5 Science-Based Benefits of Coffee

Coffee is an immensely popular drink around the world. According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), about 1.4 billion cups are brewed and drank worldwide each day.

About 450 million of those cups of coffee are consumed in the United States. It’s pretty safe to say that we all drink a lot of coffee, but how healthy is this habit actually?

What are the health benefits of drinking coffee?

I have to come clean: I’m not an impartial writer when it comes to coffee. To say that I love coffee would be the understatement of the century. I adore it. Its bitterness, the amazingly complex flavor, the aroma... I would be in a great deal of trouble if science were to conclude that it is unhealthy.

I don’t have any hard decisions to make, fortunately, because science agrees that coffee is good for your health, in many different ways.

1. Essential micro-nutrients and anti-oxidants

A cup of coffee contains essential vitamins and minerals that your body needs in order to thrive. From just one cup you’ll get 11% of your daily need of Vitamin B2, or riboflavin (I probably take all my B2 from coffee).

Your cup of coffee also contains Vitamin B5, manganese, potassium, magnesium and niacin. Besides the vitamins and minerals, it also contains antioxidants such as chlorogenic acid, cafestol, and other phenols. According to several studies, it is the biggest source of antioxidants in Western diets. We apparently take more antioxidants from coffee than from fruits and vegetables.

2. Improves energy levels and brain function

We have all probably experienced this one. That cup in the morning when you need to really wake up. The 10 AM coffee, when you’re swamped at the office and you need to do three different things at the same time. The 3 PM coffee, when you’re really tired, but you still have to work for an hour or two.

Coffee gives you an energy boost and makes it easier to focus because it contains a stimulant called caffeine. Caffeine stimulates the brain to release neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine, which in exchange improves energy levels, memory, mood, reaction time and other brain functions.

3. Can help you lose weight

There is a reason why most weight loss supplements out there also contain caffeine. This substance can increase the metabolic rate significantly (up to 11%), for up to three hours after ingestion. This means that your body will burn fat faster during that period of time.

The same mechanism (stimulating your body to burn fat faster) is the reason why caffeine can improve physical performance. If you’re planning an activity that requires intense physical effort (exercising, getting your toddler dressed, cleaning your bathroom), a cup of coffee totally has your back.

4. Protects you from some very serious illnesses

Scientists discovered that coffee protects you from type 2 diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s.  

Observational studies noted that people who drink coffee have a 23–50% lower risk of developing type 1 diabetes, a 65% lower risk of Alzheimer's disease, and a much lower risk, ranging from 32-60% of Parkinson's disease.

Remarkably, it was discovered that people who drink four or more cups per day have an 80% lower risk of cirrhosis (which, incidentally, means that my liver is basically immortal). Also, people who drink more than four cups daily have a 15% lower risk of colorectal cancer.

5. Makes you happier, fights depression

Some studies have found a correlation between coffee consumption and better mental health. Apparently, it can lower the risk of depression by 20% and the risk of death by suicide by no less than 53%. And, although I wasn’t able to find a study that measures the correlation between coffee consumption and the risk of homicide, I’m pretty sure it also lowers that risk, by a lot.

Black or milk coffee? Which one is healthier?

The answer is pretty nuanced and one is not necessarily healthier than the other. Rather, it depends on who’s drinking it, and why. Black coffee is digested faster than coffee with milk in it, which means that the caffeine will get into your bloodstream faster, and you’ll get that energy boost you need in no time.

If a regular cup of black coffee, without milk and sugar, has only about 5 calories (totally negligible), the same cup with milk and a teaspoon of sugar in it has about 50 calories. So, if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s better to get your coffee black.

However, if you’re prone to acid reflux, it’s better to take your coffee with a little bit of milk (but without sugar). Coffee is an acidic substance, so it makes acid reflux worse. Milk, on the other hand, will balance the PH of coffee, protecting your stomach. Make sure you use skimmed, semi-skimmed milk, or plant-based milk because fat is another substance that worsens acid reflux.

Time of day is another factor to consider. An espresso in the evening might keep you awake for hours – but a cappuccino might not. The delicious milky foam of a good cappuccino, besides being completely yummy, also diminishes the stimulant effect of the caffeine. So, for after dinner, stick with cappuccinos, lattes and flat whites. Or simply add a little bit of milk to your coffee, you don’t necessarily have to be that fancy…

Are there any negative side-effects of drinking coffee?

In the name of journalistic integrity, I do have to talk about the negative side-effects of drinking coffee. Yes, dear readers, unfortunately, this absolute nectar of gods can also have some not-so-great effects on your body.

May increase your blood pressure

People suffering from hypertension should be aware that caffeine raises blood pressure for two to three hours after consumption. If you were diagnosed with high blood pressure and you’re on medication for it, talk to your doctor about coffee consumption.  

Usually, doctors recommend that those patients limit their intake to one or two cups per day. Not all people are equally sensitive to caffeine. If you’re worried about the effect coffee has on your body, measure your blood pressure before drinking coffee and half an hour after you had a cup. If your blood pressure increases by more than 10 points, you should consider drinking a decaffeinated variety.

Can cause or increase anxiety

Caffeine increases the release of adrenaline, thus triggering your body’s “fight or flight” instinct. If you’re an agitated or anxious person, caffeine might make things worse for you. Caffeine can also trigger panic attacks. However, all those symptoms occur (or become more serious) when you consume high doses of caffeine. Low and moderate consumption (one or two cups per day) should be safe even for people with anxiety disorders or other associated issues.

Digestive problems

One of the effects of caffeine is that it stimulates the release of gastrin, a hormone that speeds up the activity in the colon. For some people, this might be a very welcomed effect, but, for others, it might lead to loose stools or even to diarrhea. If you’re experiencing digestive issues immediately after drinking coffee, you should lower your intake or even give up all caffeinated drinks.

Fatigue

Excessive coffee consumption is often associated with fatigue. The mechanism is pretty simple: you drink coffee when you’re tired, which makes your body release neurotransmitters that boost your level of energy.  Once the caffeine is out of your system, you experience a crash, and you need more caffeine, thus creating a veritable vicious circle. Also, drinking coffee in the evening might cause insomnia, which further accentuates the fatigue.

To avoid this problem, drink coffee with moderation, take breaks from work when you’re really tired and don’t drink caffeine in the evenings.

Dehydration

Caffeine intake also has a stimulating effect on the bladder, which means you’ll pee a lot and you could become dehydrated. One trick to avoid that problem is to have a glass of water with every cup of coffee. Italians, the great masters of coffee, always serve you a tall glass of water next to a very small shot of espresso, and for a very good reason.

All in all, being a coffee drinker is pretty good for your mental and physical health, your energy level, and your ability to focus. However, there are some risks associated with a high intake of caffeine, so make sure you keep it reasonably moderate. This way, you’ll be enjoying only the benefits of drinking coffee, and none of the risks.