Contemplating Coffee: Is the world’s favorite drink our friend or our foe?

By Sarah George | UTS Staff Writer | SQ Online (2014-15)


The story goes that an Ethiopian herder named Kaldi first discovered coffee when he observed that his goats were restless and unable to sleep after consuming the seemingly innocuous plant. Fifteenth-century Arabs were the first to cultivate and trade it, referring to it as qahveh and drinking it to accompany intellectual conversations, musical performances, and chess games. It was once considered so controversial among the European clergy that it needed the pope’s seal of approval to avoid being outlawed.

Coffee, the invigorating and aromatic drink, certainly has a special place in the hearts and minds of many. However, it seems to always be the subject of conflicting discourse in the pop science community: one day it’s touted as harmful and decidedly off-limits, but the next, there is newfound praise for its health benefits. These stories raise the question: What’s the final verdict on coffee?

Before any hasty decisions are made, let’s explore the facts about the drink.

The Good:

Voltaire, the French writer and philosopher, was rumored to drink 40 cups of coffee a day as he wrote social commentary. Perhaps coffee itself cannot take credit for inspiring groundbreaking ideas, but research shows that caffeine is conducive to better cognitive function. A study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2014 demonstrates that caffeine boosts memory function up to 24 hours after it is ingested.

Caffeine is also responsible for the characteristic alertness that coffee drinkers feel. The chemical blocks adenosine, a molecular product of cellular respiration, from binding to the receptors that–when activated–trigger tiredness. Because the two molecules are so similar in shape, caffeine can “plug into” to the same receptor, blocking it, and thereby preventing its activation.

Research is also underway considering the potential protective effects of caffeine against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. A study published in Neurology in 2012 established a correlation between consumption of caffeine and a decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease, and more attention is being given to the underlying mechanism. Neurobiology of Aging also put forth a study in 2014 providing evidence that in a rat model of Alzheimer’s, consumption of a chemical present in coffee prevents some effects of the disease. Coffee consumption has not yet been understood to abate other neurodegenerative diseases, but it certainly holds promise for the prevention of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Conducting more tests in human subjects will further enlighten researchers about the effects of coffee on various aspects of neurodegenerative disease pathology.

The Bad:

Caffeine dependence is a real phenomenon that can produce withdrawal-like symptoms. Luckily, these effects, including headache, fatigue, and anxiety, do not last as long and are not as severe as drug or alcohol withdrawal symptoms. A regular coffee drinker may experience some discomfort after going without his or her daily dose of caffeine. According to a 2004 Psychopharmacology study, the onset of caffeine withdrawal symptoms occurs between 12 and 24 hours after abstinence; symptoms peak between the 20- and 51- hour marks, and they last anywhere between two and nine days. The data suggest that heavier coffee drinkers will experience longer periods of withdrawal.

Women who are pregnant are typically restricted to a daily intake of 200 mg of caffeine and for good reason. Fetuses’ digestive systems have not fully developed yet, and metabolizing caffeine is a relatively complex process that requires maturation. Too much caffeine in the fetus’s system can alter the baby’s sleep cycles and affect movement in utero. Furthermore, a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2008 found that women who consumed over 200 mg of caffeine daily were twice as likely to miscarry as those who did not. This is not a cause for alarm, as other studies on the same relationship have established no correlation. While evidence like this remains inconclusive, it is still noteworthy and a source of caution.

The Myths:

“Coffee causes high blood pressure.”

Fortunately for coffee enthusiasts, blood pressure is not permanently affected by coffee consumption. Most regular drinkers develop a tolerance for caffeine over time, so the spike in blood pressure that occurs with new and occasional drinkers eventually subsides. Even so, the spike only lasts between half an hour and two hours after consumption.

“Regular coffee drinkers have a higher risk of getting osteoporosis.”

The evidence correlating high caffeine consumption and low bone density is inconsistent. According to a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic in 1992, there is no apparent link between the two. They also state that results proposing a positive correlation may have been biased because the subjects who consumed high levels of caffeine also tended to drink more alcoholic beverages and smoke. The latter may have a bigger impact on bone density than caffeine itself.

“Coffee cures hangovers!”

Like the famed “hair of the dog” method, drinking coffee is an ineffective approach to curing hangovers. The caffeine in coffee will temporarily perk up a suffering individual by constricting dilated blood vessels, alleviating the pain caused by hangover- related headaches. Unfortunately, it is only a temporary fix, as the symptoms will return as soon as the caffeine leaves your system.

The Consensus:

Coffee drinkers, rejoice! Empirical evidence shows that the drink is safe enough for daily consumption and may even protect us from certain diseases later in life. As with most good things in life, moderation is key. Pregnant women should still be wary of consuming more than what is prescribed, and withdrawal remains an annoying fact of life that looms if the coffee machines ever break. Swilling a couple of mugs every day should not have adverse health effects for the average drinker, so keep sipping!