the health benefits of coffee

All About Coffee | 15 Science-Backed Health Benefits & More

After water, coffee is one of the most universally consumed beverages in the entire world. It’s such a significant part of our everyday that it’s easy to forget that coffee, too, is a medicinal plant. However, as wonderfully beneficial as coffee can be, it can have an equally impressive dark side too. Here are 15 science-backed health benefits of coffee that include everything from increased metabolism and liver health to its broad, beneficial effects on our digestion.

Meet Coffee (Coffea spp.)
Botanical Background
Coffee Through History
Science-Backed Health Benefits of Coffee
The Healthiest Kind of Coffee
Possible Side Effects
Coffee FAQs
Resources & Further Reading

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coffee beans

Meet Coffee (Coffea spp.)

Coffee might not seem like it needs much of an introduction. However, because it’s so much a part of our every day, it’s easy to forget that this beloved beverage comes from a plant that does, in fact, have many nutritive and medicinal properties. Coffee has become another casualty of a food system that maintains such a divide between the food that ends up on your plate (or in your cup) and the dirt that it was grown in.

How often do you think about where your coffee came from, much less than the small tree the coffee beans grew on or the hands that harvested and then roasted them?

A cup of coffee is not much different than drinking a tea of medicinal herbs. We forget that coffee comes from a medicinal plant and can, in fact, be medicine.

the health benefits of coffee
White coffee flowers and ripe coffee cherries. Image via Canva

Botanical Background

  • Coffee is part of the Rubiaceae family, also called the madder family. This family is one of the largest plant families with over 500 genera and more than 6,500 different species.
    • Relatives of coffee include Gardenia jasminoides (common gardenia found in many gardens), Rubia tinctora (common madder, one of the largest sources of red dye), and Cinchona officinalis (source of quinine used to treat malaria).
  • Coffee is native to Ethiopia, but is now cultivated all over the world. It’s primarily found in the equatorial regions of Central and South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
  • Plants in the Coffea genus vary widely in size. Their leaves may also vary in color and different species have different growing requirements.
    • But in general, Coffea spp. is a woody, evergreen shrub with oval or elliptical-shaped opposite leaves that are typically a glossy, deep green.
  • The Coffea genus consists of ~25 species, but 2 of those account for the majority of all commercial production:
    • Coffea arabica (Arabica coffee) – ~60% of worldwide commercial coffee production
    • Coffea canephora (Robusta coffee)
  • The flowers of the coffee plant are white. They grow in clusters at the leaf axils and are said to be very aromatic, resembling the smell of jasmine.
  • Coffee beans are the seeds of the berries, called cherries, that ripen from green to red.

A Very Brief History of Coffee

Coffee didn’t spring out of the coffee cherry womb as the massively popular, stimulating, and crave-worthy beverage it is today. There’s a long and fascinating history that I won’t even pretend to be able to share in any way that will do it justice.

The history of coffee includes a tangled and dark web of ecological destruction and the obliteration of indigenous cultures. It’s the cause of much bloodshed that’s not often (or ever) talked about over a cup of Joe.

It’s believed that coffee was in cultivation as early as 575 AD, about 1500 years ago. Legend has it that an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi discovered coffee. He noticed that his goats became more energetic, jumping around and bleating loudly, after having eaten red berries from some nearby plants. Curious, Kaldi tried some for himself. And thus are the origins of the world’s caffeine habit that has endured the test of time.

Nonetheless, coffee likely didn’t start out as a warming good-morning beverage. It’s more likely that the beans were chewed and/or ground and rolled into balls with ghee as a energy snack for long journeys or battle.

After a scuffle with some monks over coffee beans being the devil’s work that accidentally ended in the world’s first cup of coffee, the monks decided that coffee was actually very helpful in keeping them awake during their spiritual work.

And that, my coffee-loving friends, is the origin of the world’s most popular stimulating beverage.

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coffee beans

15 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Coffee

Today, coffee is the most highly consumed psychoactive substance in the entire world! It’s no secret that coffee has amazing stimulating effects. Many of us can’t start our days without it! And while caffeine does play a big role in the medicine of coffee, there is so much more to this plant!

Here are 15 science-backed health benefits of coffee:

1. The Incredible Antioxidant Power of Coffee

It’s been said that one of the biggest and most consistent sources of antioxidants in our diets is from coffee! And that’s just because we drink so much of it! While the antioxidant activity of coffee beans varies widely with the variety (Arabica vs Robusta), type (green/un-roasted or roasted) and manner of processing (light, medium, or dark roasted), it remains high across the board. In comparison, coffee’s antioxidant capacity is on par with green tea and cacao.

Why are antioxidants so important? It’s because our exposure to oxidative stress is constant!

Whether it’s caused by environmental factors, poor quality food, certain medications, smoking, alcohol abuse, or any number of the physical, mental, or emotional stressors we face, oxidative stress is one of the most prominent causes of premature aging and numerous inflammatory diseases.

With coffee having such a high antioxidant capacity, it’s a highly valuable plant medicine for the times.

Coffee is a chemically complex plant! The most potent antioxidant in green (un-roasted) coffee beans, chlorogenic acids, are largely destroyed in the roasting process. However, through roasting, other potent antioxidants are formed!

2. Digestive Health & Coffee

As a general stimulant, coffee also stimulates healthy digestion. The bitter properties of coffee are no secret, and it’s no wonder so many are apt to load their cups with cream and sugar. As we drink coffee, the bitter properties of the coffee increase the secretion of gastric enzymes, helping us to better digest the foods we eat.

Plus, the phenolic compounds in coffee can help to encourage the growth of beneficial bacterial in our guts. This serves to reduce inflammation, which in turn, help us to better absorb nutrients from the foods we eat.

And you may have also noticed coffee’s laxative effects? That’s because coffee increases the peristalsis (muscular contractions) of the colon, aiding us in healthy elimination.

On the other hand, coffee may be too intense for some and can actually be really hard on your digestive system as well. If coffee is hard on your digestive system, generally you know and can feel the unpleasant effects.

3. Liver Health & Coffee

Over the years, several studies have demonstrated coffee’s positive effects on many chronic liver diseases. It has even been found beneficial for heavy drinkers. And on account of the incredibly damaging effects that excessive alcohol consumption can have on our livers, not to mention our general health, this is a win for coffee!

While the mechanism is still not fully understood yet, its beneficial effects on the liver are thought to be due to coffee’s high antioxidant activity and its ability to decrease fat accumulation in the liver.

Coffee has also been associated with a reduced risk of liver cancers and also appears to be able to inhibit the replication of Hepatitis C virus.

4. Kidney Health & Coffee

Coffee, the stimulator of all things, even has a stimulating effect on our kidney function. As a mild diuretic, coffee can help the body get rid of excess sodium and other metabolic wastes by increasing the amount of fluid we’re getting rid of through urine.

This action is likely the culprit of a long-held stereotype that coffee is dehydrating. However, the diuretic effect of coffee is pretty mild and doesn’t actually cause a loss of any more liquid than you’re taking in. If anything, coffee stimulates our kidneys to better do the job they’re meant to do anyway.

Nonetheless, if you’re sensitive to caffeine, it may cause headaches. And because headaches are a common symptom of dehydration, coffee often gets the blame. Drinking lots of water is an important part of a healthy lifestyle regardless, perhaps even more so if you enjoy lots of coffee.

5. Fatigue & Coffee

This might seem like a no-brainer. Coffee, the best part of waking up? For millions and millions of people, it really is. Coffee has been fueling night-shifters, late night study sessions, long days, and monotonous tasks for a very, very long time.

Drinking coffee is known to increase alertness and decrease many symptoms of fatigue such as lack of energy and mental or physical exhaustion.

It’s a helpful mask for fatigue that can help us get through whatever we may need to. But what goes up, must always come down, and it’s no substitute for sleep.

6. Pain Relief & Coffee

The pharmaceutical industry has long used caffeine in many analgesic (pain-relieving) medicines, both prescription and over-the-counter. Coffee’s pain relieving abilities are due to several different factors:

  • Coffee stimulates the release of dopamine and endorphins that act as natural pain killers
  • Coffee can bind to and block receptors in our brain that play a role in how we perceive pain

Considering the possible negative side effects that many pain killers, both prescription and over-the-counter, come with, coffee may be a safer alternative if, again, you’re not sensitive to caffeine. However, the greater your tolerance to caffeine, the lower its pain relieving effects.

7. Mental Health & Coffee

A study has found that drinking coffee can help to reduce the risk of depression by up to 30%! And in general, studies have shown that coffee drinkers are less depressed. It’s thought that this effect is due to coffee’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, as well as its beneficial effects on our gut microbiome and digestion.

This speaks a lot to the fact that when our bodies are healthier, we’re happier. The greatest benefit to mental health was observed to be associated with drinking at least 2 cups of coffee a day.

8. Physical Performance/Endurance & Coffee

I fully admit that I had no idea that many athletes use caffeine to help increase their stamina, strength, and overall physical and mental performance until researching for this post. Nonetheless, coffee has been found to be a suitable “pre-workout” of sorts to help many physical performance activities such as sprinting and even walking speed in men over 80. For athletes and other physically active people, the caffeine in coffee can give just enough boost for better strength and endurance.

9. Type 2 Diabetes & Coffee

Type 2 diabetes is a disease on the rise! Luckily, there are so many plant medicines, like chamomile, that may help in preventing Type 2 diabetes by way helping to regulate blood sugar and insulin resistance. Nonetheless, medicinal plants are still just one part of a larger and necessary shift towards a healthier lifestyle.

One 2018 study found that coffee consumption is inversely related to the risk for type 2 diabetes. For each cup per day of coffee consumed, the researchers found a 6% decrease in risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

And it’s believed that coffee’s high antioxidant capacity, anti-inflammatory properties, and its positive impact on our gut micro-biomes are to thank for this reduction in risk.

10. Cancer & Coffee

At one point there was question about coffee actually being a carcinogen due to a potential cancer-causing chemical produced in the roasting process. This theory was further fueled by the fact that many coffee drinkers also tend to be smokers. Since smoking cigarettes is associated with an increased risk of all kinds of cancers, it was hard to separate the two.

However, more recent studies have shown that coffee consumption can actually lower the risk of some types of cancer including prostate, liver, and endometrial cancer, as well as some mouth and throat cancers. This is due in large part to its high antioxidant activity.

11. Alzheimer’s & Parkinson’s Disease & Coffee

Due to the short-term stimulating effects of caffeine on our central nervous systems, coffee may also have a beneficial effect on cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. While many studies have confirmed this potential health benefit, there are some that have found no benefit. Accordingly, the general consensus in the scientific community seems to call for further research.

12. Longevity & Coffee

Can drinking coffee help you live longer?! With all the beneficial health effects of coffee, it wouldn’t be all the surprising. A 2018 study found that drinking up to 8 cups of coffee a day may slightly lower the risk of early death by 14%.

13. Weight Management, Metabolism, & Coffee

As a stimulant, coffee can help to burn calories! A 2019 study found that the consumption of coffee can help reduce abdominal fat in overweight individuals due largely to its chlorogenic acid content, a potent antioxidant. In fact, daily consumption of coffee containing high amounts of chlorogenic acid was found to help significantly decrease overall body fat.

14. Asthma & Coffee

Caffeine can act as a bronchodilator, helping to open airways and improve breathing capacity for up to 4 hours after consumption. So for those who suffer from asthma, drinking coffee may be beneficial in preventing asthma attacks.

15. Happiness & Coffee

There’s an incredible amount of pleasure that comes with drinking coffee. Maybe it’s the ritual itself, the socialization opportunities, or all the amazing health benefits we’re drinking in every time we sip on a cup of coffee.

Nonetheless, there are actual scientific studies to confirm that coffee is, indeed, happy juice. One study found not a single negative emotion associated with coffee drinking and even dove deeper to infer the following:

  • Coffee drank in the morning is associated with activity, energy, and kindness.
  • Social consumption of coffee is associated with activity, friendship, affection, yearning, good nature, satisfaction, and pleasure.
  • Coffee consumed leisurely is associated with tranquility, sweetness, peace, and happiness.
the health benefits of coffee (ripe & unripe coffee beans on a coffee plant)
Ripe (red) and unripe (green) coffee cherries. Image via Canva.

The Healthiest, Most Ethical Kind of Coffee

In a world of so many coffee and coffee drink options, you might wonder which is actually the healthiest kind of coffee. And the answer is pretty simple.

The healthiest kind of coffee is always a plain cup of black coffee. And to be more specific, the most potent health benefits will always be found in a brewed cup of organic, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee that’s either enjoyed black or with very minimal additions of sweetener and/or dairy.

coffee beans

Possible Side Effects of Coffee

Coffee is one amazing plant that can have some serious side effects! It’s not an appropriate food or medicine for everyone. For every health benefit, it almost seems there’s an equal and opposite possible negative side effect.

The biggest reason is the caffeine! While some hyper-metabolize caffeine (process it quickly and might even be able to drink a cup of coffee right before bed), others have trouble processing caffeine. Those that don’t process caffeine as quickly might get jittery or anxious, or experience headaches or stomach upset.

Here are a few of the most common negative side effects of consuming coffee:

Stress & Anxiety: Coffee stimulates the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. If you have a tendency towards stress and anxiety, coffee may actually make it worse.

Heartburn & Acid Reflux: For those who have sensitive digestive systems, and already experience symptoms of poor digestion like heartburn or acid reflux, coffee may make things worse.

Celiac Disease, IBS, & Non-Celiac Gluten-Sensitivity: The high caffeine content of coffee can actually trigger an over-reaction of the bowls and cause nausea and diarrhea. Some have likened these symptoms to those of celiac disease, IBS, and non-celiac gluten-sensitivity. If you regularly experience these symptoms, coffee might actually be the culprit.

Caffeine Tolerance: However valuable the many health benefits coffee may have, it’s best consumed in moderation. In general, the more coffee you consume, the higher your tolerance for caffeine will become. The headache relief you once found in one cup of coffee might take 3 or 4 cups of coffee down the road in your coffee-drinking journey. What’s more is that should you decide to stop drinking coffee, caffeine withdrawals are a real and unpleasant thing.

The Consensus on Coffee

Coffee is amazing, but too much of a good thing is never a good thing. Here’s the consensus on coffee:

  • Enjoy coffee (and caffeine in general) in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle and diet.
  • Drink it black if you can. Otherwise, use sweeteners and cream, especially in moderation.
  • Avoid coffee if you’re sensitive to caffeine. The symptoms of caffeine sensitivity, such as headaches or increased anxiety, can contribute to such a lower quality of life and just aren’t worth the risk.

Coffee FAQs

Why is coffee bad for you?

Whether or not coffee is bad for you is entirely individual. The same compounds in coffee that make it such a health-promoting beverage can also have the opposite effects on certain people. Coffee may not be the best choice of beverage for you if you:

  • regularly experience digestive issues
  • experience high stress and anxiety
  • are pregnant and/or nursing

Another reason coffee may be bad for you is not actually due to the coffee itself, but instead, the things you might be putting in your coffee. Excessive amounts of dairy and sugar can turn a healthy antioxidant, anti-inflammatory beverage into a not-so-healthy beverage. Many of the fancy flavored lattes, such as the popular pumpkin spice latte, have loads of sugar and even artificial flavorings and colors.

Why does coffee make me sleepy?

It’s true, coffee can have the complete opposite effect of the one you were hoping for. Why? It seems counter-intuitive, but the reason coffee makes you sleepy is the caffeine! And if you’re getting sleepy from drinking coffee, you’re probably drinking too much of it.

Caffeine blocks the chemical that makes you feel sleepy (adenosine) from binding to its receptors so that your body is unable to process it. However, just because your receptors are blocked doesn’t mean the body stops producing adenosine. Instead it just piles up and when the caffeine wears off, the over abundance of adenosine can make you feel really sleepy.

And if we’re going to be real, if you’re adding lots of sugar to your coffee, that’s another reason you may crash and burn.

Is it healthy to drink coffee every day?

The health benefits of coffee make it perfectly suitable every day kind of drink unless you’re sensitive to caffeine. If drinking coffee makes you jittery, anxious, or exacerbates digestive issues, coffee is probably not an appropriate beverage for you.

Which is better for you: coffee or tea?

I’m going to be honest: this is a loaded question. Both coffee and tea have incredible health benefits, and actually contain many of the same beneficial phytochemicals. But as far as which is healthier when it comes down to numbers, there are so many factors that can have an effect.

It can largely depend on the type of tea (eg. black, green, white, etc), the type and processing of the coffee (ie. Arabica vs. Robusta, roasted vs. un-roasted), and whether or not you’re enjoying your tea and/or coffee plain or with sweeteners and dairy.

However, in a very general sense, here’s the deal:

  • Coffee generally contains a higher amount of caffeine.
  • Tea generally shows greater antioxidant activity.
coffee beans

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Resources & Further Reading

the health benefits of coffee

DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.

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