Coffee - Health Hack Or Harmful?
Coffee is one of the world’s most popular beverages, with consumption by 87% of the global population. It is also the most commonly used psychoactive drug.1 The average coffee intake is around 3 to 4 cups per day resulting in approximately 210mg of caffeine.1 While widely used, coffee’s impact on health has several contradicting opinions, some say to eliminate coffee consumption or to keep it low, while others mention that intake increases lifespan and brain power. This leaves the health implications of this popular drink in a confusing place. The truth is that there are both positives and negatives to coffee consumption and the results of drinking coffee on health are quite individualistic.
The Good News
Coffee can enhance cognitive function. The caffeine in coffee increases adrenaline and dopamine in the brain which can result in improved focus and mood.2 This effect is most noticeable to people who drink coffee less regularly. For those who drink coffee every day, it may not have the same effect.
Coffee can also be used in athletics to increase exercise tolerance and performance. Caffeinated coffee can boost both aerobic and resistance training exercise.3,4 The caffeine in coffee stimulates the body to release energy from fat stores during long bouts of activity. Again, these impacts are more potent to non-regular coffee drinkers than they would be for those who have regular, high-dose caffeine intakes.
Coffee consumption is associated with protective effects of several chorionic diseases. Due to the hormonal impacts of coffee, it has been found to reduces the risk of Type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.5 Coffee has also demonstrated to reduce the risk of liver disease by decreasing both liver fibrosis and protecting the liver against cirrhosis.6
Coffee is also rich in antioxidants which fight inflammation, improve heart health and protects our cells from oxidative damage which can lead to chronic disease.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Just like any good thing, there’s a point where too much coffee begins to have a more harmful impact on health. The limits of coffee are most often due to the caffeine in the drink rather than other components. According to Health Canada, 400mg of caffeine is safe and doesn’t seem to cause adverse effects in the average healthy person.7 This is about 2.5 cups of brewed coffee, 3.5 K cups, or just over 5 shots of espresso.8
However, each person interacts with coffee differently so it is important to assess individual needs rather than the general population.
Perhaps 400mg is a good cut off for the average individual, but if someone suffers from anxiety or irritable bowel syndrome, they may have a lower threshold for their caffeine intake as it can exacerbate their symptoms. If someone is struggling with insomnia, they may need to lower their intake or change when they drink their coffee so it doesn't impact their sleep.
Pregnant and breastfeeding individuals should have a lower intake, no more than 200mg per day is recommended, due to the increased risk of miscarriage and nausea.9 If struggling with recurrent miscarriages, your health care provider may suggest completely eliminating caffeinated coffee while attempting to get pregnant.
Although coffee has demonstrated protective effects for cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure in general, there is a transient increase in blood pressure after coffee consumption.10, 11. Therefore those with heart disease may be okay with coffee intake, however, some clinicians may recommend a lower caffeine intake or an elimination of caffeine.
The effect of coffee on health also depends on a variation in our genes. The gene CYP1A2 makes the enzyme which breaks down caffeine in the body.12 Some variations of the gene break down caffeine more slowly, so the caffeine stays elevated in the blood for longer- this can put them and are at greater risk of high blood pressure and heart attack when caffeine intake is high.12 However, those who have a different variant of the gene have a lower risk of heart disease with moderate coffee consumption compared with no coffee at all.
Another important factor to consider when assessing the health of coffee is how you’re consuming it. If your ‘coffee’ is a frappuccino, we are looking at a totally different drink than a plain black coffee. So, considering what you put in your coffee is also important.
There are also different methods to coffee consumption if using it to enhance athletic or cognitive skills. Cycling your caffeine intake can help lower the tolerance that builds up and help increase the positive effects with a lower dose.
So, the health of coffee consumption really comes down to your individual needs. How do you feel when you consume coffee? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you have pre-existing heart conditions? Are you trying to get pregnant? Do you consume coffee all day or just in the morning? What are you putting in your coffee?
Maybe start to keep track of how you feel after your coffee, or how you sleep when you don’t have coffee for a week. And, like everything, it’s all about moderation.
- Klaassen EB, de Groot RH, Evers EA, Snel J, Veerman EC, Ligtenberg AJ, Jolles J, Veltman DJ. The effect of caffeine on working memory load-related brain activation in middle-aged males. Neuropharmacology. 2013 Jan 1;64:160-7.
- Haskell CF, Kennedy DO, Wesnes KA, Scholey AB. Cognitive and mood improvements of caffeine in habitual consumers and habitual non-consumers of caffeine. Psychopharmacology. 2005 Jun 1;179(4):813-25.
- 3. Schneiker KT, Bishop D, Dawson B, Hackett LP. Effects of caffeine on prolonged intermittent-sprint ability in team-sport athletes. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2006 Mar 1;38(3):578-85.
- Del Coso J, Salinero JJ, González-Millán C, Abián-Vicén J, Pérez-González B. Dose response effects of a caffeine-containing energy drink on muscle performance: a repeated measures design. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2012 Dec 1;9(1):21.
- Baspinar B, Eskici G, Ozcelik AO. How coffee affects metabolic syndrome and its components. Food & function. 2017;8(6):2089-101.
- Poole R, Kennedy OJ, Roderick P, Fallowfield JA, Hayes PC, Parkes J. Coffee consumption and health: umbrella review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes. bmj. 2017 Nov 22;359.
- Nawrot P, Jordan S, Eastwood J, Rotstein J, Hugenholtz A, Feeley M. Effects of caffeine on human health. Food Additives & Contaminants. 2003 Jan 1;20(1):1-30.
- Examine.com. How much caffeine is too much? July 2020.
- Giannelli M, Doyle P, Roman E, Pelerin M, Hermon C. The effect of caffeine consumption and nausea on the risk of miscarriage. Paediatric and perinatal epidemiology. 2003 Oct;17(4):316-23.
- Xie C, Cui L, Zhu J, Wang K, Sun N, Sun C. Coffee consumption and risk of hypertension: A systematic review and dose–response meta-analysis of cohort studies. Journal of human hypertension. 2018 Feb;32(2):83-93.
- Mort JR, Kruse HR. Timing of blood pressure measurement related to caffeine consumption. Annals of Pharmacotherapy. 2008 Jan;42(1):105-10.
- JAMA and Archives Journals. (2006, March 8). Coffee Consumption Linked To Increased Risk Of Heart Attack For Persons With Certain Gene Variation. ScienceDaily.