The Science of Coffee: An Essential Guide to the Ultimate Wonderdrug

caffeine molecule

Cover photo: Sarah Witherby | Main photo: Andy Schultz

It’s time to separate myth from fact. Coffee is more than a dose of caffeine. This wonderdrug also supplies a wide array of antioxidants and even a few vitamins and minerals that make coffee perhaps the most affordable and effective health serum on the market. If you’re not a coffee drinker yet, this article will change your mind. What follows is a treasure trove of research findings about the health benefits of coffee, some you probably already know and others which will be a surprise.

Note: This extensive guide replaces the now defunct CoffeeScience.org website and expands upon their wonderful work. It includes the newest information about the benefits of coffee plus links to the latest research. Whereas CoffeeScience.org was spread across many different pages, this post gives you everything  of the former site and more in one place.

1. Coffee and the Brain: Alertness, Mood and Memory

Summary: Coffee not only improves memory and performance, but may even reduce the risk of suicide and depression.

Coffee stimulates the frontal lobe of the brain, which in tests improved reaction time and working memory. Caffeine allows you to hold more short-term information in your brain and thus makes you more productive. It won’t help you remember what your boss said two weeks ago, but it could improve multitasking performance and short-term recall.

The military has long known of the effects of caffeine on memory and alertness. In one study, Navy Seals were deprived of sleep for 72 hours and then forced to perform a grueling set of physical activities in cold temperatures. The Navy observed that the Seals given caffeine demonstrated better vigilance, better short-term memory and better moods even up to 8 hours after caffeine administration. The optimal dose turned out to be 200 mg, or roughly two cups of coffee.

Speaking of mood, it doesn’t take a neurophysicist to figure out that coffee is an excellent mood enhancer. Caffeine not only perks you up on a gloomy day, but also stimulates social interaction and may help relieve symptoms of depression. One large study of more than 50,000 women found an inverse relationship between daily coffee consumption and the risk of developing depression. Drinking coffee has even been shown to decrease the risk of suicide! It’s time to fire up the French press and get brewing.

2. Coffee and Health: Why Another Cup Won’t Hurt

Summary: Ask your health insurance provider for the coffee drinker discount.

doctor holding stethoscope

Photo: Alex E. Proimos

Coffee Reduces the Risk of Cancer

Coffee protects against many forms of cancer. The American Association of Cancer Research published “brewing evidence” in 2010 showing that four cups of coffee a day reduces the risk of head and neck cancer by a whopping 39%. This is particularly important because these cancers have very low survival rates.

Men should know that just one to three cups of coffee a day reduces the risk of lethal prostate cancer by 30%. Those who drank the most coffee (6 cups or more per day) experienced a 60% reduction in risk. If that seems like a bit much, the study authors noted  you can enjoy these benefits with both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee.

Coffee not only reduces the risk of breast cancer in women, but may also increase the efficacy of drug treatment and decrease the chances of recurrence. Four cups of coffee a day has also been shown to decrease the risk of  endometrial cancer by 25%. Contrary to myth, coffee is unlikely to increase the risk of pancreatic and kidney cancer.

Coffee may also reduce the your probability of developing brain cancer by 34% and colon cancer by 15%. It also protects against liver cancer. So drink up!

Coffee Decreases the Risk of Alzheimers and Parkinsons

Among older adults, drinking three cups of coffee per day has been shown to significantly delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Coffee also reduces the risk of death from Alzheimer’s by about 10%. It’s not clear if this benefit builds up over time or if an older adult can simply drink more coffee to see these results.

Coffee not only reduces the risk of developing Parkinson’s, but can greatly improve quality of life among sufferers. A recently published study in the American Academy of Neurology found that the caffeine in coffee improves the motor skills of Parkinson’s patients. Subjects who took caffeine pills noticed an increase in movement speed and a reduction in stiffness. Interestingly, the caffeine had no effect on sleepiness or sleep quality.

Obesity and Diabetes

There is no proof that coffee increases obesity or causes diabetes, according to the NHS. In fact, four cups of java per day may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 25% compared to drinking 2 cups or less per day (including no coffee). Reports that coffee increases the risk of diabetes could be due to its association with smoking and low levels of physical activity. Verdict: Quit smoking, hit the gym and power up the coffee maker.

Coffee and the Heart

Moderate coffee consumption may reduce the risk of heart failure, though no cause and effect relationship has been demonstrated. One review of data from 1966 to 2011 found that four cups of coffee a day maximizes this heart-healthy benefit. According to the American Heart Association, excessive coffee consumption may increase the risk of a heart attack, however. Coffee also reduces the risk of strokes, especially among women.

Can Pregnant Women Drink Coffee?

The jury is still out on this. One research study of more than 1,063 pregnant women found that more than two cups of coffee per day doubled the risk of miscarriage. The results weren’t conclusive  for amounts less than this. A cup of coffee a day probably won’t hurt, but pregnant women should avoid as much caffeine as possible. This is especially true during the early stages of pregnancy. Coffee consumption may also lower birth weights and prolong pregnancy.

3. Other Benefits of Coffee

Summary: Coffee’s benefits go far beyond direct health outcomes. The drink can improve handwriting, reduce symptoms of dry mouth and prevent cavities. 

coffee plant

Photo: Leaf Languages

1. Coffee packs a lot of fiber

We’ve always known that coffee beans contain high levels of fiber, but it wasn’t until recently that food scientists at the National Research Council in Madrid confirmed that this fiber makes its way into brewed coffee. They found that a typical cup contains 0.47 and 0.75 grams of fiber per 100 milliliters– more than a raw apple for a 16-ounce medium coffee. Keep in mind that the caffeine in coffee may disrupt the digestive system and the drink isn’t a substitute for fruit and vegetables. Still, the healthy fiber in coffee is an extra bonus.

2. Coffee can improve your handwriting

A study of twenty adults at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria found that high doses of caffeine (4.5 mg / kg of body weight) notably improved subjects’ handwriting. Not only did they write more neatly and fluidly, but also more quickly. A 150-pound individual (68 kg) would need to drink two to three cups of coffee to notice the effect. Maybe this research could have helped get me through Catholic school?

3. Coffee keeps the mouth moist

According to one study in Poland, a single cappuccino increases saliva production and improves the symptoms of xerostomia (the medical term for dry mouth). This is great news for anyone taking medication that dries the mouth or presenters getting ready for a big event.

4. Coffee may not be bad for your teeth after all

Dark-colored drinks such as coffee can stain teeth over time in the absence of good dental hygiene. The next time you go to the dentist for a cleaning, you may have a few less cavities thanks to coffee. The tannin biomolecules in coffee have been shown in experiments to reduce tooth decay from food.

Last updated by at .