By Paul Scicluna
Many people just can't live without coffee. There are those who look forward to their first cup of coffee as soon as they wake up in the morning, those who just love the smell and those who have multiple cups of coffee to get them through a hard day at work.
The growing number of coffee “addicts” have prompted hundreds of studies addressing concerns about the effects of coffee on the body and whether or not caffeine causes harm. Some say that it's good to drink coffee when you have a headache. Others say that it's bad to drink coffee if you have stomach problems. Learning about the facts and the myths of coffee drinking will help coffee lovers enjoy their next cup even more.
The general effects of coffee fall into the following categories:
- Stimulant effects. Caffeine makes coffee a well-established stimulant as it stimulates the nervous system, including the nerves controlling intestinal activity, blood pressure and airway size which may keep you alert and awake, yet may also impair sleep, cause jitters and anxiety.
- Heartburn. All types of coffee, even decaf, can stimulate secretion of stomach acid, which may lead to heartburn.
- Diuretic features. Caffeine encourages the kidneys to produce urine to rid the body of excess fluid. However, coffee leads to urination so effectively that it may cause mild dehydration.
Coffee may also have other effects on the body, such as yellowed teeth, which are common among regular coffee drinkers. Burn injuries from steaming hot coffee are quite common. Some mental health professionals even suggest that regular caffeine users, including coffee drinkers, should be considered dependent, addicted or struggling with substance abuse. I personally think this is a bit ridiculous, obviously depending on how much is being consumed. Maybe that’s another way to get more people on prescribed drugs?
Over the past 50 years, studies have raised concern over the health risks of coffee or caffeine users including an association with stomach problems, pancreatic and bladder cancer, fibrocystic breast disease and gallbladder disease, among other conditions. However, when analysed further, these studies just fall short of implicating even modest coffee consumption as a significant health risk among pregnant women and cardiac patients.
A study conducted in 1981 by the Harvard School of Public Health about coffee intake being associated with an increased pancreatic cancer was discredited, and is often used as a model to show how a flawed study can mislead research results. It analysed a number of “exposures” among patients with pancreatic cancer, including coffee intake. The number of factors being examined made it a “fishing expedition” according to most research experts. The danger of examining too many factors at once may produce “association just by chance” results. There is the problem of generating misleading results if a net is cast too wide.
The Harvard School of Public Health looked at the relationship between coffee consumption and overall mortality in the Nurses Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow Up Study, which together totaled about 130,000 study volunteers. At the start of the study, these healthy men and women were in their 40s and 50s. They were followed for between 18 to 24 years, to monitor who died in that period, and tracking their diet and lifestyle habits, which including coffee consumption.
No relationship between coffee consumption and increased risk of death from any cause, death from cancer, or death from cardiovascular disease were found. Those who even drank up to six cups of coffee per day were at no higher risk of death. This finding is in line with the research that has been emerging over the past few years. For the general population, the evidence suggests that coffee drinking doesn’t have any serious detrimental health effects.
The following are benefits or uses of coffee/caffeine aside from being a stimulant:
- Premature babies or those who have undergone surgery just after birth may be treated with caffeine to stimulate their breathing.
- Coffee has plenty of nutrients and antioxidants. Many of the nutrients in the coffee beans do make it into the final drink, which actually contains a decent amount of vitamins and minerals.
A cup of coffee contains:
- 6% of the RDA for Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5).
- 11% of the RDA for Riboflavin (Vitamin B2).
- 2% of the RDA for Niacin (B3) and Thiamine (B1).
- 3% of the RDA for Potassium and Manganese.
May not seem like much, but if you drink several cups of coffee per day then this quickly adds up. But this isn't all. Coffee also contains a massive amount of antioxidants. In fact, coffee was found to be the biggest source of antioxidants in the western diet, outranking both fruits and vegetables.
Several studies found modest benefits with caffeine in the treatment of asthma as it gives dilating effects on airways. In fact, some recommend that coffee intake be avoided before breathing tests so as not to diminish the breathing abnormalities, which the tests aim to detect.
During the Experimental Biology 2007, an American Society for Nutrition's annual conference, research experts reviewed evidence that moderate intake of coffee, say 3 to 5 cups per day, might reduce the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, kidney stones, gallstones, and depression.
The news that health risks are minimal and rare, was music to the ears of the coffee lovers of this world. Although those who are considered high risk patients should better avoid the stimulant action of caffeine or the heartburn provoked even by decaffeinated coffee.
Be warned though, not all coffees are the same. I personally buy organic coffee beans and use a grinder to grind them up into a powder. This is because the true organic coffee beans have been grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides. Generally, organic beans are grown in the shade and can thrive without chemical assistance.
Researcher Yazheng Liu and professor David Kitts found that darker roasted beans produce a higher level of antioxidants. The scientists discovered that chemicals produced during the coffee browning (or roasting) process is what delivered the shot of antioxidants. This process is referred to as the Maillard reaction. "Previous studies suggested that antioxidants in coffee could be traced to caffeine or the chlorogenic acid found in green coffee beans, but our results clearly show that the Maillard reaction is the main source of antioxidants," says Liu, an MSc student in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS).
Those who are considered heavy coffee drinkers, in the order of four to ten cups a day, can cause problems such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness, mood swings and sleeplessness. I personally think that you can have too much as it is a stimulant. I would personally say no more than 2 - 3 cups per day.
You also want to keep in mind those coffee accompaniments such as milk or cream and sugar add fat and calories to your diet.
If you can, try and minimise the milk or creams and wean yourself off the sugar. If you want a healthy substitute add some raw honey, it’s natural and delicious!
So, enjoy your coffee to reap the benefits, and savour the flavour!
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