Coffee: risks and benefits

I love coffee. But is it good or bad for health? This is a common conundrum, so I thought I'd break it down: the risks and benefits of drinking coffee.


Although coffee is not a great source of minerals or vitamins, it has high levels of antioxidants. Specifically, it contains flavonoids that have antioxidant properties that are similar to those in fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants are protective against free radical damage that leads to accelerated symptoms of aging and degenerative diseases. Studies have shown that coffee can be protective against cirrhosis of the liver, Alzheimer's disease, depression and Parkinson's disease.

However, most of us aren't thinking about the antioxidants in coffee when deciding to drink a cup, we're likely thinking about the caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant, which can increase alertness, make us feel more energized and improve focus. It does this by filling up receptors in the brain that are usually filled by adenosine. In this way, caffeine blocks the effect of adenosine, which is a byproduct of chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters. As neurotransmitters are produced throughout the day, they leave behind adenosine. Normally, this build up of adenosine eventually signals to your brain that you have been awake and active for long enough and are drowsy and need to sleep. However, caffeine mimics the shape of adenosine, and takes the place of adenosine in the adenosine receptors in the brain, so you don't feel tired! So, when you have that important presentation, need to study for a big test or have to power through a few hours of tedious paperwork, coffee can ward off drowsiness and get you through.

Additionally, coffee can boost athletic performance and increase the "afterburn effect" (which is an increase in post-exercise caloric expenditure). 


As mentioned above, the caffeine in coffee can help to improve alertness, when consumed in moderation. However, when consumed in excess it can cause anxiety, irritability, heart palpitations and even precipitate panic attacks. Also, coffee reduces iron absorption and increases urinary calcium excretion, so drunk in excess it can lead to anemia and osteoporosis. 

People with a certain genetic mutation that impairs the break down of caffeine can experience elevations in cholesterol, and an increase in heart disease risk, if they drink more than 2 cups of coffee a day. Here, again, moderation seems to be the key.

For some people, the caffeine in coffee can lead to difficulty sleeping. Sometimes this can be remedied by avoiding coffee after 2PM, but occasionally, the cure will be to stop drinking coffee all together. Also, with continued use over time, coffee over-stimulates the adrenal glands, leading to adrenal fatigue, which makes you feel more tired....which makes you want more coffee. This can lead to a coffee addiction. And over time coffee needs tend to just increase. Remember the adenosine blocking effects of caffeine? Well, your body is smart and it will try to adapt by creating more adenosine receptors, to signal to you when you are tired/drowsy. However, we often ignore this and just drink more coffee to get the same effect, creating a vicious cycle.


Enjoying one cup of coffee a day provides the benefits, without the risks that come from drinking too much coffee. If you don't already drink coffee, I am not advising you start, but one cup a day, and maybe two on special occasions, is not going to be detrimental to your health and actually provides some health benefits. However, some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others and may experience the jitters or difficulty sleeping even with one cup. So, of course, if you are one of those people, coffee is best avoided! And there are some conditions that are worsened with coffee consumption, including fibrocystic breast disease, peptic ulcers, gastritis, anxiety, insomnia, iron deficiency anemia and osteoporosis, so it is best to avoid coffee if you have these conditions.

For those of you who do drink coffee regularly, consider taking a month long break, once a year, to give your adrenal glands a rest and break your dependence on coffee once in a while. I know that this can be challenging, as the withdrawal symptoms can be rough for some. There are supplements that can be helpful in avoiding the withdrawal symptoms, and ear seeds can help with the cravings, and I would be happy to help guide you through the process. When you re-introduce coffee, you may find that you decide to enjoy it just a couple of times a week, rather than every day.

One last thing, if you're drinking coffee, please skip the fancy syrups, sugar and artificial flavorings. None of that is going to do you any good, no matter which way you look at it! And, when you can, choose organic coffee beans to avoid the pesticides that are often used on coffee.

In health,
Dr. Khaira