Is Caffeine The New Health Food? Be Your Own Advocate and Decide

Coffee

Helen Papaconstantinos, RNCP, ROHP

Could Caffeine be the new health food? One might think so after reading about all the recent studies in the media. Evidence is now suggesting that caffeine – especially that found in coffee – may prevent conditions such as type II diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases. Some epidemiological studies even suggest that regular coffee drinkers are less likely to get various types of cancer (liver, colon, oral, and oesophageal), and gout, tooth decay, and gallstones.

Just quickly – caffeine is the most widely consumed behaviourally active substance in the world.[i] It is estimated that approximately 80% of the world’s population uses caffeine on a daily basis, mainly in the form of coffee, tea, sodas and chocolate, but it is also found in some drugs, ‘decaffeinated’ coffee and tea, diet pills, and energy drinks. Around 90 percent of Americans consume caffeine every single day in one form or another. More than half of all American adults­ consume more than 300 milligrams (mg) of caffeine every day, making it the most popular drug by far.

But why are 90% of Americans consuming caffeinated drinks on a daily basis? And are the current studies truly reflective of what is occurring in the body?

Problems with Industry-Funded and Correlation Studies:

Many experts  point out that the newer research only establishes a correlation between coffee drinking and brain protection.[ii] Huntington Potter, a neurobiologist at the University of South Florida, and Reisa Sperling, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard University, point out that it is entirely possible that ‘regular coffee drinking subjects’ might have other habits in common which might explain the protective effect. Couch potatoes, for example, would be less likely to walk into the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee.  Making coffee requires many steps to complete it -including remembering where the pot is kept.  In recall studies using people 65 years of age and older, researchers would be less apt to include subjects with early stage Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, simply because there could well be a problem with subjects remembering exactly how much caffeine was consumed daily.

There are so many studies which appear to support caffeine but if you look closely, the scientists will not say that caffeine enhances your health and long-term well-being. They might say that a particular type or part of chocolate, or caffeine is good for you.  Most of coffee’s beneficial effects against Type 2 diabetes, for instance, are not due to its caffeine content but something else, since the benefits are greatest in those drinking decaffeinated coffee.[vii] We know that the antioxidants in roast coffee – lipophic antioxidants and chlorogenic acid lactones – are playing protective roles when it comes to protecting nerve cells, but it is unclear by which mechanism this occurs in other organs of the body.[viii]

A much quoted 2009 study from Finland, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed that middle aged people who consumed moderate amounts of coffee (3–5 cups per day), were 62-64% less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by the time they reached their mid-sixties to seventies, compared with those who drank little coffee or avoided it altogether.[v] Tea was associated only with increased cognitive performance. What was also not reported in the media in this study was that the incidence of hypertension was slightly higher during the follow-up in coffee drinkers compared with non-coffee drinkers, and that the benefits were stronger for men.

Menopausal women taking estrogen, for instance, will not enjoy reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and their risks were increased. These findings was observed by the same Harvard researchers just mentioned – yet the dangers of drinking coffee in this group of women is rarely reported in popular media.[vi]

Some studies point out that coffee consumption does not raise the risk of cardiovascular disease … yet other research has shown that chronic consumption may increase aortic stiffness and aortic pressure[ix], increase cholesterol levels, and increase a chemical in the blood called ‘homocystein’, (a marker for predisposition to heart attack). Unfiltered coffee, especially, can raise blood fats. And because of its stimulating effects, even a small amount of caffeine can be detrimental for people who are sensitive to caffeine.[x]

Then we have the mice experiments.  As far back as 2007 studies were showing that caffeine helped to prevent Aβ-amyloid-beta induced cognitive decline.[iii] in instances where mice were injected with very large amounts of caffeine (30 mg per kilogram body weight).  By 2009 researchers surmised that caffeine was indeed involved in some type of mechanism that was degrading one of the enzymes for amyloid-beta plaques in the brain. They cautioned, however that it was too early to know if the same protective factor in humans.[iv]

There is much conflicting research around, so above all, please people, be your their own health advocate and investigate further into whether you are reading industry-funded or independently-funded research. Listen to your own body. In parasympathetic-dominant types (nervous) types, or those with mitral valve issues, one cup may be too much.


[i] Fredholm, BB, Battig, K, Holmen,J, Nehlig, A, Zvartau, EE, Actions of Caffeine in the brain with special reference to factors which contribute to its widespread use. Pharmacol Rev 51 1999: 83-133.

[ii] Allison Aubrey, Nervous About Alzheimer’s? Coffee may help. June 28, 2011, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128110552.

[iii]  Dall’Igna,O, Fett, Paul, Souza, D, Cunha, R, Caffeine and adenosine A2a receptor antagonists prevent β-amyloid (25-35)-induced cognitive defects in mice. Exp Neurol 203, 2007, 241-245. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S001448860600478X

[iv] See: Watson GS, & Craft S (2003). The role of insulin resistance in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease: implications for treatment. CNS drugs, 17 (1), 27-45 PMID: 12467491.

[v] Eskelinen,M.H.et al, Midlife coffee and tea drinking and the risk of late-life dementia: a population-based CAIDE study”, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 2009. Jan; 16(1):85-91; and  Midlife Coffee And Tea Drinking May Protect Against Late-life Dementia”. ScienceDaily. January 15, 2009. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090114200005.htm.

[vi] RealAge, ‘Coffee Talk: Some Surprising Health Benefits’, 31 September, 2010, p. 1.

[vii] Pereira, Mark A; Parker, Emily D; Folsom, Aaron R (2006). “Coffee consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus: an 11-year prospective study of 28 812 postmenopausal women”. Archives of Internal Medicine 166 (12): 1311–6.

[ix] Mahmud, Azra; Feely, John (2001). “Acute effect of caffeine on arterial stiffness and aortic pressure waveform”. Hypertension (American Heart Association) 38 (2): 227–31. http://hyper.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/38/2/227. .

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Haas, Elson MD, The New Detox Diet: The Complete guide for lifelong vitality with recipes, menus, and detox plans. Celestial Arts Pub., Berkley, 2004, p. 30.

[xii] Mednick, S. C. et al. 2008. Comparing the benefits of caffeine, naps, and placebo on verbal, motor and perceptual memory. Behavioural Brain Research. 193: 79-86. Also see: http://thankyoubrain.blogspot.com/2009/01/caffeine-or-nap-which-helps-memory.html

[xiii] Muñoz, Leda M; Lönnerdal, Bo; Keen, Carl L; Dewey, Kathryn G (September 1988). “Coffee consumption as a factor in iron deficiency anemia among pregnant women and their infants in Costa Rica” (PDF). American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 48 (3): 645–51.

[xiv] Polyphenols are antioxidants which are protective against cancer, however they act to remove iron from the body. See: Dewey, Kathryn G; Romero-Abal, Maria Eugenia; Quan de Serrano, Julieta; Bulux, Jesus; Peerson, Janet M; Engle, Patrice; Solomons, Noel W (July 1997). “Effects of discontinuing coffee intake on iron status of iron-deficient Guatemalan toddlers: a randomized intervention study”.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 66 (1): 168–76.

[xv] Murray, Michael, ND,: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Your natural guide to getting well naturally. Three Rivers Press, California, 1994.

[xvi] Cherniske, Stephen, MS, Caffeine Blues: Wake up to the dangers of America’s # 1 drug. Warner Books Inc., New York, 1998, p. 56.

[xvii] Caffeine may cause or exacerbate anxiety, may be associated with depression, and increase the use of anti-anxiety drugs. See: Clementz, G.L. and J.W. Daily, “Psychotropic Effects of Caffeine,” American Family Physician, May 1998; 37(5): 157-72, cited in Chernisky, Op. Cit., p. 119.

[xviii] The Memory Solution, Dr. Julian Whitaker, p. 261.

[xix] “Disease prevention and treatment”, Life Extension Foundation, p. 739.

[xx] Cherniske, Op. Cit., p. 208.

[xxii] Ulster, Op. Cit.

[xxiii] A booklet, “What you should know about Caffeine” published by the International Food Information Council, Washington, D.C., states that “Caffeine is normally excreted within several hours after consumption”. Many other scientists fiercely oppose this finding saying that it can take up to 12 hours to detoxify a single cup of coffee. Less than 1% is excreted and the remaining 99% must be excreted by the liver. Supporters of the IFIC include Coca Cola, M&M, Nutrasweet, Nestle, and Hersheys.

[xxiv] Cherniske, Op. Cit., p. 53.

[xxv] Ames, Bruce N; Gold, Lois Swirsky (1998). “The causes and prevention of cancer: the role of environment”. Biotherapy 11 (2–3): 205–20.

[xxvii] Cherniske, Op. Cit., p.16.

[xxviii] Carper, Jean, “Food your Miracle Medicine” Harper Collins, New York, 1994, p. 277.