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Coffee Nutrition: Five Health Benefits and Six Health Risks

Pros and Cons of Coffee Nutrition

Good for you? Bad for you?  Coffee nutrition is a confusing and always controversial topic. (After all, coffee lovers are very attached to that morning cup!)  You may have heard reports that coffee drinking has health benefits, or that it is detrimental.  The truth is, we don’t yet know everything there is to know about coffee nutrition!  This article sorts through the key issues and current knowledge, so that you can decide what is best for you.

Coffee is a complex food, containing literally hundreds of bioactive compounds.  These biochemicals each have an impact on health, sometimes in both beneficial and detrimental ways.  And getting into the details, not every cup of coffee is the same.  The biochemical makeup of that cup depends on the origin of the coffee, the method of processing the beans, and the manner of preparation (drip? French press?).  Needless to say, what you put into the coffee (cream, sugar) also impacts coffee nutrition.

To make things even more complicated, not all coffee drinkers are the same.  People vary in how well and how quickly they metabolize caffeine and the other compounds in coffee.  Individual health history, genetics and other lifestyle factors can all play into the impact of coffee nutrition on health.

Potential Health Benefits of Coffee

Coffee is chock full of antioxidants and polyphenols, nutrients which seem to account for most of its health-protective effects.  Incidentally, tea has heath benefits for the same reason.  It’s still best to get most of your antioxidants from eating a nutrient-dense whole foods diet, including plenty of vegetables and fruit.

The caffeine in coffee and tea may actually account for some of the health benefits, as well.  Decaffeination removes many of the antioxidants and polyphenols along with the caffeine, likely negating the health-protective effects of these beverages.

Here are some specific potential health benefits of coffee nutrition, based on current research:

  1. Liver Health:  Coffee may protect against cirrhosis of the liver, and slow the progress of liver disease.
  2. Cognition and Brain Health:  Coffee may increase circulation to the brain, supporting cognitive function.  It may slow the progress of neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
  3. Type 2 Diabetes:  Chlorogenic acid, one of the main antioxidants found in coffee, slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream.  It may help prevent the development of insulin resistance, which leads to type 2 diabetes, and supports the growth of the beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome.
  4. Cancer:  Research suggests that coffee drinking correlates with reduced risk of several cancers, including oral, pharyngeal, colon, liver, prostate, endometrial and melanoma.
  5. Cardiovascular Health:  There are potential benefits of some of the antioxidants in coffee for heart health, but there may be some drawbacks, too, in terms of cholesterol levels and inflammation.  (See below.)

Potential Health Risks of Coffee

Despite the benefits of antioxidants and polyphenols in coffee, there are some significant downsides to coffee nutrition:

  1. Coffee is addictive.  Let’s be honest with ourselves, coffee lovers!  Habitual coffee drinkers typically experience withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, irritability, anxiety and brain fog.  (Speaking personally, I love the taste of coffee, but I hate the idea that I am addicted to anything.)  It’s a good idea to stop drinking coffee periodically, at least for a few weeks, to reduce dependence and negate the addictive effects.
  2. Adrenal Stress:  Coffee stimulates the release of cortisol, which gives it the jolt that people like.  Unfortunately, this disrupts the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis and causes a cascade of subtle but widespread health problems, including poor sleep, digestive problems, anxiety, depression and immune dysfunction.  Long term, it can stress the adrenal glands.  
  3. Heart Burn:  Coffee stimulates the secretion of gastrin, creating an excessive release of gastric acid, increasing the risk of GERD (Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease).  It also speeds up intestinal peristalsis.
  4. Lipid Profile:  Coffee consumption may tend to increase LDLs (the so-called “bad cholesterol”) and triglycerides, and decrease HDLs (the so-called “good cholesterol”).  While the impact of cholesterol levels on heart health is itself controversial, if you are concerned about cholesterol, you may wish to limit coffee consumption.
  5. Inflammation and Immune Health:  Because coffee contains so many different compounds, the effects of coffee nutrition on inflammation are complex.  In general, caffeine has an anti-inflammatory effect on some components of the immune system.  On the other hand, reliable research has shown increased inflammatory markers in moderate coffee drinkers.  We still have a lot to learn about coffee nutrition and inflammation, as the results of many studies are mixed.  Individual genetic and lifestyle factors likely come into play.
  6. Autoimmune Disease:  Coffee consumption may increase the risk of developing autoimmune disease (including rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disorders and type 1 diabetes) in individuals with certain genetic markers.  If you have an autoimmune disease, and are trying to keep it in remission, you may wish to skip the cup of coffee.

Coffee Nutrition: Think Before You Drink

Coffee nutrition is complex, and we still have a lot to learn about how coffee impacts health.  There are no easy answers.  Not only is knowledge incomplete, your individual health status, metabolism and genetic markers may play into how you respond to that morning cup (or two or three…), and what impact it may have on your health in the long run.

However, there are a few no-brainers that I hope will make you think before you drink:

  • Don’t rely on coffee as your source of antioxidants and polyphenols.  The best place to get these beneficial nutrients is from a nutrient-dense whole foods diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit.
  • Coffee is addictive.  The impact that long-term use has on the HPA axis and adrenals is a big deal.  It can really wear you down in subtle ways, especially if your diet, lifestyle and exercise habits are less than optimal.  Please consider taking a break periodically from coffee, for at least a couple of weeks at a time.
  • You may wish to cut back or eliminate coffee if you are facing health concerns, including:
    • aching joints (inflammation)
    • poor sleep
    • poor lipid profile (high cholesterol)
    • thyroid problems
    • autoimmune disease
    • GERD
    • anxiety or depression

Recommended Reading

The following articles provided source material for this blog, and contain references to original research:

For more information on nutrition and health, contact Inner Works Acupuncture at (503) 227-2127 to schedule an appointment. We are based in Northwest Portland and offer comprehensive treatment, including Five Element AcupunctureZero BalancingChinese herbal medicine, and nutritional therapy.  We specialize in chronic health conditions and mind-body health.

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