There isn’t a black and white answer to whether coffee is healthy or not. Yes, coffee can provide several health benefits, but it can also pose risks. Ultimately it depends on many factors such as how you drink it, how much and how often, the quality of coffee consumed, and your individual biochemistry (age, weight, body fat, genetics). Each person’s sensitivity or tolerance to caffeine can vary, and can change depending on stress and energy levels, health or medical conditions (including pregnancy), food intake, medication, liver and kidney function, amongst other factors.
How does caffeine work?
The bioactive compound in coffee, caffeine, is the most commonly consumed stimulant and psychoactive substance in the world. The caffeine content in coffee can vary from around 50-165mg.
The average half-life of caffeine is 5-7 hours (depending on the person), meaning that is how long it takes the caffeine to clear and stop having an effect on your body. However, it takes 1.15 days to fully clear caffeine from your system.
When caffeine is consumed, it is metabolized by the liver, absorbed into the bloodstream, then travels to the brain and blocks an inhibitory neurotransmitter called ‘adenosine’. When adenosine is blocked, it allows neurons in the brain to fire more and increase brain activity, as well as increased release of stimulatory neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, adrenaline and dopamine.
This increased stimulation gives us short term improvement in brain cognitive function such as memory, focus, mood, reaction times and energy levels. Studies have also shown caffeine to increase metabolic rate, thermogenesis and fat oxidation short-term.
What are the potential benefits?
The results of these studies are not black and white however. Some research found a lowered risk of mortality and disease rates, whilst others showed a higher risk or no change at all. What was discovered was that heavy coffee drinkers tended to be smokers and/or physically inactive, or may have drank their coffee with added sugar and/or milk, impacting their disease risk. Whether coffee is beneficial to health realistically comes down to overall lifestyle and diet quality.
What are the potential risks?
The take home message is that caffeine affects each of us differently, so listen to your body to find your own tolerance levels. Be aware about how much coffee you drink, time of day you drink it, whether you are getting caffeine from other sources (check your supplements), and how you drink your coffee (i.e. are you adding sugar and milk?). Everything in moderation.