coffeeIt's a totally mind-boggling fact, but over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are drunk around the world every day. Such is the popularity of this drink, this figure can only increase. Many people adore coffee and can't start the day without a cup of their favourite brew, but the jury is out (and probably partaking of their favourite beverage from their Styrofoam cups as you read) on whether this beverage is good or bad for you.

The Good

The really great news is that dozens and dozens of studies have looked at the effects of drinking coffee and many of them have reported positive findings. Recent research has shown that coffee drinkers are less likely to suffer with Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, dementia or strokes. Studies into high coffee consumption have linked the drink with decreased risk of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer among those who drank four cups or more per day. One study of 130,000 health plan consumers by Kaiser Permanente found that heart rhythm problems (arrhythmia) were 20% less among those who drank 1 – 3 cups of coffee per day.

Plenty of research has investigated the link between drinking coffee and a reduced risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. It is uncertain why the risk is reduced but scientists suggest that coffee drinkers benefit from the antioxidants available in coffee. The nutrients produced prevent tissue damage from oxygen free radicals. Coffee also contains magnesium and chromium which help the body to regulate its supply of insulin. This is hugely important in Type 2 diabetes because the body is otherwise unable to do this itself. Other nutrients in the coffee bean include vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B5 along with potassium.

Another benefit of coffee is that it contains caffeine which is a stimulant. Caffeine blocks the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter adenosine and allows the release of dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that helps us to feel good, alert and focused while norepinephrine gives us some get-up-and-go. It puts the lead in our pencil. Caffeine also raises the metabolism and increases our performance while exercising and improves our cognitive function - particularly as we age.

The Bad

However, in spite of all the good points about coffee, there are numerous disadvantages that should be taken into consideration. Firstly, caffeine is a drug. Coffee is addictive. Like any drug, the more you consume, the more you will need to consume simply to feel 'normal'. You have to increase the amount you drink just to get your usual 'high'. If you can't get coffee you are liable to feel irritable, headachy and tired, much as you would if you were coming off any drug. The caffeine in coffee raises your blood pressure and the epinephrine (which is also known as adrenaline and is the same chemical that gave you your get-up-and-go) can actually cause the body to go into fight-or-flight response, meaning you will become unnecessarily anxious.

Coffee interferes with our normal sleep patterns. It stops you sleeping well. You will sleep less, and less well, than you would without it. Sleep loss builds up over time resulting in sleep deprivation which is extremely dangerous. You will be less alert and may feel depressed. You'll be prone to accidents. Sleep deprivation is a major cause of heart disease and is a factor in obesity. In fact, coffee drinking can cause weight gain simply because it creates a fluctuation in your blood sugar levels leading to cravings for sugary snacks and sweet treats.

Contradictory scientific evidence suggests that over time drinking coffee can increase homocysteine and increase the risk of heart disease, depression, dementia and cancer. In spite of containing nutrients, some scientific evidence suggests that coffee will deplete your personal supply of vitamins and increase the likelihood of diarrhoea, reflux and heartburn. Certainly, coffee drinking raises the risk related to pregnancy - causing iron deficiency in the foetus and a higher risk of miscarriage. At the opposite end of life, excess coffee drinking has been linked with osteoporosis because a cup of black coffee causes the body to excrete calcium, which is vital for strong bones. Coffee will also dehydrate the skin meaning you will be prone to wrinkles and may age before your time.

The Ugly

There are a few final considerations to ponder. While coffee consumption takes place in most industrialized countries around the world, well over 90% of coffee production takes place in developing countries. Figures suggest that over 25 million small producers rely on planting and harvesting coffee to make a living. There is a huge amount of exploitation of both workers and resources.

Bear in mind also that coffee is a plant. Like any plant that needs to be produced in such vast quantities it is a valuable commodity that needs protection from external factors. It is one of the most heavily sprayed crops that the world produces. The plant is loaded with chemicals, pesticides and herbicides and all of these have the potential to make their way into your morning cuppa, or to be absorbed into the water table, poisoning the environment for generations to come. Decaffeinated coffee often has the caffeine removed using a chemical process, so if you are keen to avoid toxins it is best check how and where your coffee is produced and make educated decisions about what you put into your body.

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Image: CoolGuy at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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