The Buzz on Coffee

Research suggests your morning cup of Joe can keep you healthy.

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At 6:30 a.m., a song from the clock radio bubbles through my bedroom like an icy winter brook. My eyes crack open and I spy the cold, gray light sneaking through the window shade. I pull the covers over my head. Can’t I stay in bed for just a few more minutes?

Then an image forms in my mind—the percolating pot, the warm cup, the steam rising over the kitchen counter. Coffee!

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If I'm going to climb out from under my comfy covers, I'd better have something warm and stimulating to greet me in the morning. I am not a coffee addict. I don’t down a dozen cups a day. I quaff a couple of cups to begin the day, then turn to tea or juice or water, except when I’m meeting someone at Starbucks, which I do occasionally.

So what does the daily grind do to us? First the bitter news. According to the Mayo Clinic, a high consumption of coffee can lead to high cholesterol levels and, for some people, an increased risk of heart disease. It can also produce restlessness, irritability, or sleeplessness in susceptible individuals.

But there’s also some sweet news. The Mayo clinic concludes: “For most people the health benefits outweigh the risks.” Here’s a look at the health benefits of coffee.

Coffee inhibits the development of Type 2 diabetes. Coffee drinkers are half as likely to develop diabetes as non-drinkers. Our favorite cup of java contains chemicals that seem to lower blood sugar. And a continuous fix of coffee may slightly increase your resting metabolism rate, which is associated with resisting diabetes. Scientists also suspect that two antioxidants in coffee—cholorogenic acid (which is related to the polyphenols in grapes) and quinides—may boost your cells’ sensitivity to insulin.

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It can protect against Parkinson’s disease. Regular coffee with caffeine has been linked to a reduced risk of Parkinson’s. The evidence is stronger in men than in women, possibly because estrogen inhibits coffee from being metabolized.

Coffee reduces the risk of cancer. Coffee is high in antioxidants with anti-cancer properties. One report analyzed nine different studies and concluded coffee drinkers were as much as 50 percent less likely to develop liver cancer than non-drinkers. Research has also showed a lower incidence of colon cancer among coffee consumers. A recent Los Angeles Times article cited a study from Harvard which compiled data from almost 100,000 people. Women who drank more than three cups of regular caffeinated coffee a day had a 20 percent lower risk of contracting basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. Men lowered their risk by 9 percent. Other studies have linked the increased consumption of coffee (or tea) with a reduced incidence of glioma, a form of brain cancer. Researchers have theorized that compounds in both tea and coffee activate DNA-repairing proteins in brain cells.

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Coffee can improve cognitive function. There’s a reason coffee has been called brain juice. The antioxidants in our cup of Joe seem to boost the effects of neurotransmitters in the brain, and they may, over time, help prevent damage to brain cells. Coffee has also been linked to a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Coffee has been credited with improving endurance in long-duration physical activities. (Our daily infusion has also been called go juice and jet fuel.) It may reduce the risk of developing gallstones, lower incidence of cirrhosis of the liver, and reduce the risk of stroke. Coffee contains soluble fiber, which tends to lower blood cholesterol levels, perhaps counteracting any negative cholesterol effects of the brew.

Most of the coffee studies are suggestive, not conclusive. So don’t drink coffee just for your health, especially if it makes you irritable or gives you a headache. You can try tea or decaffeinated coffee instead, since many of the benefits credited to regular coffee are also associated with those other morning brews.

Just listen to your body. Coffee speaks to many of us. To me and others it says: “Time to get up. Look alive.”

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.