so a couple years ago, everybody is going on and on about how healthy coffee
today's hip thing du jour is to say you can't drink it because it gives you
No doubt if you question further, it's usually an economic not a health
people can't afford it like they once could
Posted on Mon, Jul. 17, 2006
A coffee a day?
*It may not keep the doctors away, but some evidence that the brew is
good for you is drip-dripping out of the research.*
*By Marie McCullough*
*Inquirer Staff Writer*
Over the centuries, coffee has been cursed for making soldiers
undependable, women infertile, peasants rebellious, and worse.
In England in 1674, for example, the anonymous authors of the Women's
Petition Against Coffee complained that they were suffering in the
bedroom because men were constantly in coffeehouses, slurping that
"That Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE... has...
Eunucht our Husbands... that they are become as Impotent as Age."
Makes you wonder what those guys were putting in their daily grind
besides cream and sugar.
The point is, coffee has always been more than a beverage, and its
health effects have always been controversial. After all, coffee is
chock-full o' the drug 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine - better known as
caffeine (even decaf has caf) - plus a wholelatte other chemicals and
Recently, the buzz on brew has been good. Glug enough of it, research
suggests, and you'll lower your risk of diabetes, liver cirrhosis,
Parkinson's disease, gallstones and suicide. You'll also sprint better.
But not long ago, in the 1970s and '80s, coffee's name was mud. It was
connected - tenuously or incorrectly, experts now say - to pancreatic
cancer, heart attacks, birth defects, miscarriage, osteoporosis, and
other ill effects.
The surprising thing is that even after a thousand years, this
ubiquitous liquid remains quite mysterious. So sit back, sip some drip,
and ponder the latest research:
Java junkies rejoiced a year ago when University of Scranton researchers
concluded that for Americans, coffee is the number-one source of
antioxidants - those marvelous molecules that neutralize harmful oxygen
The scientists reported that the typical American drinks 1.6 cups of joe
a day, containing 1,299 milligrams of antioxidants called flavonoids.
The runners-up weren't even close: tea (294 mg), bananas, (76 mg), and
dry beans (72 mg).
But this research was done in test tubes, not in the human body, which
much prefers to get antioxidants from vitamins. If vitamins are the
Prada of antioxidants, flavonoids are clothes picked off a curb.
"By and large, flavonoids are recognized by the body as foreign
substances. That's why they're extensively metabolized to make them more
water-soluble so they can be excreted," said Balz Frei, a biochemist at
Oregon State University's Linus Pauling Institute. "I have my doubts
that these compounds are really making a difference in terms of
Seven out of 10 studies that followed huge groups of people for many
years, including Finnish twins and American nurses, have linked coffee
to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Last month in the Archives of
Internal Medicine, an 11-year study of 28,000 postmenopausal women in
Iowa found that coffee drinkers had less type 2 diabetes than nondrinkers.
This doesn't prove perk is protective. Eating lots of nuts was linked to
just as much diabetes-risk reduction in another analysis of the nurses'
Furthermore, while the circumstantial evidence is abundant, it's
confusing. A smallish 20 percent decrease in diabetes risk turned up
among the nurses who drank only one cup a day, while the Iowans had to
guzzle six or more to see such a benefit. It's also unclear what
ingredient is at work, since decaf appears more protective than
caffeinated coffee in some studies, but not others.
Even if coffee is beneficial, "I don't think it would be the basis for
urging changes in coffee consumption because there are many other ways
to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes," such as losing weight, said Harvard
epidemiologist Walter Willett, who led the nurses study.
*Cirrhosis and liver cancer*
Population studies from the United States, Japan, Europe and Norway
suggest coffee protects the liver from the effects of alcohol.
The first report of a strong link, published in 1992, was updated last
month in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Among 125,500 members of the
Kaiser Permanente health plan, heavy alcohol drinkers cut their chance
of cirrhosis by 20 percent per cup of coffee a day; four cups correlated
with an 80 percent risk reduction. Liver enzyme levels also were
healthier in imbibers of both coffee and alcohol.
Some researchers speculate that when the liver metabolizes coffee, this
somehow inhibits the chronic liver inflammation involved in metabolizing
lots of alcohol. (Fans of coffee enemas claim it helps the liver cleanse
itself of toxins.)
In any case, physician Arthur Klatsky, who led the Kaiser research,
hopes the inconclusive link will not be used to rationalize immoderate
"It doesn't mean it's OK to drink a lot of alcohol if you drink a lot of
coffee," Klatsky said.
*Suicide and Parkinson's disease*
While not technically addictive, caffeine increases the production of
dopamine, a brain chemical crucial to pleasure and motivation.
The brain cells that make dopamine stop working in Parkinson's disease,
and studies using animal models suggest caffeine wards off Parkinson's
by protecting these cells.
The dopamine connection may explain why both the Kaiser Permanente study
and the Nurses Health Study found that coffee drinkers were
significantly less likely to commit suicide.
And it may explain why several population studies found coffee drinkers
had less Parkinson's disease - if they were male. In yet another coffee
conundrum, several studies found no such benefit for females.
Why? One guess is that estrogen interferes with coffee's protective
effect. In several studies, coffee drinking correlated with reduced
Parkinson's risk in postmenopausal women who had never taken menopausal
estrogen supplements, but not in those who used the supplements.
*The bad stuff*
Like all drugs, the world's favorite pick-me-up has side effects.
Caffeine increases blood pressure and heart rate. It can cause
palpitations, insomnia, tremors, diarrhea and increased urination.
Caffeine withdrawal can cause headaches, drowsiness, depression and
grumpiness. Unfiltered coffee, popular in Scandinavian countries,
increases bad LDL cholesterol. A study this year found high levels of
various inflammatory substances in the blood of coffee drinkers in Greece.
Plus, coffee drinkers tend to be smokers.
No wonder the beverage's effects, particularly on the cardiovascular
system, continue to be deciphered and debated.
*The bottom line*
Frei and colleagues at the Pauling Institute reviewed the vast,
ever-growing coffee research and concluded that people who have high
blood pressure, insomnia, or other sensible reasons to eschew brew
should do so.
But for most adults, "there is little evidence of health risk and some
evidence of health benefits" for up to four cups a day.