Cheer Up! Have a Cup of Coffee

Coffee BeansThe news first came out in late September, 2011 (in the Archives of Internal Medicine), but websites, medical newsletters, and the popular press are still writing about this new benefit of coffee-drinking:  in a long-term study that included more than 50,000 women, coffee was found to lower the rate of depression.  Caffeine, the abstract of the research results points out, “is the world’s most widely used central nervous system stimulant, with approximately 80% consumed in the form of coffee.”


The research results indicated that compared to those who drank little or no caffeinated coffee, women who drank 4 cups a day were 20% less likely to become depressed, and those who drank 3 cups a day were 15% less likely to suffer from depression.   This is just one more possible benefit of coffee-drinking which can be added to many others already known.  However, there are also many disadvantages and harmful effects attributed to too much caffeine.  Let’s dig a bit deeper into the significance of this study and other scientific data about coffee-drinking.


Possible Benefits of Drinking Coffee


The results of this study do not necessarily mean that coffee drinking coffee should be a treatment for depression.  (The best treatments are therapy and medication.)  However, they may mean that coffee is protective against depression. Most adults are well-acquainted with coffee’s short-term effects, described by Sonja Rosen, M.D., medical director at the Geriatric Unit at Santa-Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital: “When you drink coffee, the caffeine that occurs naturally in coffee beans is absorbed quickly by your body and stimulates your central nervous system.  As a result, you feel more energetic, less fatigued, and better able to concentrate.”  Perhaps the main reason that people drink coffee is because it has this temporary effect of making them feel better and better able to cope with life. 


However, Dr. Alberto Ascherio (of the Harvard School of Public Health) and his team of researchers were looking at the long-term results of chronic use of caffeinated coffee.   The women they studied had an average age of 63, and none was depressed when they enrolled in the study.  The team focused their research on coffee, but their findings were similar when they looked at caffeine consumption overall, including caffeinated soft drinks and chocolate.  Ascherio said that there have been few studies of long-term coffee consumption. Quoted in a Reurers article, Ascherio said,  “One smaller study in Finland showed men who drank a lot of coffee were less likely to commit suicide.” More studies are needed before it can be concluded that coffee should be used to treat depression., he added.


A recent article in Consumer Reports on Health provided the following information about other possible benefits from coffee:  “Coffee contains antioxidant compounds called polyphenols that might help regulate blood sugar and prevent deadly clots.” The article goes on to say that regular coffee consumption has been associated with a longer life—primarily because of a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes.  This information came from a 2008 study of almost 130,000 people followed for two decades.


How Much Coffee Is Okay?


The December, 2011 UCLA Division of Geriatrics newsletter says that more than 600 milligrams of caffeine a day may cause health problems. It mentions these undesirable side effects of excessive caffeine: heart palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, tremors, and nausea. Too-frequent urination may also bother some coffee-drinkers.  Consumer Reports on Health says, “Most healthy adults can safely consumer up to 300 milligrams of caffeine daily (roughly three 8-ounce cups of coffee); pregnant women, less than 200 mg.”


Possible Side Effects You Don’t Want


But coffee is not a healthful drink for everyone.  A Consumer Reports on Health article entitled “The buzz on caffeine” says the following: “Caffeine can increase blood pressure and can aggravate heart arrhythmias.  However, if you consume caffeine on a regular basis, you develop a tolerance to most of its side effects.” Coffee is not addictive, the article says, but one can become dependent upon it and experience withdrawal symptoms (such as a headache or lethargy) when it isn’t available or allowed.  


There are many people who, because of various medical problems, shouldn’t drink caffeinated coffee at all or should consume only a cup or so a day, depending upon their doctor’s advice. According to the UCLA Division of Geriatrics newsletter, the list would include those who suffer from high blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, palpitations, tremors, and noncancerous breast lumps.  (My own doctor’s advice also allows me to add reflux problems to this list.)  This is probably not an exhaustive list.


Filtered Coffee or French Press?  Which is Better?


According to Dr. Neal Benowitz, professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco, “French press or boiled coffee has chemicals that can raise cholesterol.  But filtering coffee removes those chemicals, and in fact, filtered coffee can actually protect the heart because it also contains antioxidants.” 




Archinte.ama  “Coffee, Caffeine, and Risk of Depression Among Women”


Consumer Reports on Health  “Coffee or tea: Which for thee?” and “The buzz on caffeine”
January 2012.


UCLA Division of Geriatrics newsletter “Coffee Linked to Lower Rate of Depression in Women,” December 2011.  “Coffee linked with lower depression risk in women” “Coffee may reduce depression risk for women”


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