The Age Old Question: Is Coffee Healthy?

by Harley Taff

A review of the 2020 study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

If you drink something everyday – in a lot of cases, all day – you’re going to wonder about the effects on your health. Anything and everything can affect your health both positively and/or negatively, especially if you consume a lot of it on a regular basis. 

When I mention a drink many people consume every single day, the first thought for most is coffee. Three out of four (75 percent) Americans consume coffee on a regular basis (National Library of Medicine). It is no wonder that the discourse on the effects coffee has on one's health has been extensive and exhaustive. 

For a long time it was argued that coffee is bad for the human body, but societies since ancient times have always expressed the ways that coffee can benefit a person. In ancient China, coffee was believed to cure insomnia – which many people now attribute their lack of sleep to, ironically.

In the mid 16th century, physicians argued about the effects of coffee, some saying it was good for heating up the body while others claimed coffee dried up certain fluids in order to cool the body (Boissoneault). 

From its inception, over centuries, coffee has been studied and debated. But the love for the drink did not keep millions of people from drinking it, despite not knowing for sure what coffee did for you (other than keep you awake, of course). 

But now, with the science and technology we possess in the 21st century, we are finally able to answer the question: is coffee healthy? 


Coffee and Your Health

Now, I must first strongly emphasize my lack of medical knowledge. I am in no way a doctor, not even close to having the knowledge of a medical receptionist even. This is not a blog of medical advice in the slightest. I present you with facts founded by people much smarter than me. That being said, let’s get to what all of you really want to know: Is Coffee Healthy?

In the past few decades, coffee has gotten a bad reputation. It was even listed as a possible carcinogen in the nineties by the World Health Organization. However, that was rescinded in 2016 after an abundance of new studies about the world wide popular drink were published. 

Most notable is the study that took place over 10+ years and was finally published in 2020 by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Nutrition Source: Coffee), that did a deep dive into every health issue coffee is said to affect. From cancer, to type 2 diabetes, to depression, coffee was finally analyzed to its fullest extent. 

Of course there are adverse side effects of coffee, but that usually is dependent on a person's pre-existing conditions. For example, anyone with acid reflux probably already has a hard time consuming coffee because of its high acid content. Someone with high anxiety might not deal with the caffeine in coffee very well. 

However, with Harvard’s new study, the whole coffee community can let out a breath of relief because coffee is… healthy. Yes, yes, congratulations are in order. I know many people will just take that and run, rubbing it in all the faces of coffee haters and “tea is better” people. But I am certainly curious about more. Just what does coffee do to the body? 

The biggest debate in and out of the coffee world was whether or not coffee can cause or amplify cancer and of course that was the first question Harvard resolved.

Instead of being a carcinogen that amplifies cancer cells, coffee is found to do the exact opposite. Coffee interferes with the growth of cancer cells, in some cases, leading to the cancer cells’ death. It can also lower inflammation which can enhance carcinogens in the body. Another way coffee can help eliminate deadly cancer cells is it “may stimulate the production of bile acids and speed digestion through the colon, which can lower the amount of carcinogens to which colon tissue is exposed” (Nutrition Source: Coffee). Which is major, because I remember a myth about coffee growing up was it was bad for your colon – a myth that had cost Timm many cups of coffee he could have been drinking at my all day volleyball tournaments. 

For type 2 diabetes, it was discovered that participants in the study that drank up to 10 cups of coffee showed a 30% decrease in the risk of getting the disease. Moving on to heart health, four cups or more of coffee lowers the risk of having a stroke by 20%. There is a same decrease in risk for Parkinson’s Disease when comparing those who drank multiple cups of coffee a day to those that drank none. 

Depression showed up less in the lives of the folks who consumed a lot of coffee everyday when compared to non coffee drinkers. Specifically, they “found a 24% reduced risk of depression when comparing the highest (4.5 cups/day) to lowest (<1 cup) intakes of coffee” (Nutrition Source: Coffee).

Drinking many cups of coffee a day even affects one’s mortality. According to the School of Public Health, it was found that those who drank at least four cups of coffee were 15% less likely to die from “all causes” that include the ones we discussed previously. That percentage only increases with each cup of coffee. 

All these benefits are included in drinking decaffeinated coffee also, the percentages are usually halved. 

So the general consensus? It’s easy to see that drinking coffee everyday is tremendous in reducing the chances (and effects) of many chronic diseases. The dark crux of coffee is what nearly all coffee drinkers love most about the beverage - the caffeine. 


What About Caffeine?

As we praise coffee for its newfound health benefits, we can’t forget about caffeine. Caffeine is the chemical – sometimes even classified as a drug – that people desire and rely on when they brew or buy a cup of coffee. 

It’s the substance that stimulates the brain and sends jolts of energy through the bloodstream. It wakes people up in the morning, helps them focus, boosts energy, and gives them a sense of carpe diem. These are all great things that help non-morning people – like me, unfortunately – get through the day. 

However, as such is life, there are downsides. 

The first obvious negative effect is anxiety. Caffeine is a stimulant that increases one’s breathing and heart rate. It can heavily affect the nervous system which can cause jitteriness, muscle spasms, restlessness, and insomnia. People who already experience these things without consuming caffeine find these symptoms heightened to sometimes dangerous degrees. 

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health did an extensive study on caffeine just like they did coffee. This study found that caffeine had harmful consequences on numerous health conditions including sleep, anxiety, weight management, pregnancy and infertility, liver disease, gallstones, neurological disease, asthma, and diabetes, which directly contradicts the benefits coffee itself provides (Nutrition Source: Caffeine). These drawbacks are real, and something we should think about when consuming obscene amounts of coffee. 

The study we discussed early says that one should consume at least four cups of coffee a day in order to receive the benefits coffee has, but can people handle that level of caffeine? 

Do not despair, however. It is said that the gains one can get from drinking coffee can overshadow the faults in consuming caffeine. That is, if one can handle the stimulant. Plus, decaf and half caf coffee does exist. Drinking something that tastes and smells like coffee can have a kind of placebo effect and still give someone energy.

Secondly, as I said earlier, caffeine can be classified as a drug and as such is addictive. When I say many people rely on coffee to start and get through the day, I mean they cannot function normally without it. Caffeine withdrawals are real and although not as intense – and potentially deadly – as alcohol or narcotic withdrawals, they are still not pleasant. 

Depending on the person and their genetics and pre-existing conditions, drinking coffee is not an option for them just because of the caffeine. Lucky are those that can process the stimulant without any complications.

All in all, if this is the biggest problem we have to worry about when it comes to coffee, it is still safe to say that the world wide popular drink is still healthy. So, coffee lovers, chug that hot (or cold) bean to your heart's content. 

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