The Health Benefits of Coffee

How does drinking coffee help your body and your brain? Are there differences to the health benefits of coffee versus espresso? Let's discuss the science behind a good cup of joe.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #195

Reasons to Drink Coffee

The practice of drinking coffee dates as far back as the 15th century. Although the growing the coffee plant likely originated in what is now Yemen, legend has it that the power of coffee was first realized by a goat herder in Ethiopia. The herder noticed that his goats became energized and had trouble sleeping after eating the beans.

Despite our long history with the brew, we are still discovering new additions to the list of benefits of drinking coffee. Here are ways drinking coffee helps your body and your brain:

1)   Coffee lowers the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease: One study showed that drinking 4 to 5 cups of coffee a day cut the risk of developing Parkinson’s Disease in half (compared to drinking little or no caffeine). Another recent study found that drinking coffee actually lessened the effects of Parkinson’s among those who already had it.

2)   Coffee offers protection from type 2 diabetes: A study tracking changes in caffeine intake (thus at some level controlling for individual lifestyles) found that those who decreased their coffee consumption by more than one cup per day simultaneously increased their risk of type 2 diabetes by 17%. Those who drink more than three cups of coffee per day reduce their chances by as much as 50%.

3)   Coffee lowers rates of depression: A study of more than 50,000 women in the US found that, while all of the participants began the study free of depression, those who drank more than three cups of coffee per day were found to have a 20% lower risk of developing depression later. Studies including other sexes also found a decreased risk of depression but to a lesser degree (around 10% lower risk). Interestingly, other caffeinated beverages, like sodas, are more likely to increase depression rather than combat it.

4)   Coffee is a great source of antioxidants: Antioxidants help our bodies combat cell damage. While fruits and vegetables are also great sources of antioxidants, studies show that our bodies may absorb them more readily from coffee.  

5)   Coffee lowers the risk of liver damage: Too much alcohol consumption damages the liver, and can eventually lead to liver cirrhosis and even liver failure. A study of over 125,000 people found that those who drank at least one cup of coffee per day were 20% less likely to develop liver disease.

6)        Coffee protects against heart disease: Multiple studies have linked coffee consumption to both reduced risk of coronary heart disease and possibly a moderate reduction in the risk of stroke among women.

Among the nearly 70 different kinds of plants that produce coffee beans, the most popular are Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora Robusta. The Arabica beans tend to contain more of the chemicals associated with positive effects on the brain while the Robusta variety usually contain more caffeine and chemicals linked to lowered risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The Negative Effects of Coffee

So are there any downsides to drinking coffee? The bitter taste of coffee acts as a warning sign that too much coffee, a kind of alkaloid, is not a good thing. Many alkaloids are toxic, so that bitter taste is our body’s defense mechanism, warning our brain not to consume too much.

Current recommendations suggest not surpassing 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (about 3 to 5 cups of coffee, depending on your brew of choice). Too much coffee, and thus caffeine, can lead to anxiety, increased heart rate, and a lack of sleep.

The health benefits of coffee can also depend on what you are putting in your daily cup of joe. An 8 ounce cup of black coffee only contains about two calories but a tablespoon of cream will add another 50 calories. A 16-ounce Starbucks Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha with whipped cream clocks in at over 550 calories, so again, not all cups of coffee are created equal.

The sign hanging over the coffee machine in my office claims, “Coffee has a distinct smell that helps us forget how hard it is to be awake.” (And there actually might be some real science to back that claim.) Science seems to be telling us that we can drink up guilt free, but as with most things, moderation is likely key.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com

Image courtesy of shutterstock.


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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.