Coffee and Caffeine

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During the 20th century, many foods were considered harmful to the human body. These dietary bad guys, which included nuts, eggs, avocados, and chocolate, have had their images rehabilitated when proper studies have been done. Next in line to receive favorable ratings was coffee.

Earlier studies that blamed coffee for health problems were too small in the number of people tested and lacked statistical legitimacy. For example, some studies in the 1970s and 1980s implicated coffee as the cause of high blood pressure and higher cancer rates. But, back then, coffee drinkers often tended to be smokers and alcohol drinkers. These latter indulgences were most likely the causes for these maladies. Nonetheless, people thought that coffee was a vice, and there was a bias against it.

In later studies, caffeine has been proven to be an important health-benefit. It is the chemical stimulant found in coffee, tea, certain sodas, and chocolate. It is also added to certain painkillers, influenza medications, and other prescription drugs to enhance mental alertness. It is regarded as the most widely used drug worldwide.

Researchers in India in 1999 discovered that caffeine protects against radiation poisoning. It is thought that caffeine neutralizes the hydroxyl radicals produced in the body when subjected to radiation, such as after undergoing x-ray, MRI, or CT scans.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. There are 1 million cases per year with 88,000 of these being melanoma, the deadliest form. In 2002, researchers at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey found that caffeine lowers the risk of skin cancer in lab mice.

Two studies performed by the Harvard School of Public Health showed the benefit of caffeine consumption in decreasing gallstones. The 1st study, published in 1999, tested more than 46,000 men for 10 years and found that coffee drinkers were significantly less likely to develop gallstones than non-drinkers: men who drank 2-3 cups per day had a 40% lower risk, and men who drank 4 or more cups per day had a 45% lower risk. The 2nd study, published in 2002, tested more than 80,000 women and found the same results. This effect was dose-dependent, meaning those who drank greater amounts had greater protection. Decaffeinated coffee gave no protection. The researchers theorized that caffeinated coffee may help the gallbladder clean itself out and prevent cholesterol from forming into stones.

Other studies have shown caffeine’s protective effect against Parkinson’s, the debilitating disease that affects the brain and nervous system. Parkinson’s disease develops when levels of the brain chemical dopamine decrease, interrupting nerve signals from the brain to the muscles. Caffeine increases the effectiveness of dopamine receptors in the brain. In a 2000 study, researchers at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Honolulu had examined more than 8,000 men over 30 years and found that coffee drinkers were less susceptible to this disorder. They reported that non-coffee drinkers were 5 times more likely to develop this disease than those who drank 5 cups a day. A 2001 study by the Harvard School of Public Health had tested over 130,000 men and women. Like the previous study, they found that men who consumed the most coffee had the lowest risk of developing Parkinson’s, and women drinking 1-3 cups a day also benefited.

In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine realized that caffeine given to men and women in military service improved their performance and increased their reaction time. They deemed this important for those people who must perform complex tasks or need help staying alert for long periods. They reported that 1 to 6 cups of coffee “can be used in maintaining speed of reactions and visual and auditory vigilance, which in military operations could be a life-or-death situation.”

Also, athletes have been known to consume 1-2 caffeinated drinks before competition in order to improve performance, especially during an endurance event. Studies have confirmed that caffeine increases muscle strength and stamina as this nervous system stimulant increases the body’s capacity to burn fat for energy.

Greek researchers in Athens in 2002 found that caffeine consumption appears to cause the aorta to stiffen. This is the major blood vessel that the heart pumps oxygenated blood into which then carries that blood to other areas of the body. This aortic stiffness increased blood pressure and the speed of blood flow for a period of 3 hours. If repeated for many months or years, this could lead to degeneration of blood vessels. Although the short-term effects of caffeine were slight, it was significant in increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease. Therefore, it was noted that people with hypertension or heart failure should use caution in drinking caffeinated coffee. For these people, one does not need to quit drinking; moderation is the key.

Although caffeine raises blood pressure temporarily, coffee drinkers are no more likely than non-drinkers to suffer chronic high blood pressure. Caffeine speeds up the heart rate. Because caffeine can aggravate heart arrhythmias or irregular heartbeats in susceptible people, cardiologists advise switching to decaffeinated coffee. This is true also for insomnia sufferers, especially late in the day or evening. Caffeine can also enter breast milk, so nursing mothers should switch to decaf.

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