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General Health Articles

Coffee Consumption: Risks and Benefits of a Controversial Drink

Coffee has been studied extensively for almost a century and an enormous amount of material has been collected from thousands of studies. However, the best information is often contradictory, even in carefully controlled scientific experiments, and experts in this field of research admit that there are no clear answers to the long-term effects of coffee consumption. It is a point of contention that many of the studies in laboratories are done on animals, and many scientists believe that the results do not apply to humans.

The central issue about coffee consumption is the amount you drink, and whether or not you become addicted. Like many things, small amounts will not hurt you unless you have sensitivity to it, or a predisposition to a disease or condition that it triggers. Addiction involves over-consumption, which is where the real problems begin. At addiction levels the amount of caffeine in your system is very significant and is definitely going to have some kind of effect. Another deceptive issue is the heat of the coffee you drink (see below).

In 1990 the Coffee Science Information Centre was set up in the UK to deal with the amount of collected information on coffee consumption and share the newest findings relating to health with the general public, with an emphasis strictly on published scientific data. It was set up by an organization made up of executives from major European food manufacturers, the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC). Clearly this is an organization with an interest in controlling information that has a direct relationship to its profitability. It should be noted that many of the newest studies and findings on coffee are still not accepted by the scientific community, and that many of the known facts were once treated the same way. Because of vested interests it can take valid information a long time to make it to the public sector.

Health is about providing a balance within the body. In the case of coffee, the body becomes addicted to an unnatural source of energy induced by a drug (the caffeine boost), instead of having it provided in a controlled, natural way through the metabolization of stored fats.


The Dangers of Coffee

Chemicals: pesticides, fungicides and artificial fertilizers

There are also other complicating factors in judging the effect of coffee. Chemicals used by the growers vary not only from country to country but even within specific countries depending on how well their standards are enforced. This is especially true of anything grown abroad marked 'organic'.

• It is further complicated when you consider that many of the pesticide chemicals undergo transformations and re-combinations when the coffee beans are roasted. This raises the risk of various cancers, Parkinson's Disease, and others.

• The chemical used with coffee decaffeination most associated with health problems is trichloroethylene, a solvent for organic materials, also used as an industrial degreaser, which has been linked to liver cancer and cardiac arrhythmias.


• One study claims that when coffee is roasted a compound called 3,4 benzopyrene is produced, which is carcinogenic


Health Conditions Affected by Drinking Coffee


• Caffeine in coffee starts the excess firing of neurons in your brain, which causes the pituitary gland to secrete a hormone that makes the adrenal gland produce adrenaline: this initiates the fight-or-flight response. This is not really useful for most of life's daily decisions unless you are a hunter-gatherer facing saber-toothed tigers

• The pituitary gland also secretes ACTH (Adrenocorticotrophic hormone), a stress hormone. Long term stress is extremely damaging to your body

• When this adrenaline high wears off, it leaves you feeling tired, fatigued or even exhausted

Aortic Stiffness

• This is a newly identified condition that is extremely complex and involves the normally flexible aortic ventricle. Stiffening of this is associated with coronary artery disease

• Coffee, and specifically caffeine, appears to affect aortic stiffness, but the few studies done so far are not conclusiv


• Studies suggest that one serious side-effect of drinking coffee has only been recently understood. Most water has chlorine added to it, and chlorine combines with compounds in coffee to produce alloxan, which destroys beta cells in the pancreas. Some scientists question these results, but many admit that it is another area where there are not yet clear answers

• Compromising the pancreas interferes with insulin production: if your diet is already high in sugar or you have other conditions that predispose you to diabetes, this is yet another risk you don't need to take

• Although the amounts are small, consider how many cups you drink a day and over how long a period of time

• Alloxan is used to create diabetes in lab animals


• Epileptics should avoid coffee and all caffeine. Caffeine causes adrenaline to be released, the liver emits excess blood sugar, insulin is then released and the blood sugar drops: this is a known cause of seizure

GERD, Gastritis, Ulcers and Heartburn

• Anyone with any serious kind of stomach disorder like GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease) should avoid coffee because of the acidity alone

• Coffee contains caffeo-tannic acid, an astringent that is irritating to the stomach, and this can worsen GI conditions

• Coffee has also been linked to diarrhea

• These effects are made worse by another simple thing. Most coffee is too hot when consumed: if it burns your finger, then it will burn your esophagus and stomach as well

Heart Issues

• Researchers at Brown University and the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that even mild coffee consumption by people with atherosclerosis, as little as 1 cup a day, can trigger a heart attack because caffeine temporarily increases blood pressure and excites nervous activity. This can cause the built-up plaque to break off and block a vessel

• The study above also suggested that the increase of a heart attack was 60% for mild consumption of coffee, but much more for light consumption, possibly because those who drank little coffee were more sensitive to its effect. Additionally, they reported that people with 3 other risk factors for heart disease increased that risk by more than twice 


• Coffee has been noted to cause flare-ups of genital herpes and related cold sores in people who already suffer from these conditions


• Homocysteine is an amino acid your body produces naturally to help build proteins

• Increased levels have been associated with risk of thrombosis and cardiovascular disease

• Some studies show that coffee raises the level of homocysteine further. However there is much debate about this in the scientific community, and many feel that it is not a significant threat


Coffee and Pregnancy

• Caffeine should be avoided by pregnant women because is passes to the fetus, which is not capable of getting rid of it as quickly as a fully grown person. This means it stays in the fetus' bloodstream far longer than that of an adult. Studies have shown that caffeine can affect the fetus' heart rate and blood pressure

• Although still debated, a study done by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that pregnant women who drank significant amounts of coffee increased their risk of having a less-developed baby. In the first study to suggest a difference this applied only to males and not females,  which they suggest may be because boys grow faster before birth than girls

The Prostate

• Numerous studies have shown that caffeine causes the prostate to be weaker and less effective. In fact, the usual condition that many middle-aged men face, the benign enlargement of the prostate (BPH), is often due to caffeine consumption as well as age. Most urologists will advise their patients to drop caffeine consumption completely as part of the healing process. See our BPH section.


The Negative Affects of Caffeine on Your Health

Caffeine in coffee acts chiefly as a stimulant to the central nervous system, but can affect you in many ways. It also affects body chemistry

• Like any other drug, your body becomes used to caffeine, so you need an ever-increasing amount to get the same high

• The constant state of stress caused by caffeine wears down your body physically and mentally. The adrenal glands have been pushed so hard for so long that it leads to adrenal depletion

• In several studies it was shown that the people with the highest levels of fatigue were also the ones with the highest level of coffee consumption

• Studies of psychiatric patients have shown that a high dose of caffeine from coffee plays a part in their disorder

• Studies show that caffeine can suppress the body's production of DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), a hormone associated with the nervous system, immune system, and reproductive system

• Caffeine depletes the body of potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, sodium, chloride, and other minerals which are essential to body function

• Caffeine causes the body to use up B vitamins, which are essential to the functioning of the nervous system and the brain

• Other studies have shown a link between caffeine and increased levels of estrogen, associated with risk breast cancer

Hypoglycemia: caffeine causes the liver to release glycogen into the blood, which make the pancreas make excess insulin - which drops blood sugar

• Caffeine blocks the production of adenosine, one of the chemicals that helps you go to sleep

• It also interferes with the REM cycle of sleep which is essential for full rest

• Caffeine raises your adrenaline levels

• Caffeine can worsen anxiety, panic disorder and depression

• Caffeine and coffee can cause sudden outbursts of rage in some people

• Caffeine slows down your brain's ability to process new information by suppressing the blood flow to the brain by as much as 30%, which has a negative effect on memory and learning by depriving the brain of oxygen

• Caffeine raises blood pressure, and is therefore a danger to anyone with high blood pressure or related conditions

• Caffeine is addictive, and because the body builds up a tolerance to it, it is easy to exceed safe amounts (see Symptoms of Excess Caffeine below)

Kidney stones: although there is no direct link with caffeine, remember that caffeine can mildly dehydrate you because it's a diuretic. Kidney stones can be kept from forming by diluting the urine by drinking water, which works well for some people

• One study suggests that 3 or more cups of coffee a day can lower a woman's chance of pregnancy by over 25%, but this is another hotly contested finding that other tests have disproved

• Another study suggested that coffee could be responsible for miscarriages and birth defects, but this is an issue currently under much debate

• At one time coffee drinkers were known to have higher cholesterol than non-coffee drinkers, but newer filters now remove the compounds that caused this condition



Most processes now used remove 97-98% of the caffeine in coffee beans, a procedure that is done before they are roasted

• Some decaffeination processes have been banned, specifically ones using trichloroethylene (see Chemicals above), a solvent now banned from food and food production

• Even decaffeinated coffee still contains oils and compounds that can irritate your stomach

Water decaffeination is the safest process; carbon dioxide is the other most used method. Ones using solvents involve methylene chloride (dichloromethane) which is toxic and a controlled chemical in Europe and used in the US in paint strippers. Methylene chloride has been linked to cancer of the liver, pancreas and lungs in laboratory animal tests, and is mentioned as a possible carcinogen for humans. In higher concentrations it can cause carbon dioxide poisoning


Positive Effects of Caffeine and Coffee

Just like the negative ones there is evidence both for and against most findings.

• Several studies show that caffeine can increase the effectiveness of painkillers by almost half. That is the reason that some brand-names like Excedrin have caffeine in them, and are often prescribed for migraines. However there is the danger of using NSAIDs for headaches because of addiction and complicating factors. See our NSAID section

• Coffee has a large number of antioxidants, which protect your body from dangerous free radicals

• The amount of caffeine in coffee is enough of an antidepressant to actually prevent a person from committing suicide

Theophylline, one of the break-down products of caffeine, is also used to treat asthma. To get any benefit you would need to drink at least 3 cups a day

• Although coffee can cause your stomach to be acid and make GERD worse, it can also help to clear out your stomach faster without hindering the rate of digestion

• Studies have shown that people who drink two cups a day have a lower incidence of gallstones because compounds in coffee reduce the level of cholesterol in bile in the gallbladder. Gallstones are made when there is too much cholesterol in the gallbladder

Cholesterol levels can be increased, however, when the coffee you drink is unfiltered when brewed without paper filters, which remove cafestol and kahweol, compounds thought to add cholesterol, according to findings published in the British Medical Journal

• Caffeine has no calories, so does not provide actual energy, but can help free extra fat to be burned for energy

Hypotension (the drop in blood pressure, especially after a meal), can be counteracted by coffee because it can bring up blood pressure


Symptoms of Excessive Caffeine & Symptoms of Withdrawal

Addiction to coffee and other caffeine products is a serious problem that can become a health risk. Over-consumption can create a condition known as 'caffeinism,” the symptoms of which are listed below. Ironically they are the same as withdrawal symptoms. Studies show that the most serious withdrawal from caffeine can take as long as a full week, beginning a day or so after the last dose and peaking at around 4 days later before tapering off.

Symptoms include:

• Headache

• Agitation

• Irritability

• Depression

• Dizziness

• Fatigue


Breaking the Habit

Again, there is a lot of disagreement on the subject. The withdrawal symptoms are listed above.

Cold Turkey

• Many suggest stopping instantly, or quitting cold turkey, making sure to drink a lot of water to compensate for the lack of liquid from the coffee, but also to help flush out your system. This method will cause the most serious withdrawal symptoms, so you might want to try cutting down gradually or using replacements instead (see below)

Gradually Cutting Down

• Gradually cutting down on the amount you drink every day until you stop altogether is the method that works for people with a moderate to serious addiction problem. This allows your body to adjust, but you will still have the typical symptoms of withdrawal usually beginning with fatigue and headache

• If using the gradual method, try using only organic coffee, which will help your body begin to recover from the chemicals of commercial coffee and lessen the symptoms of withdrawal


• Some suggest a high-protein, complex-carbohydrate diet can help lessen or eliminate withdrawal symptoms

Coffee Replacements

• Others find that replacing coffee with another liquid in the morning helps to break the caffeine habit, for instance non-coffee coffees made with chicory, barley, roasted carob, licorice and other natural products, or with fruit juices or fruit energy drinks from nutrition stores. Tea can be used because it contains much less caffeine, especially green tea. See Tea article.

• Some people use the herbal supplement kava kava in kava-derived coffee as a substitute because of its low acidity, but recent studies suggest that the active component in kava, called kavain, also has toxins that affect the liver by contracting the blood vessels. This decreases liver function. Alcohol makes the kavain more toxic. It should also be avoided if you are taking medications like Paxil, Prozac or Valium. As with all scientific findings, researchers disagree about the exact amount that is safe and when that line is crossed. The FDA says that 500 grams per day is safe, which is more than anyone would normally drink. In Germany kava was banned until 2006 because newer reports suggested a greater degree of safety

Chamomile tea can help with headaches from withdrawal

• Teas made from burdock and licorice root can help detox you from caffeine

• Avoid cream and sugar, and especially commercial chemical non-dairy cream substitutes.  See our Sugar article. 

• It is thought that massaging the ears and earlobes in the morning when you get up helps to combat fatigue

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