Barista: How do you take your coffee? Me: Very, very seriously.
What do you call the pot of coffee in the office? Breaking liquid.
All kidding aside, March is Caffeine Awareness Month. So if (a) you’re a cappuccino addict, (b) the word “study” draws you like a bee to honey, and (c) the mix of the two leaves you as hazy as that brain before its cup of tea from the morning, read on.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read the dozens of studies on the benefits and harms of coffee. If you have time, go for it. But if the world-renowned Mayo Clinic and reasonably reliable Healthline reports are enough for you, here’s the truth:
Daily cup of coffee, good. Quad mochas, uh-uh.
The “caffeine is bad” side of the equation is nothing new. Drink too much and beyond insomnia, anxiety and irritability, your ticker won’t thank you. But research also points to some health benefits, in moderation.
(Why did the cafe file a police report? Because it was assaulted.)
What is caffeine?
This natural stimulant contained in the leaves of tea, coffee and cocoa stimulates the brain and the central nervous system. Man has been brewing tea leaves since 2737 BCE and, thanks to the exceptionally lively herd of an Ethiopian herder, has been steeping in coffee since the 9th century.
About 90% of American adults drink caffeine in one form or another daily, according to a study published in the April 2010 Journal of Food Science.
How it works
Caffeine is absorbed into the blood and liver within minutes. In the brain, it acts on neurotransmitters, blocking the relaxation-inducing effects of adenosine while increasing the activity of adrenaline, dopamine and noradrenaline. Technically, this makes him psychoactive. Hence the buzz.
(How is espresso like a divorce? It’s expensive and bitter.)
The source matters. Comparing the average caffeine per 8-ounce serving (note that this includes what’s called “decaffeinated”):
- Brewed coffee: 102–200 mg
- Yerba mate: 65–130 mg
- Energy drinks: 50–160 mg
- Brewed tea: 40–120 mg
- Soft drinks: 20–40 mg
- Decaffeinated coffee: 3–12 mg
- Cocoa: 2–7mg
- Chocolate milk: 2–7 mg
An ounce of milk chocolate contains 1 to 15 mg; an ounce of black, 5–35 mg.
Brain and mood booster?
The same 2010 JFS research review noted that after 37.5–450 mg of caffeine, participants showed improved alertness, short-term recall, and reaction time. Other studies have linked one to two cups of coffee a day to slightly lower risks of suicide and depression (I wonder about that, given that 90% of adults drink that much and it’s still a big problem) .
According to four studies published between 2007 and 2014, drinking at least three cups of coffee or tea a day can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by 28% or more.
When it comes to mood, more is not necessarily better. The JFS review noted that two cups drunk in one sitting were no more beneficial than one unless consumed at least eight hours later.
(What is the opposite of coffee? Sneeze.)
The same stimulation that can be bad for the heart also increases metabolism by up to 11% and fat burning by up to 13%. It’s not huge; we’re talking maybe 80 calories a day difference. Plus, the stimulant can help people exercise a bit longer.
The five studies concluding this, like the others mentioned here, are all peer-reviewed and listed in the National Library of Medicine.
Does it help or harm disease risk?
Now it gets really confusing. Doctors tell heart patients to avoid caffeine, which makes perfect sense. But in terms of prevention, some research suggests that one to four cups of coffee a day can reduce the risk of developing heart disease by 16-18% (though not outweighing family history). Make it green tea (also caffeinated, with more health benefits) and you could have a 14-20% lower risk of stroke.
Another research review linked the Daily Joe with a 29% lower potential risk of type 2 diabetes. Interestingly, decaffeinated coffee was correlated with a 21% lower risk of diabetes, suggesting that it’s the other beneficial compounds in coffee that help, rather than the caffeine.
That doesn’t mean you could fill up on sugar without penalty. And watch your blood pressure, as caffeine tends to raise it.
(What did Brazilian coffee say to Indonesian coffee? “What’s Sumatra with you?”)
Watch out for side effects.
Some caffeine consumption is generally considered safe, although it is habit-forming. Well-documented side effects include anxiety, restlessness, tremors, irregular heartbeat, poor sleep quality, more headaches (yes, sometimes a little caffeine can help too), and high blood pressure. .
Pregnant women are advised to consume less. Caffeine easily crosses the placenta, increasing the risk of miscarriage or low birth weight. Caffeine also interacts with certain medications, so it’s best to ask a pharmacist.
(What do you call a cow that has just given birth? Staggered.)
How much is too much?
According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 400 mg of caffeine per day seems safe for most healthy adults. That’s about three to four cups of coffee or two energy drinks, but keep in mind that the content varies by brand and preparation. Pregnant women and teenagers should have less, and kids should go without (minus the weird chocolate, of course).
It is also dangerous to take the daily dose all at once, as in these energy products. Caffeine toxicity can lead to major heart events and other problems.
(What do you call a 10 cent espresso? A cheap shot.)
Some people are more sensitive to caffeine. Cutting back works best if done slowly (shorter brew times help reduce focus) and decaffeinated helps. It usually also tastes good, although there are still traces of caffeine in the decaffeinated. Herbal teas are nice and most are caffeine free (be sure to check).
Every morning I see this exhausted woman who could kill someone for a cup of coffee. I really should move that mirror.
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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone New Network who takes hers with almond milk, thank you. Email [email protected]