Is Coffee Going to Hurt You? The Great Coffee Debate Rages On
by Catherine Morris | November 2, 2020, updated about 1 year ago
Full disclosure—I'm a coffee fan. I say 'fan' and not addict because I can quit any time (honestly!). When it comes to coffee, I was late to the party and didn't touch the stuff until I was well into my twenties. Nowadays I have around 3 cups a day and haven't noticed any adverse reactions.
While I'm firmly convinced of the benefits of the bean, that doesn't mean I'm not interested in the other side of the argument. Coffee's not for everyone. Certain demographics and conditions don't go well with caffeine and should avoid the stimulant as much as possible. Then there are others who should perhaps look at how, when, and why they're partaking, to craft a coffee habit that won't derail their health goals.
So pleasure or poison? Let's investigate....
The Benefits of the Bean
Coffee is one of the most common stimulants, enjoyed by millions on a daily basis. Some say they can't start their day without it, others enjoy it as an experience.
Coffee is more popular among adult Canadians than tap water, according to the Coffee Association of Canada, and 72 percent drink it daily. It's become a cornerstone of our culture—we go for coffee with friends, we meet dates over a cup (or did, before the pandemic), we drink it in office meetings, and we rush to get the latest seasonal lattes. With all the coffee worship going on, you'd be forgiven for feeling like you're on the margins of society if you prefer herbal tea.
As a culture we often forget coffee’s origins (unless that’s part of your fave brand’s marketing). Coffee is a plant. Rather, the seed of a plant that is extracted, dried, and roasted. According to legend, it was first 'discovered' by an Ethiopian farmer who noticed his goats getting frisky after chewing on the beans/seeds.
Much like those goats, most of us drink our coffee for the buzz, but this powerful plant is good for much more than mojo.
You might've seen the old slogan 'Coffee Drinkers are Better Thinkers'. Turns out there's some truth to it. Coffee is a neuroprotective, meaning it's great for maintaining your brain. Studies show it has a positive impact on memory, attention, and mood. It's not just the caffeine, the potent polyphenols in the bean itself appear to boost both brainpower and motor function.
As we age, it can be a good idea to hold onto our coffee habit—one Swedish study found that people who drank 3 to 5 cups of coffee a day were 65 per cent less likely to suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's Disease in later life.
The benefits of your daily cup actually increase with age. Coffee drinkers are 30 per cent less likely to have memory decline by age 65, rising to 70 per cent less likely once they hit 80 and above.
Here's another fact that will have you running to the nearest barista—coffee helps you live longer. A decade-long study out of the UK, involving 500,000 people, discovered a link between longevity and coffee consumption. When contrasted with the control group, participants who regularly drank coffee (even those with an 8-a-day habit) lived longer. Even more remarkably, the results held true even for decaf, again suggesting that there's more to our favourite cup than caffeine.
The Coffee Cure
The evidence for coffee as a way of fighting and preventing disease is growing by the day with researchers finding that it can inhibit tumour growth, slow the progression of liver disease, reduce the risk of developing Parkinsons, and improve cancer survival rates.
Ah, but what about heart disease? Surely all that caffeine is terrible for your heart? Actually no. The common belief that drinking coffee hardens your arteries was disproved in a study last year which showed it doesn't have as negative an effect on the circulatory system as previously believed.
In fact, caffeine can protect the heart. Four cups a day is linked to better heart health as it restores the cells lining our arteries and veins, making them more resistant to wear and tear.
What About Coffee’s Effect on Teeth?
Here's something that even the most diehard coffee fans probably don't know—they're actually protecting their teeth with every sip. Coffee beans have antibacterial properties, meaning that they can fight the bacteria that causes tooth decay and gum disease. Coffee molecules also prevent certain harmful organisms from attaching to the tooth enamel and wearing it away.
Who Should Drink Coffee?
Your Genetics and Coffee
On paper, coffee sounds great. The studies about its health properties just keep coming, but before you brew, you might want to check your genetics.
Your DNA, along with a few other factors, determines your response to caffeine. Caffeine is absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract (usually within 45 minutes of your first sip) and metabolized in the liver. Some of us are fast metabolizers, and some are slow metabolizers.
The slow crowd are much more sensitive to caffeine's effects and probably find they get the jitters after a single cup of coffee while the fast metabolizers can drink it for hours without a twitch. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but there's an easy way to tell if you're towards the slower end according to nutrition consultant Michal Ofer who says—
“One way to know, is if you cannot drink your coffee any time in the early afternoon because it will disrupt your sleep. The caffeine in coffee has a half life of around 4 hours so having it at 12 or 1pm should not affect your sleep. If it does, it means it's circulating in your body for longer.”
Your caffeine tolerance isn't just genetic. To add to the confusion, there's a vast range of responses because age, chromosomal sex, and lifestyle also impact how it's absorbed and processed.
You Might Want to Reconsider Coffee If...
Nutritionist Kyra Follis says there's no straightforward answer about whether to include coffee in your diet, “When it comes to coffee it’s very individual based. I take it on a case by case basis when working with clients.”
She says those with digestive issues might want to steer clear, however—
“Coffee has a major impact on digestion, it causes early emptying of the stomach, and therefore it may cause nutrients to not be absorbed properly. This increased transit time can also have a negative reaction to those who have IBS, for this reason. In addition to this, coffee consumption regularly, over an extended period of time can contribute to low stomach acid/enzymes, which also affects digestion.”
Another red flag for Follis is those with heightened stress or hormonal disorders. “Coffee also plays a role in adrenal health, as it has the ability to spike hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Some individuals need to take coffee out [of their routines] to help stabilize their hormones, and soothe their adrenals to allow for less brain fog and anxiety.”
No Really, You Shouldn’t…
Coffee is a definite no for some groups. Pregnant people should avoid coffee as caffeine crosses the placenta and can harm the foetus, increase the risk of miscarriage and, in some cases, cause premature birth. Children should also not drink coffee, and anyone with an irregular heartbeat or insomnia should switch to caffeine-free beverages.
Just like any drug, you can become physically dependent on coffee, and noticing withdrawal symptoms is a sure sign that your body could use a break. If you love your latte, but aren't sure whether it's helping or hindering, don't be afraid to run a little self-experiment. Go without for a few days, maybe even a week, and see how you feel.
The most common signs of caffeine withdrawal are headaches, trouble sleeping, irritability, and brain fog. Wait until you can function fine without it, and then reintroduce slowly, keeping an eye to make sure the cups don't creep up.
Ofer says don't overthink it, but do pay attention to why you're drinking coffee and how it makes you feel—
“If caffeine doesn't make you feel good, don’t consume it. It's that simple. If you can't live your life without it, maybe you should question why you are drinking it. If you enjoy it and it brings you pleasure, that's a good thing. It's all about finding that balance.”
Safe Coffee Consumption if Only Maybe You Shouldn’t
So, you don't have any underlying complications, you're not pregnant, and you seem to metabolize it well...the next step is figuring out how and when to drink your coffee so you're not just enjoying the taste, but giving your body an edge as well.
When she encounters a coffee-loving client with digestive issues, Follis recommends the '20/20 rule', asking them to only drink coffee either 20 minutes before a meal or two hours after so it doesn't interfere with nutrient absorption, or stomach acid levels.
Anyone battling hormonal imbalance might want to swap out their coffee for a dandelion tea, or follow Follis' other suggestions of adding some “healthy fats to your coffee, such as a coconut/butter revved version” and/or cutting their intake to more moderate levels.
Normal Coffee Consumption for Normal People
For healthy adults, the sweet spot is considered 3 or 4 cups a day. The type of coffee you're consuming is also key, according to Follis who says—“It is important to buy quality with coffee. A lot of coffees contain a lot of mould, mycotoxins, and unnecessary chemicals. These can also play a role in the way coffee affects you so I always suggest going to quality when it comes to drinking coffee.”
Ofer agrees—“Many coffees are irradiated and are sprayed with toxins, they're also roasted or dried at high temps which can destroy some of the delicate oils in the coffee. The source is really important.”
And don’t forget to drink your water! “Coffee is a diuretic. This means it can dehydrate you, so it’s always important to drink a lot of water if you’re consuming coffee or just caffeine in general,” says Follis.
How to Drink Your Coffee
If you're drinking around 3 cups of coffee a day, you're technically a 'moderate' coffee drinker. There's more to it than quantity however. From filtered to drip, there's dozens of ways to take your coffee and feelings tend to run high in the coffee community as to the best way to get yours.
A study released earlier this year provides the first answer on which preparation is healthiest, and the winner was filtered. Researcher Professor Dag S Thelle commented—“Our study provides strong and convincing evidence of a link between coffee brewing methods, heart attacks and longevity. Unfiltered coffee contains substances which increase blood cholesterol. Using a filter removes these and makes heart attacks, and premature death less likely.”
That filtered coffee should be hot, too. While it's hard to resist the recent trend for thirst-quenching cold brew, it turns out hot coffee has more antioxidants.
So when should you be drinking your hot, filtered brew?
When to Drink Your Coffee
If you've had a bad night, don't start your day with coffee—wait until you've had breakfast first. Drinking a cup first thing can play havoc with your blood sugar control.
If you're following a fasting plan to get your insulin resistance under control, don't worry about enjoying a daily cup (or two) however. Ofer says—
“If you're drinking coffee and you're feeling good, that's great. It's not taking away from what you are accomplishing. Caffeine improves fat burning so if you're fasting, coffee can actually help. Over the long-term caffeine improves insulin resistance, and glucose tolerance.”
There is one important caveat however—“Don't eat sugary treats or things that raise your glucose with your coffee, and don't put sugar into your coffee!” Ofer also cautions us coffee lovers not to fall under the spell of seasonal lattes, and other dessert-like frothy coffees.
“There is a coffee shop on every corner, and they make the most wonderful looking drinks. That's not coffee, that's a sugar bomb with a little bit of coffee. A lot of them contain artificial sweeteners. All the benefits you're going to get from the caffeine will be destroyed by the sweetener.”
What We're Still Learning About Coffee
The reams of research about coffee so far have barely scratched the surface. There's a lot we're still learning about the humble bean.
Did you know, for instance, that just thinking about coffee makes you aroused (no, not that way)? Researchers from the University of Toronto found that people exposed to 'coffee cues' i.e. things that reminded them of coffee, suddenly became more alert and attentive—even if they didn't actually drink it.
So next time you're in a boring meeting, and someone's got to the coffee pot before you, it might be worth visualizing a freshly brewed cappuccino, or remembering the heavenly scent of your last espresso.
Coffee definitely deserves the label 'superfood', but before you start stockpiling beans, one last word of warning—caffeine might be good for cognition, but it's not so great for creativity. Yes, caffeine increases our alertness, but as any artist can tell you, that heightened focus can actually suppress your imagination. We're at our most creative when our minds wander. Out of that playful distraction comes art, so that cup might get you up and at your desk, but it can just as easily mess with your muse.
I hope that I’ve assuaged your coffee fear, but as to the Great Coffee Debate, I can’t imagine that’ll be over anytime soon.
Coffee should be consumed with caution. If you're still uncertain about whether or not to add caffeine to your diet, reach out to one of Which Doctor's many naturopaths, nutritionists or dietitians for a customized consultation, to decide what's right for you and your health goals.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.