Coffee gets a good rap

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2011

Some Stone Age humans were probably aware of plant products that gave them a caffeine-like jolt but they never started the day with a good old cup of coffee. It was just a few years ago, though, that America's favorite beverage caught the blame for causing a variety of ills, including cancer of the pancreas. Fortunately for Starbucks devotees, coffee now has a clean rap sheet and is taking credit for some genuine health benefits.

The pancreatic cancer issue has been put completely to rest and there is convincing research showing that coffee lowers the risk of several types of cancer, including liver, brain, prostate, uterus, mouth and throat. Except for a link to bladder cancer in men who drink several cups a day, there is no evidence that it causes cancer.

Coffee is a plant product and like red wine and dark chocolate it contains thousands of chemicals that have beneficial health effects. These include antioxidants that protect blood vessels from damage by harmful free radicals and substances known as antimutagens that keep cells from becoming malignant. There are chemicals in coffee that rein in inflammation, a contributor to heart disease, stroke and rheumatoid arthritis.

Type 2 diabetes has a connection to inflammation and therein may lie the link between coffee consumption and a reduced risk of dementia. Physicians have long been aware of the fact that persons with type 2 diabetes are at greater risk of dementia. It is possible, though not yet conclusive, that by improving the action of insulin, coffee has an indirect beneficial effect on dementia by lowering blood sugar. There may be other ingredients that explain why coffee-quaffing seniors have better memories than those who drink little or none.

In spite of coffee's growing list of advantages, drinking more than three eight-ounce cups a day can cause nausea, irritability and insomnia. Even decaffeinated versions are not entirely free of caffeine and may lead to poor sleep in caffeine-sensitive individuals. Excess caffeine can increase heart rate and raise blood pressure.

Adding milk to coffee appears to diminish at least some of its benefits in the same way that converting dark chocolate to milk chocolate does. Of course, when the addition of lots of cream and sugar transforms a large cup of black coffee into a 500-calorie "specialty of the house" you can kiss the heart-health benefits goodbye. Moderation, as usual, is a good thing.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.