Are There Any Benefits to Drinking Coffee?

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

This article originally appeared on page 20 in the June 21-22, 2003 issue.
Reprinted on page 21 in the November 6-7, 2004 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Doctor’s Corner.

Dr K

Caffeine is the most popular drug in the world. Coffee and tea are the most consumed beverages on our planet. Caffeine is found in over 50 different kinds of plants. It is used in soft drinks, chocolates and medicines to stimulate flavor and enhance effect. We Canadians seem to be right up there in consumption. In my travels I seem to stumble on a new coffee source every two minutes. We must differentiate between caffeine and coffee. Caffeine helps promote the taste and stimulate the brain, but only if you are tired. It can raise blood pressure slightly, stimulate gut motility, and perhaps improve mental performance. A newer finding is that caffeine can temporarily stiffen arteries. Caffeine has a role to play in alleviating certain types of headaches and can help control pain. But there has been some concern over other substances found in coffee. Swedish researchers raised the alarm on acrylamide, a cancer causing agent that is found in chips, french fries and many other fried foods. It is not surprising that acrylamide has been detected in brewed coffee as well. There has been no conclusive study to demonstrate that caffeine can cause strokes, heart attacks or cancer when ingested in moderate amounts. But coffee is more than just caffeine. It is a beverage brewed from natural beans, to which we often add copious amounts of refined sugar and artery clogging fats in the form of cream. Two large double-doubles with cream can deliver a maximum daily fat allowance to your system. And so, ingesting coffee this way does pose a health risk for stroke and heart attacks.

It is difficult to issue guidelines regarding quantities. A cup of coffee could contain anywhere from 75 to 180 mg of caffeine. But those figures were derived in the days when cups were 5-oz servings. We of the “tim-coffee crowd” seem to feel that a “cup” is whatever the container will hold, and it is rarely less than 12 oz. I seem to encounter a lot of resistance from the silent coffee lobbyists (yes, there are such groups) when I mention physical dependency. When you ingest more than 500 mg of caffeine on a daily basis, skipping a day is marked with headaches, irritability, and fatigue, all of which are quickly reversed by marching down to the coffee shop. Consuming more than 600 mg daily can put you at risk to suffer insomnia, anxiety, palpitations, depression and stomach problems. Even small doses can produce these symptoms in caffeine-naive individuals. There is an emerging trend in dance clubs to serve soft drinks spiked with high caffeine doses, which I think deserves cautious observation. One perplexing coroner’s investigation had a fellow ingesting 35-40 cups of coffee a day. I still cannot determine how he could physically do it!

Decaffeinated coffee still contains caffeine. I often see patients who switch from regular coffee to decaffeinated coffee but increase their overall intake, a practice that I would discourage, since the associated sugar and fat levels increase. Lastly, one of the greatest myths about coffee is that you can use it to sober up someone. This is completely false since caffeine cannot reverse the effects of alcohol. The bottom line is health in moderation. If you really enjoy the beverage, drink it black. Anyway, it’s time for a cup of coffee. Stay healthy.

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