may actually have significant health benefits.
“Coffee is generally associated with a less health-conscious lifestyle – people who don’t sleep much, drink coffee, smoke, drink alcohol,” explains Rob van Dam, an assistant professor in the departments of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Early studies failed to account for such issues and thus found a link between drinking coffee and such conditions as heart disease and cancer, he said.
“But as more studies have been conducted – larger and better studies that controlled for healthy lifestyle issues — the totality of efforts suggests that coffee is a good beverage choice.”
Van Dam’s research, for example, found no evidence that coffee consumption had any effect on mortality from any cause, including cardiovascular disease or cancer, even for people who drink up to six cups a day.
He and his colleagues have also found that drinking coffee is associated with a reduced risk of liver disease and Type 2 diabetes. The latter is backed up by a study published this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine; it suggested that three to four cups of joe a day might reduce chances of developing Type 2 diabetes by roughly 25 percent.
Also this month, Harvard researchers unveiled new data suggesting that drinking coffee might lower men’s chances of developing aggressive prostate cancer by up to 60 percent, with the highest benefits for those who down the most java.
Other studies have shown that coffee consumption reduces the risk of a laundry list of ailments: stroke, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, endometrial cancer, colon cancer and gallstones, for starters.
“The evidence is pretty clear,” says Daniel Burnett, a preventive medicine and family physician in Bethesda, Md., who notes that coffee intake can also improve mental and aerobic performance, endurance and mood while decreasing depressive symptoms.
While caffeine is the star ingredient for sleep-deprived students, parents and worker bees, the fact is that in many of these studies, including the research on diabetes and prostate cancer, positive effects are similar for those who drink decaf as well.
“Most of the benefits associated with coffee are not attributed to caffeine,” says van Dam, who explains that the beverage also contains antioxidants and quite a few vitamins and minerals.
Which is not to say the bean has no downside. Doctors cite risks such as miscarriage, anxiety and sleep issues, and warn that pregnant women and those with blood pressure problems should cut back or avoid it.
Others are concerned about the potential for addiction.
“My personal opinion on caffeine is that it’s the most widely used psychoactive drug in world,” says Daniel Evatt, a research fellow in the department of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He notes that many people become tolerant to immediate perks such as alertness and increased energy, and then go through withdrawal, with headaches, low energy and other symptoms, when they try to quit.
In addition, Evatt suggests, some longtime coffee drinkers may actually be immune to benefits and not know it: The tiredness they feel in the morning is really withdrawal-related, and that single or double shot only helps them function normally, without providing a real boost. “All these things tell us that this is a substance that people can become dependent on, in the way they become dependent on other drugs.”
Researchers worry about children and teenagers who gulp down coffee and such high-calorie cousins as frappuccinos, soda and the new energy drinks.
“They already have enough ups and downs with emotions as it is; when you add caffeine into the mix, it’s a problem — their bodies aren’t as equipped to handle it,” says Evatt. He notes that energy drinks are regulated as supplements instead of soft drinks, so there is no limit on how much caffeine they can contain.
Even coffee enthusiasts in the research field suggest that people monitor their consumption and recognize how they react to the stimulant, looking for troublesome signs including jitteriness, tremors and difficulty sleeping. This is particularly important because studies have shown that people metabolize caffeine in vastly different ways, so a Coke or cappuccino can leave one person bouncing off the walls while another can nap.
But those of us who tolerate our daily brew well can continue to happily caffeinate, within reason.
“In terms of health risks, up to around six cups a day or so seems to be fine,” says van Dam, noting that “cup” generally means eight to 10 ounces of black coffee. “I think coffee is on par with tea and water, and can be a healthy choice for most people.”
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