It’s Official: Coffee IS Good for You
Coffee can make you a happier person, a nicer and more open-minded person, a more intelligent, alert and physically beautiful person who lives a healthier life and lives it longer. We coffee drinkers just knew it all along, but medical science in recent years has been abuzz with confirmation that our faith is more than just a happy-dance of caffeinated brain cells.
Coffee can indeed boost your lifespan, for example, according to a study published in the June 2008 edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine by scientists at the Autonomous University of Madrid and the Harvard School of Public Health. Tracking 129,000 people over two decades, the study concluded that women drinking four to five cups of “black sunshine” a day were 34 percent less likely to die – and men drinking more than five cups a day were 44 percent less likely to die — of heart disease. Not only that; they found that the coffee drinkers were less likely to die from any cause, women 26% less and men 35% less.
Four to five cups! That’s a lot — NOT! … A “cup” as typically defined in scientific studies is an amount of coffee that contains 100 milligrams (mg) of caffeine. A 16-ounce Starbucks medium or “Grande” coffee, for comparison, contains more than 300 mg of caffeine. So it ain’t that much, and is it worth drinking?
“The more coffee you drink the less risk of mortality you have,” Esther Lopez-Gracia, Spanish epidemiologist and the study’s leader, told the press. “The general idea is that coffee is not so bad.”
That is indeed the general idea indeed. Coffee in its earliest history was viewed first as a medicinal beverage, both in the Arab world when it emerged from Ethiopia at the end of the first millennium and in Europe when it was imported at the beginning of the 17th Century. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the modern world is waking up to the aroma of accuracy in that original perception.
Many of these benefits come straight from caffeine, but coffee is more than just caffeine. A University of Minnesota study published in 2006 found that women who drank more than six cups of caffeinated coffee a day were 22% less likely than coffee avoiders to develop diabetes, but those who drank decaf had a 33% risk reduction. A variety of other minerals and nutrients for which coffee is a rich source have been suggested as the reason, based on their known effects on helping to process carbohydrates and antioxidants.
Coffee is an especially powerful source of the antioxidants known to counteract cancer, aging and a variety of pathologies. A cup of the old bean juice, after all, has the antioxidant punch of three oranges. Antioxidants are a primary reason for coffee’s benefits according to Karen Collins, back in 2007 a nutrition advisor with the American Institute for Cancer Research. That was when she commented on the Spanish study of coffee and longevity: “Coffee drinkers who were scared off years ago by reports that it’s a health threat have no reason to be afraid. Early thoughts that it might be a cancer risk have been put to rest. That was the main fear about coffee. Clearly there’s a concern for people having problems sleeping at night, for being careful during pregnancy and for effects on blood pressure. There’s some component in coffee that seems to make esophageal reflux disease worse, but it’s been clarified that it’s not caffeine, so a switch to decaf is not the answer.”
Still, caffeine is the main point of coffee, and coffee is the caffeine-delivery vehicle of choice for most caffeine users. “If you’re a healthy adult, there’s no reason you shouldn’t use as much caffeine as you’re comfortable using,” said caffeine authority Bennett Alan Weinberg, who coauthored with writer Bonnie Bealer The Caffeine Advantage, a book exploring the science of caffeine and how it can be used to sharpen the mind and improve physical performance. “One thing that has haunted caffeine is the idea, going back hundreds of years, that if you’re using a drug, you may think you’re feeling good but you will pay the piper sooner or later. In other words, you’re being a bad boy.”
Yes, there is a minority of people who do get tense or have other adverse reactions when they drink coffee. For this portion of the population, as for pregnant women and people with certain pathologies, the advice is simple: cut back, or just don’t use it. For the majority of us, though, the reported benefits are compelling, especially for the reason most of us drink coffee in the first place: its effect on the brain. Research at the Medical University at Innsbruck, Austria, for example, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain to show how coffee improves short-term memory, reaction times and other intellectual functions associated with what we perceive as intelligence. Subjects drinking caffeinated coffee showed heightened activation in those parts of the prefrontal cortex responsible for “executive memory, attention, concentration, planning and monitoring,” according to the researchers.
Research has shown that coffee has longer-lasting effects as well. A four-year, 7,000-person study showed that women 65 and older who took in more than three cups of coffee per day had 33% less decline in memory than women who drank one cup or less. In The Caffeine Advantage, Weinberg and Bealer listed a variety of studies showing that caffeine produces long-term improvements in memory much more dramatic in older people than in younger groups. Weinberg pointed to research at the Weizmann Institute in Israel suggesting caffeine may be “the only known substance that can augment brain functions by altering the physical structure of the brain.” Under the influence of caffeine, the Wiezmann institute observed neuronal branches growing longer, making new synaptic connections, new branches growing as well. “It showed that caffeine grows brain cells in the area of the brain responsible for long-term memory,” Weinberg said. “You can see the dendrites sprouting.”
As outlandish as this may sound, we coffee drinkers have no trouble appreciating such radical changes in the perception of our favorite drug. After all, drinking coffee actually makes people more open-minded, according to researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Moderate doses of coffee allow us to accept ideas contrary to our preconceptions because the heightened function of our caffeine-buzzed brains makes us more able to concentrate on and appreciate the reasoning of the arguments that underlie other people’s opinions, the researchers found.
Small wonder that 19th Century French historian Jules Michelet gave much credit for the Western enlightenment to the “sparkling outburst of creative thought” that arose when “the advent of coffee…created new customs and even changed the human temperament.” Small wonder that both the French and American revolutions were spawned over meetings in coffee houses as conspirators poured down this “wine of Araby,” this elixir of life, this nectar of the gods, this balm of the mind, this rocket fuel of the intellect…
Good heavens. Maybe I should cut back on the caffeine when I write these things.
Coffee, in the 500 years after it was discovered in Ethiopia, spread as a popular drink over the Middle Eastern world, and by the 1400s it had become a common stimulant to the expanding Ottoman Empire. The arts and sciences flourished across Islam while medieval Europeans wallowed in the Dark Ages and “drank alcohol morning, noon and night, and chronic alcohol intoxication was the rule, not the exception,” according to Weinberg and Bealer. Is it any wonder that by the 1500s, the enlightened and vigorous civilization of coffee-drinking Ottomans had overrun southeastern Europe and laid seige to Vienna?
By this time, however, Europeans had begun to discover coffee as an energizing alternative to alcohol. While Ottoman Sultan Murat IV banned coffee drinking in Istanbul on pain of death in the early 1600s, the first European coffee houses opened in Italy in 1645, England in 1652, Paris in 1672 and in Venice in 1683. Also in 1683, Polish-Austrian-German forces routed the Ottomans once and for all at the Battle of Vienna, beginning the retreat of the Ottomans from Europe as “the Age of Enlightenment” began to open its blossom over the awakening continent. A mere chronological coincidence? We coffee drinkers don’t think so.