The truth behind the java jolt

One of my first orders of business now that I have two months off from being a student is to cut back on coffee. You may recall that I listed black coffee as an “acceptable” beverage in a previous article. Your eyes did not deceive you, but I’d like to elaborate a bit more now.

Coffee, like alcohol, is a double-edged sword of a beverage. Both have health claims attached to them, both have opponents who say things along the lines of “that stuff will kill you” and both are simply really, really bad choices for some people.

On the rather significant plus side, several studies have found that coffee drinkers have lower rates of certain cancers, including colon, liver, breast and prostate. Coffee drinkers may also be about half as likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Coffee may offer some protection against Parkinson’s disease (for men, at least), dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

How coffee affects the heart is more confusing. High intake of unfiltered coffee (espresso, French press, gold drip filters…basically coffee prepared without a paper filter) has been associated with slight increases in cholesterol levels. On the other hand, recent studies have kind of debunked the long-held idea that drinking coffee increases your risk of developing high blood pressure.

It’s not the caffeine that offers potential health benefits. Coffee is a good source of the type of antioxidants known as polyphenols or flavonoids. The same category of antioxidants found in tea, red wine* and chocolate. Coffee contains many other biologically active compounds (possibly number in the hundreds) that could be health-promoting. Some of those compounds may lower blood sugar, explaining the potential lowering of diabetes risk.

Sadly, coffee is one of the top sources of antioxidants in the typical North American diet. I say sadly, because there are more antioxidants per serving in foods like berries, nuts and beans (legumes), but people aren’t eating a whole lot of these healthy foods.

Just as the “health benefits” of moderate alcohol intake won’t save you from a crap diet, neither will a regular coffee habit. Sorry…there are no short cuts to optimal health.

The caffeine in coffee is a stimulant. In the average adult, caffeine has a half-life of 4.9 hours. That means if you drink a cup of coffee, half of the caffeine will be gone from your body in 4.9 hours. The length of time it takes to metabolize caffeine can vary however, depending on medication usage (including oral contraceptives), health status, genetics and other factors. That’s why some people can’t seem to “handle” caffeine at all, and other have to cut off their intake at noon in order to get a decent night’s sleep.

Even among the majority of people who can handle coffee/caffeine just fine, you can get too much of a good thing. This probably won’t come as a shock, but caffeine can make you anxious and jittery if you over-imbibe. In a world where stress seems to be around every corner at times, do we really need to add to it in beverage form? These effects of caffeine seem to be most apparent when people start using it as a crutch to get them through their day. If you’re doing that, you’re probably not getting enough sleep. And lack of sleep is being linked to more and more health problems, largely because of how it affects our levels of stress hormones and other body chemistry.

The sleep-caffeine connection is one part “chicken or the egg” scenario, and one part snowball effect:

  • You drink more coffee to stay alert because you’re busy, busy, busy, and all that caffeine ends up hurting the quality and/or quantity of your sleep, or…
  • …you aren’t sleeping well, so you resort to increased coffee/caffeine intake to try to feel “normal,” either way…
  • …you end up not sleeping well so you drink coffee so you sleep even worse so you drink more coffee, and so on, and so on.

Don’t use coffee or other forms of caffeine as a crutch. If you suspect you are doing this, you need to reduce (not necessarily eliminate) your intake and look at what else is going on in your life that may be sapping your energy. If you are eating right, getting at least a moderate level of exercise, and sleeping for 7 to 8 hours a night (without issues like sleep apnea, snoring, sleepwalking, etc.), then you should be functioning at a high level for your work and play activities. Other issues to look at are high levels of stress (which can be energizing at times, but then send your energy levels plummeting) and body weight. Frankly, excess weight can be tiring. Being heavy but fit can sort of negate this effect, but not entirely.

One myth I’d like to debunk here is this: Unless you’re not used to caffeine and you’re suddenly given a big dose of it, coffee is not dehydrating, despite what is commonly thought (that doesn’t mean you don’t need to drink your water, though).

I’ll wrap up by saying the same thing about coffee that I did previously about red wine and other alcohol: If you enjoy it, can moderate your consumption, and don’t have any health issues that mean you should not drink it, then go for it. Just don’t use either one of them as a crutch to get through your day. It’s just not healthy. I love my java, and if I keep my amounts reasonable, it give me no trouble…so I’m going to keep on loving it.

* I’ve been catching up on my blog reading the last two days, and Stephan at Whole Health Source (a blog I really enjoy and respect) had a great post on “Does Red Wine Protect the Cardiovascular System?” Some of the comments are pretty interesting to, if you are inclined to read them…especially the one from someone who used to work for a pathologist about alcoholics having messed up livers but nice, smooth aortas.