What Is Caffeine? Health Benefits, Risks, and Sources

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People often talk about drinking coffee as being a guilty pleasure or a bad habit, namely because of the caffeine. But it doesn’t just perk you up, it also can be a major perk for your health. The breadth of the research is on how coffee affects health, rather than caffeine alone. While it’s true that coffee does contain other beneficial compounds (like chlorogenic acid and antioxidants), it’s also the most widely consumed source of caffeine.

In fact, 80 percent of caffeine is knocked back as coffee. (19)

As long as you’re drinking your coffee black or with a hit of milk (rather than sugary syrups), it’s also a healthy way to get caffeine, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines. If you want to understand just how your caffeine habit may be shaping your health, you’ve got to look at the coffee research. Here’s a look into just what it may do, based on observational research.

Just keep in mind that while these studies suggest a link between drinking coffee and the health benefit, this does not indicate a definite cause-and-effect relationship:

Boost Brain Health When people consumed 200 mg of caffeine after studying images, their memories were enhanced for up to 24 hours later, giving credence to the idea that caffeine can shore up long-term memory, according to a study published in January 2014 in the journal Nature Neuroscience. (20)

Safeguard Your Heart In a study that looked at 185,855 people ages 45 to 75 — including African-Americans, Native Hawaiians, Japanese-Americans, Latinos, and whites — coffee drinkers who sipped two to three cups a day saw their risk of death due to conditions like heart disease and stroke drop by 18 percent compared with non-java drinkers, noted a study published in August 2017 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. (21)

Help You in the Gym When caffeine breaks down, it turns into a few compounds that affect blood flow, fat burning, and oxygen capacity notes the American Council on Exercise (ACE). (22) You may find that drinking a small cup before going to the gym (especially in the morning) can make you feel more energetic and ready to tackle the exercise challenge. In fact, ACE cites research showing that a small, 6- to 8-oz cup of a caffeinated beverage may be beneficial.

Protect Against Cancer A review published in November 2017 in the journal BMJ looked at 201 meta-analyses and found that drinking coffee was associated with an 18 percent lower risk of cancer. The authors recommend sticking to three to four cups of coffee a day. Specifically, they found that coffee can decrease the odds of prostate cancer, endometrial cancer, melanoma, nonmelanoma skin cancer, and liver cancer. Why? Coffee is rich in disease-fighting and anti-inflammatory antioxidants, and caffeine also has antioxidant properties. (23)

Prevent Diabetes If you drink coffee here and there, you may consider boosting your brew. In a study published in April 2014 in the journal Diabetologia, men and women who increased their coffee consumption by 1.5 cups a day benefited from an 11 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes over a four-year period compared with those who didn’t start sipping more. On the other hand, those who dropped two cups a day had a 17 percent higher risk of the disease. While that sounds promising, senior author Frank Hu noted that other lifestyle measures are likely more important than coffee (or caffeine) alone. “But coffee is only one of many factors that influence diabetes risk. More importantly, individuals should watch their weight and be physically active,” he said in a press release. (24)

Delay Dementia While research isn’t conclusive that coffee or caffeine may prevent Alzheimer’s, it may help prevent those suffering from mild cognitive impairment from progressing to dementia, suggests a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. (25) Those who developed dementia had 51 percent lower caffeine levels in their blood compared with those with MCI whose disease didn’t advance. Caffeine may interact with a component in coffee to increase levels of a growth factor that stymies Alzheimer’s progression, the authors note in a press release. Three cups of coffee are the ideal amount, they said. (26)

Stave Off Depression In one study, over 50,000 women who didn’t have depressive symptoms were followed for 10 years. Those who drank two to three cups of coffee a day had a 15 percent lower likelihood of suffering from depression compared with those who had less than a cup per week. The stimulant effect of caffeine may boost your sense of well-being and energy, the authors note. It may also play a role in releasing happy chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin.

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