Not that long ago, we were warned against drinking coffee because it supposedly increased the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other health problems.
Now, thanks to thousands of scientific studies demonstrating an extraordinary range of health benefits, coffee is considered to be a superfood, on par with berries, dark leafy greens, salmon, green tea, olive oil, and other nutrient-dense foods.
What Makes Coffee Healthy?
Coffee contain hundreds natural compounds, including four bioactive constituents that are responsible for most of its health benefits:
- Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that gives coffee much of its appeal. It binds to receptors in the brain and displaces adenosine, a neurotransmitter that slows neural activity and promotes sleepiness. As a result, caffeine perks you up and increases alertness. It also triggers a mild stress response, which further improves focus and energy. Caffeine modestly boosts metabolic rate and fat burning as well.
- Chlorogenic acid is a polyphenol that gives coffee its astringent taste. The most abundant antioxidant in coffee, it also has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anti-cancer properties as well as positive effects on glucose metabolism. Chlorogenic acid and other antioxidants make coffee a major source of dietary antioxidants—and for many adults the major source.
- Cafestol and kahweol are diterpenes (a type of lipid) present mostly in the oils of coffee beans. They quench free radicals, suppress inflammation, affect insulin secretion and glucose uptake, and inhibit cancer growth.
Each of these compounds is impressive in its own right, but the overall effects of coffee are greater than the sum of its parts. Here are 10 of the top benefits of coffee.
#1 Focus & Energy
Caffeine’s mild stimulating effects wake you up and increase your attention and concentration. That’s why so many people start their day with a cup or two (or three or four) and take a coffee break during the midafternoon slump. Coffee makes you more alert, focused, and motivated.
The boost coffee provides extends to physical energy, which combined with caffeine’s effects on fat-burning and mental focus, underlie coffee’s reputation as an athletic performance enhancer. It’s been shown to improve endurance and strength in a wide range of sports activities.
Higher coffee consumption has been linked with a lower body fat percentage, especially in women. Yet, the research on coffee’s ability to promote weight loss is mixed. For example, a 2020 placebo-controlled clinical trial found that drinking four cups a day reduced body fat by 4%, while other studies showed no benefits.
Coffee may also help to control appetite—or at least take your mind off eating. But don’t forget, there’s a big difference between a cup of black coffee, or one with stevia and little natural creamer, and a Starbucks salted caramel mocha.
Coffee has positive effects on mood. A meta-analysis involving 12 studies and nearly 400,000 participants revealed a significant reduction in symptoms of depression in coffee drinkers. And Harvard researchers reported that the risk of suicide was 45% lower in people who drank two to three cups of coffee a day—and 53% lower in those who had four or more cups.
The stimulating effects of caffeine on brain chemistry and the boost in energy and mental clarity are the primary reasons why coffee helps depression. Be aware, however, that too much caffeine can make you nervous, irritable, and anxious. If you are sensitive to caffeine or prone to anxiety, go easy on the coffee.
#4 Alzheimer’s & Parkinson’s Disease
Regular consumption of caffeinated coffee is also linked with reductions in neurodegenerative diseases. Studies show that coffee is protective against the development and progression of Parkinson’s, and people with a higher intake have a 31%–65% lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
This may be due to a reduced burden of beta-amyloid, the plaque deposits in the brain that are a marker of Alzheimer's disease. Korean researchers found that older people who routinely consumed more than two cups of coffee per day over most of their lives had significantly lower levels of beta-amyloid than individuals who habitually drank less than two cups.
The first thing many migraine sufferers reach for when headache symptoms first arise is a cup of strong coffee. Migraines are vascular headaches, caused in part by swelling of blood vessels, which impinges on nerves and causes pain. Caffeine helps headaches by slightly constricting dilated blood vessels.
It also increases the effects of aspirin, acetaminophen, and other analgesics, which is why caffeine is included in Excedrin, Anacin, Midol, and other pain relievers.
#6 Liver & Gallbladder
Caffeine affects liver function by slowing the development of scar tissue, thus protecting against the progression of cirrhosis, hepatitis, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Multiple studies reveal that drinking more than three cups of coffee a day is associated with a lower incidence of NAFLD.
Coffee also protects against gallbladder disease. A high intake lowers your risk of developing gallstones by as much as 23%. If you have a history of gallstones, drinking coffee may prevent recurrences.
Compounds in coffee have positive effects on the secretion of insulin and the uptake of glucose by the cells. There is strong epidemiological evidence that coffee reduces the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes—and the more you drink, the greater the protection. I don’t need to remind you to go easy on sugar and high-calorie creamers, as they may negate this protective effect.
I have been asked if coffee is okay for diabetics. It probably is, but coffee affects everybody differently, and it makes blood sugar control more difficult for some people. If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, talk to your doctor, monitor your levels, and cut back if you notice spikes after drinking coffee.
#8 Heart Disease
Coffee is highly cardioprotective. Caffeine may cause a short-term increase in heart rate and blood pressure, but this makes your heart stronger over time. And rather than triggering arrhythmias, coffee actually reduces the risk of developing atrial fibrillation and other heart rhythm disturbances. The only cardiovascular caveat is that oils in unfiltered coffee may raise cholesterol levels. However, most Americans drink filtered drip coffee, so this is not a major issue.
A Harvard meta-analysis of 36 studies concluded, “Moderate coffee consumption was inversely significantly associated with CVD risk [including heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and cardiovascular deaths], with the lowest CVD risk at 3 to 5 cups per day, and heavy coffee consumption was not associated with elevated CVD risk.”
Thousands of studies have examined the relationship between coffee and various types of cancer. Although results are conflicting, coffee consumption appears to be associated with a reduced risk of melanoma and cancers of the liver, endometrium, breast, prostate, and colon. Chlorogenic acid, cafestol, and kahweol deserve most of the credit, since decaf coffee is also protective.
You may have heard about acrylamide, a potentially toxic compound produced in foods heated at very high temperatures, such as grilled meat, fried foods—and roasted coffee beans. I am not dismissing this out of hand because all coffee is made from roasted beans. However, the bulk of the scientific research makes it clear that coffee does not cause cancer.
Last but not least, coffee may increase longevity. A 2018 study published in JAMA, which tracked nearly half a million people for more than 10 years, revealed that those who drank one, to more than eight cups, of coffee daily had a lower risk of death from all causes, compared to nondrinkers.
Instant and decaf coffee also conferred longevity benefits, underscoring the importance of chlorogenic acid and other phytonutrients in coffee.
The average American coffee drinker has a little more than three cups a day, but benefits have been observed with as little as one to more than eight cups.
There is no one “dose” that’s right for everyone. Caffeine can make you jittery and interfere with sleep, and genetic differences in how the body metabolizes caffeine may prolong its stimulating effects. It can potentially affect blood sugar control in individuals with diabetes, plus the acids in coffee may cause intestinal upset. If you have a medical concern or notice any adverse effects from coffee, talk to your doctor.
Drip coffee prepared with a filter, as opposed to French press or espresso, removes most of the oils that could raise cholesterol. Whole coffee beans ground just before brewing retain more antioxidants. Certified organic, sustainably grown (fair trade, Rainforest Alliance) coffee is preferable for your health and from an environmental and humanitarian perspective.
Finally, you don’t have to take your coffee black, but be mindful of what you put in it. Excessive sugars, flavorings, artificial creamers, etc., can undermine the health benefits of this superfood.