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The Health Benefits of Coffee

A cup of coffee

For years, concerns existed for increased risks of cancer and other health conditions from the consumption of coffee. Older research found correlations between coffee and cancer because people that drank coffee also commonly smoked. More recently, the latest research on coffee is  showing some potential health benefits, although some concerns do persist. 

Conditions that coffee appears to benefit include:

  • Some specific types of cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Type 2 diabetes

Coffee and Cancer

The latest data in general shows no increased risk of cancer with coffee consumption. The International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded in 2016 that there is no significant evidence that coffee raises risks (IARC 2016). They also noted that several studies suggested a decreased risk with coffee consumption and cancer. Risks for breast, prostate, uterine and liver cancers appear reduced with coffee consumption (Lafranconi 2018, Xia 2017, Lukic 2018, Tamura 2019). Most other cancers don’t appear to be strongly influenced by coffee, although more research is needed. 

Heart Disease and Coffee 

Interestingly, coffee does appear to have some negative effects on the cardiovascular system. Coffee can increase blood pressure, cholesterol and homocysteine; all three factors have been associated with heart disease (Cornelis 2007). However, coffee is also rich in antioxidants and other compounds that appear to protect the heart. On the whole, research suggests moderate consumption, up to 5 cups a day, appears to decrease heart disease risks. Interestingly, higher consumption seemed to eliminate benefits but didn’t increase risks (Ding 2014).

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is a challenging neurological condition that slowly destroys the substantia nigra, a part of the brain involved with coordinated movement. As Parkinson’s disease progresses, patients struggle with tremors, rigidity and initiating normal movements. Eventually, most patients die from aspiration pneumonia, from accidentally inhaling food into their lungs when eating. 

Research is starting to suggest that the caffeine in coffee may have neuroprotective effects. A recent meta-analysis showed that 3 cups a day of coffee reduces risks of Parkinson’s disease by 28% (Qi 2014). Considering the lack of effective treatments for slowing the progression of Parkison’s disease, preventing its development is a potentially useful strategy.

Type 2 Diabetes and Coffee

Diabetes is quickly becoming an epidemic in the United States. Just over 1 in 10 individuals in the United States has type 2 diabetes (CDC 2020) and rates are expected to increase over the coming decades. While diabetes has a multitude of causes, including poor diet, lack of physical activity and genetics, some lifestyle factors can be protective. 

And for protection, evidence appears to indicate coffee can help. Some of the latest research on the protective effects of coffee found a 29% reduction in risk for type 2 diabetes with up to 5 cups a day. Each cup per day of coffee appeared to decrease risks by approximately 6% (Carlstrom 2018). Considering the burden and costs of diabetes, reducing the risks for developing the condition by 29% is a significant benefit. 

Possible Harms from Coffee

While the above evidence is encouraging, suggesting that coffee can impart health benefits, there are some studies that do raise concerns. Coffee has been associated with small decreases in bone density, although fracture risk was unchanged (Hallstrom 2013). A separate study in Chinese men showed long-term coffee consumption increased risks for osteoporosis, or more severe bone loss (Yu 2016). 

As mentioned previously, coffee is also well known to raise blood pressure. In individuals with anxiety, insomnia or elevated blood pressure, drinking coffee may worsen these conditions. 

Pesticides in Coffee

Ripe coffee beans

Coffee, as a crop, is often highly sprayed with pesticides. Local communities around coffee plantations are at risk for significant pesticide exposures (Queiroz 2018). Unfortunately, research on pesticide levels in coffee has been mostly neglected. And how coffee is processed can also influence pesticide levels, but more research is clearly needed (Chen 2019). To maximize the health benefits from coffee, choosing organic varieties grown without pesticides, is probably the best choice.  

Conclusions

For most individuals, coffee is likely a safe beverage to enjoy that may decrease risks for some types of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. While coffee appears to provide mostly benefits, it does likely have a small negative impact on bone health and blood pressure. Due to farming practices and extensive pesticide use, choosing organic varieties is probably best for overall health and wellbeing. 

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