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Coffee & Health

These pages discuss the various issues relating to coffee and health. Although we have obtained permission from the various sources to reprint their articles, please do not take these information as a form of authoritative or medical materials. They are presented here purely for reference and reading pleasure.

Most of the materials presented here deals with the issue of caffeine and the effects on pregnancy, general health such as headaches as well as the positive effects of coffee. Though some of the materials are similar in content, they were taken from various sources so that the reader can judge for themselves appropriately.

Caffeine is an alkaloid. There are numerous compounds called alkaloids, among them we have the methylxanthines, with three distinguished compounds: caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine, found in cola nuts, coffee, tea, cacao beans, mate and other plants. These compounds have different biochemical effects, and are present in different ratios in the different plant sources. These compounds are very similar and differ only by the presence of methyl groups in two positions of the chemical structure. They are easily oxidized to uric acid and other methyluric acids which are also similar in chemical structure.

Sources: Coffee, tea, cola nuts, mate, guarana.
Effects: Stimulant of central nervous system, cardiac muscle, and respiratory system, diuretic. Delays fatigue.

Sources: Tea
Effects: Cariac stimulant, smooth muscle relaxant, diuretic, vasodilator.

Sources: Principle alkaloid of the cocoa bean (1.5-3%) Cola nuts and tea.
Effects: Diuretic, smooth muscle relaxant, cardiac stimulant, vasodilator. 

Cholesterol Problems. More recent studies have associated claims of increased cholesterol to coffee oils and not directly to caffeine, as previously believed. These coffee oils are mostly extracted when brewing coffee with paper filters, the oils are left behind during the brewing process.

Heart Problems. The 1980s studies relating heart problems to excessive coffee drinking (five cups or more), were discarded by a more recent report which showed no increase in heart attacks for people who drank six cups of coffee or more. Drinking decaf coffee showed no drop in cholesterol levels.

Cancer Problems. In 1981, a Harvard research linked coffee to pancreatic cancer. At least seven major studies failed to confirm this link. The original researchers retracted their findings five years later. Similar scares linking coffee to breast cancer have been discarded by later studies. A Harvard study of 121,700 nurses found no risk of breast cancer associated to coffee. In actuality the study revealed fewer nurses with breast cancer among those drinking coffee than with abstainers. [Note: This study did NOT conclusively establish that drinking coffee reduces breast cancer.]

A similar inverse relationship was established between coffee drinkers and colon/rectum cancer. A Boston University study of 5,138 cancer patients concluded that there was a 40% lower risk of developing colon cancer for those drinking five cups of coffee or more.

Pregnancy Problems. Premature birth and low birth weight has been also associated, in the past, to coffee consumption. More recently, smoking has been found to be the major culprit in pregnancy problems. However, the Food And Drug Administration still advises prudence and moderation with coffee, during pregnancy. [Note: We fully agree with eliminating or reducing coffee, tea, cocoa, soda and any other harsh food intake during pregnancy; it is not worth taking the chance. No study is conclusive enough in one way or another.]

Osteoporosis Problems. There is some evidence to link caffeine to a negative effect with calcium metabolism. Women who drink caffeinated products lose more calcium through urine and tend to have less dense bones than non-caffeine drinkers. Drinking at least a daily glass of milk for every two cups of coffee may offset the calcium loss.

Weight Loss. Here are some good news for weight lose enthusiasts. Caffeine increases the caloric burning rate. According to a Danish study of normal weight volunteers, one cup of coffee has been found to raise the metabolic rate by three to four percent. This caloric burn rate is even greater with exercise. Caffeine seems to make body fat more readily available as fuel to exersizing muscles. Muscles work longer before they fatigue.

Is caffeine harmful to me?

Experiments conducted in the recent past, trying to link birth defects, cancer and coronary heart disease to the intake of coffee (caffeine) have been unsuccessful or conflicting at best.

Physiological effects of caffeine on the human body are somewhat understood and well documented. The main physiological effect of caffeine appears to be as a stimulant of the central nervous system and most of the effects observed are behavioral in nature. Caffeine is associated with an increase in intellectual activity, but this seems to be significant only when the individual is fatigued or bored. Similarly, caffeine has been linked with sleeping problems and although there is evidence to support this, the variation from individual to individual is considerable.

Caffeine has also an effect on the cardiovascular system by relaxation of the smooth muscles of blood vessels and an increase in heart output. However, the observed increase in blood pressure disappeared after repeated ingestion of caffeine (250 mg. 3 times a day for 7 days). The reasons for this adaptive process are not clear.

Caffeine has been proven to increase gastric acid secretion, therefore is a preferred after-meal beverage. Although there is no clear evidence to link excessive coffee consumption with incidence of peptic ulcers, coffee (caffeine) ingestion is clearly undesirable for ulcerated persons. Persons with ulcers should avoid the increase gastric acids in their stomachs.

Pregnant women should reduce the intake of coffee, tea, soda or any caffeinated beverage to moderate amounts. Caffeine intake in moderation is believed to be safe during pregnancy, as stated by the US Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association.

In 1991, caffeine was blamed by a Swedish study as contributing to the increase in cholesterol level. In 1994, this report was discredited as confusing coffee lipids with cholesterol contributing agents. Decaffeinated coffees were more recently linked to increases in cholesterol. This study was later proven conflicting and doubtful. Another study later showed caffeine contributing to the decrease in cholesterol, this is also doubtful.

The coffee controversy is not new, it has been continuing for centuries long. The first controversy dates back to the introduction of coffee into Europe. Pope Clement VIII was asked by the Roman clergy to ban the brew because it was the "Devil’s drink". Well, this was a retaliation move for the Islam banning wine as a "Demonic drink". Fortunately, the Pope liked the coffee so much he blessed it, converting it into a Christian beverage. The 15th Century coffee houses, became so popular that they were identified as dens of immorality and vice.

Coffee houses and coffee were extremely popular in the 17th Century London (they were the origin of Lloyd’s of London and many other big enterprises). Historians claim that coffee houses drew men from their homes making lonely wives (banned from coffee houses) angry at the beverage. A petition drafted complaining, requesting the closure of these coffee houses and a large advertisement in favor of tea, converted this coffee loving nation into tea drinkers. Colonial America would have followed London’s tea preference, with the exception of the "Boston Tea Party" which changed all that and much more.

Be your own judge, most people can enjoy coffee on a regular basis without adverse effects. Moderation is key, but moderation is differently measured by each individual.

Why it’s Good for the Body

Much study and research has been performed to prove the reactions that coffee has upon the human body. For example, in October 1970, in Venice, the first Bio-pharmacological Symposium on coffee was held. The year after, in October 1971, Florence played host to the second convention and, in 1972, the third convention, held in Vietri by the sea, integrated and completed the exhibition of the properties of the active ingredients contained in coffee, clearly outlining the positive effects and discrediting the negative prejudice commonly diffused in the past. During these conventions experts in the fields of Dietetics, Nutrition and Human Physiology stressed the therapeutic nature of coffee, a beverage which, in a society like ours, helps to combat physical and mental stress, strongly characteristic symptoms of life today.

Why it’s good for us

From the nutritional point of view coffee is not an indispensable food. However, some of the substances it contains have beneficial effects upon the body.

The habit of consuming it every day doesn’t lead to dependency, even after long periods of time. Naturally, as with every food, it is necessary to avoid abuse and consumption in excessive amounts in order to prevent the occurrence of side effects. The most common effects of coffee on our bodies are the following. Coffee is classed as a “nervine” product that generally acts upon the nervous system, creating a feeling of wellbeing, encouraging the consumer to be alert and active at work, not only from a physical point of view but also in activities which require prompt reflexes.

Who needs caffeine?

This stimulation comes from caffeine, combined with caffettanninic acid (a mixture of various acids including chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid). Caffeine, an alkaloid discovered by Runge in 1820, is found in the seeds and leaves of the coffee, tea, cocoa, cola and maté plants. This is why in several countries (Island of Sumatra, for example), decoctions are made from the roasted leaves. A cup of coffee contains approximately 5 cg of caffeine and its stimulating action, which lasts between one and two hours, goes to work on the cerebra-spinal nervous system, reawakening the mental faculties, fighting off tiredness, boredom, fatigue, mental as well as physical, and depression. It improves the memory, the ability to absorb information, intuition and concentration and facilitates the perception of sensorial stimulants. It calms headaches and migraines in general. The positive effects of caffeine on the upper nerve centres have been tested using the conditioned reflex technique: given in therapeutic doses it increased the speed of conditioned reflexes, while it reduced their period of latency.

The advantages for heart, liver and lungs
The beneficial action of caffeine extends as far as the heart and can therefore be used in pharmacotherapy as a cardiotonic. Furthermore it improves the one of the arteries without altering blood pressure, and also improves coronary circulation. Remember that the action on the heart is secondary, and is not detectable in usual doses of 2-3 cups a day. This is especially true with regard to those that can be classed as negative actions, such as tachycardia.

The lungs also benefit from the stimulating action of a cup of coffee. The dilatation of the bronchi improves, as does lung ventilation, thus facilitating breathing.

At muscular level, coffee improves the capacity for muscular concentration, reduces tiredness, and improves the co-ordination of movements and sporting performance. This is why coffee is recommended to athletes, as it relieves fatigue, especially in sports which require stamina, when fatigue takes over and movements become heavy.

At everyday level it stimulates the vasomotor nerves and therefore facilitates digestion. This makes coffee ideal not only to wake you up first thing in the morning, but also at lunch and dinner, as it goes to work on the stomach lining, encouraging the secretion of gastric juices, initiating and improving the digestive process.

It activates the production of bile in the liver and the contraction of the gall bladder. It aids movement in the intestine, improving its functions. Other positive effects of a good cup of coffee are felt by the kidneys, in which the renal arteries dilate thus improving diuresis.

It stimulates the adrenal secretion of the endocrine glands (cortex/cortisone, etc.; medullar/adrenaline), and, last but not least, stimulates the function of the thyroid and metabolism.

The scarce calorific value of coffee shouldn’t be underestimated, as this means it can be consumed freely without adverse effect upon calorie-controlled diets.





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