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The Healthy Benefits of Our Beloved Nectar
By Serena Norr

The debate of the negative impact of coffee on health has been argued for years. An advent of new studies suggests that coffee cannot only deliver numerous health benefits, but can also be considered a necessary staple against certain diseases. With such surprising news, it may be time to take coffee off the list of life’s guilty pleasures.

As an avid coffee drinker I am always pleased to learn that my necessary morning staple is actually beneficial to my health. According to the National Coffee Association (NCA), I am not alone in my addiction, as an estimated 100 million Americans consume coffee everyday; making it one of the few universal beverages people cannot seem to get through the day without. With its stimulant enhancing caffeine, its no wonder so many people seek a daily dose for increased alertness, concentration and physical performance. But for some, coffee has been considered a medical health pariah, suspected of causing everything from breast cancer, heart disease, infertility, birth defects, gallstones, cirrhosis of the liver, and Parkinson’s disease. To get to the bottom of some of these famous coffee urban legends, the medical world started researching coffee’s effects on health in the ‘80s and ‘90s. After a plethora of some 19,000 studies and counting, not only are some previous claims proven to be untrue, they also hold little weigh compared to conclusive findings that indicate consumption of two to four cups per day is actually beneficial to ones health. These results are very pleasing for those who routinely enjoy this morning ritual, and puts to ease the minds of those who have come to fear it like the plague.

Caffeine Nation
In an attempt to survive the rigors of our stressful lives, many people turn to fuel their bodies by consuming coffee. Caffeine is the principal element in coffee that is responsible for improving concentration and extending the time before the onset of fatigue. After as little as one cup, caffeine absorbs to almost every cell in the body, where it stimulates the central nervous system by elevating blood glucose levels giving an allusion of an energy surge. There, caffeine blocks a chemical called adenosine that signals to the brain it is tired; turning it into that invigorating buzz coffee drinkers crave. In Bennet Weinberg’s book The Caffeine Advantage he asks, “If coffee didn’t contain any caffeine, would it be the dominant beverage in our culture?” He then added, “Well there’s no question it would not be. You know, it can’t be a coincidence that all the most popular drinks on earth, which taste quite different from each other, all contain caffeine.”

With so many questions surrounding caffeine, Harvard researcher Dr. Thomas Depaulis decided to become a human lab rat by drinking a super-concentrated blend equal to 10 cups of coffee. “I take 25 grams of coffee in a beaker. Then, I’ll drink it for one minute,” said Dr. Depaulis. “After which, I had blood samples taken every 10 minutes.” The idea was to study the other compounds in coffee and determine how they might affect the body. “What we’re finding is in fact, that coffee contains a lot of useful compounds that may actually modify the effects of caffeine, and what we think is that the coffee bean holds the secret to a number of very important illnesses that affect mankind,” Dr. Depaulis added. Weinberg also stated, “We seek something that’ll help us work harder, sharpen our minds, increase our sense of well-being, and improve our performance. Caffeine is just that substance that can unlock our potential.”

But the notion that caffeine is harmless is up for a long-running debate. Though it holds a higher respect than it once did, caffeine is still a psychoactive drug that can lead to dependency. Researchers suggest that caffeine is helpful in combating fatigue, increasing alertness and efficiency, but should be limited to two cups a day for optimal results.

Antioxidant Power
Antioxidants have been in the spotlight for some time now, and rightfully so -- being that they contain substances that have the capacity to ward off cancer, heart disease, brain disorders, as well as aging. While our natural defense mechanisms can help us limit the harm that oxidants may cause, they cannot eliminate them completely. Researchers from the University of Scranton, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, concluded that coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet. The reason coffee has a high level of antioxidants is due to its plant compounds that prevent the sun from causing free-radical damage that is generated during the roasting process. The antioxidant content varies, depending on the type of bean, but Robustas generally have twice the antioxidants of Arabicas.

When using coffee as an antioxidant source, experts recommend that it is best to spread your coffee intake throughout the day stressing that fruits and veggies are still the ideal choice.

The Disease Fighting Elixir
Certain diseases can appear in people’s lives unexpectedly. A healthy diet and exercise are preventive methods to assure the path towards wellbeing. Another unlikely measure, however, can be found in a cup of coffee. Studies indicate that coffee contains high in-vitro antioxidant compounds formed during the roasting process that is believed to protect against the development of chronic diseases due to its high caffeine content.

A 2000 study, conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association, reported that non-coffee drinkers had five times the risk of contracting Parkinson’s, compared to those who drank four to five cups of coffee a day. At least six additional studies indicated that people who drink coffee on a regular basis are up to 80% less likely to develop Parkinson’s, suggesting the more they drink, the lower the risk. Recently, doctors have been developing drugs for Parkinson’s with a derivative of caffeine based on this evidence.

Additional studies also dismissed the link between coffee and heart trouble. A 1996 study of more than 121,000 female nurses found that, even high levels of coffee drinking didn’t increase the risks of heart attacks. Another study, that spanned for over a 10-year period, found that those who drank six or more cups of coffee a day were no more likely to have a heart attack than women who drank one or two cups. Even among patients with irregular heartbeats, drinking as much as five cups of coffee a day had no direct effect.

The beneficial effect of coffee and diabetes has stumped researchers for years. In early 2006, a study at the Harvard School of Public Health stated that large amounts of antioxidants in caffeine, such as chlorogenic acid and tocopherols, have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism. Participants in the study drank one to three cups daily, which indicated a reduction in diabetes risk by single digits. However, having six cups or more each day slashed men’s risk by 54% and women’s by 30%, over decaffeinated coffee drinkers or those who didn’t drink any coffee at all. Another study, which tracked participants that drank three cups a day for 10 years, found that these had a significantly lower risk of developing diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease than the rest of the population. Researcher’s concluded that long-term coffee consumption is associated with a significantly lower risk for type two diabetes.

Coffee may prevent against other diseases, as well. Studies conducted in the U.S., Japan and Italy showed that drinking three to four cups of coffee a day was associated with an 80% reduction in risk for cirrhosis of the liver, compared with drinking no coffee at all. A 10-year study of 45,000 men found that two to three cups of coffee reduced the risk of developing gallstones by 40%. U.S. and Italian studies also found that three or more cups of coffee a day led to a decreased prevalence of asthma.

Overall, the research shows that coffee is far healthier than it is often believed. And perhaps more importantly, it’s the latest of 100s of studies suggesting that coffee may be something of a health food-especially when consumed in larger amounts.

Uplifting News from the Blues
When you grab a morning cup of java, you’re probably not thinking that it will do more than give you an energizing pick me up. However, studies have concluded that coffee does function as a mild antidepressant. One of the first coffee and depression studies was conducted at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, in Oakland, California. The trail gave half of the participant’s coffee twice per day, while the other half received no coffee. The study found that coffee drinkers had significantly less feelings of sadness and depression, thus stating that they were less likely to commit suicide as compared to nondrinkers.

A second study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, led by Dr. Ichiro Kawachi, looked at the data from the Kaiser study with the intention to discount their findings. Instead, he confirmed the original study’s data that coffee can be used as an antidepressant against suicidal thoughts. Dr. Kawachi discovered that the participants he studied who drank two to three cups of coffee a day were 58% less likely to be depressed.

However, Dr. Kawachi and other researchers aren’t ready to utilize coffee as an antidepressant for clinical depression. At the minimum, Dr. Kawachi says that his study shows that drinking lots of coffee does not have a negative impact on health. Psychiatrists point out that people must understand that depression isn’t simply a state of mind, but a very serious medical issue that cannot be resolved simply by drinking coffee. Instead, they state that caffeine may have mood-elevating effects that can get you through your day when used in controlled amounts.

Go The Extra Mile
Although the old adage, that the only true path to health is through a combination of exercise, rest, and a balanced diet, our fast paced lifestyles don’t always make these standards very practical. People often require supplementary methods to enhance energy levels. For athletics and gym enthusiasts, caffeine provides a powerful boast in enhancing endurance, performance, and decreasing perception of pain and fatigue during exercise. Caffeine is so powerful, that the International Olympic Games Committee labeled it a “controlled” substance, meaning that it could only be ingested in very small doses or athletes could be banned from competitions. In order to be restricted, you would have to throw back eight cups of Joe, but assuming you’re not competing at that level, a strong cup of coffee an hour before you exercise can assist in achieving an enhanced level of performance. Even if it isn’t physiologically easier, studies have shown that people perceive their effort to be less intense after caffeine. In other words, you’re trying as hard but don’t feel as if you are.

A prominent exercise physiologist, David Costill, Ph.D., performed a groundbreaking study that determined that caffeine consumed before exercise can impact a stronger and longer workout. To a lesser extent, it also boosts short-term, high-intensity athletic performance, as well as enhances concentration, reduces fatigue, and heightens alertness. Costill enlisted nine competitive cyclists, and then had them bike until they reached an 80% exhaustion level. Each subject consumed coffee containing 330-mg of caffeine or decaf coffee, approximately 60 minutes before the trail. Following the intake of caffeine, the subjects were able to exercise at an average of 90 minutes, as compared to an average of 76 minutes in the decaffeinated trial. They also found that their perception of exercise felt easier in the caffeine trial. “That may include signaling you to ignore fatigue for intense athletic performance,” Costill stated. But what’s amazing about the study is that, unlike most of the popular products for strength and endurance, caffeine alone can provide all those performance enhancements.

Although scientists give the customary “more research is needed” mantra before you do overtime at your favorite coffee shop, with its myriad of proven health benefits, the future of java is indeed vivid. As findings become more prevalent in their consistency, it is difficult to challenge the merits of coffee. On the flip side, it’s clear that coffee isn’t for everyone. Its legendary jolt can be more than certain individuals can tolerate. But if coffee is already a part of your life, rest assured that you may be doing your body more good than harm.

Tea & Coffee - October/November, 2006

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