My mug selection is almost as important as the coffee itself. Sometimes I may feel nostalgic and reach for my Hello Kitty Eiffel Tower mug; a ridiculously overpriced, irresistible impulse purchase that I picked up many years ago at the Galeries Lafayette department store while I was a student in Paris. Other mornings I may reach for my black and white mug from Trinity College in Dublin. A perfectly contoured mug from the university store of Oscar Wilde’s alma mater, that seems to infuse my coffee with the wisdom of the ages.
There is just something about that morning ritual. In fact, I can’t recall a morning being home when I have forsaken that moment to sit, reflect on my thoughts, and savor that hot cup of coffee. Even when I have to wake up at an ungodly hour to catch a morning flight or a meeting across town, I set my alarm clock just early enough to ensure I have time for that moment.
Like you, I too have rode the wave; that ever changing tide of coffee as panacea or poison. Yet, this was one debate that while I enjoyed to engage in it, the punchline didn’t seem to matter to my ritual. I have long been convinced that the health benefit of that morning ritual extends far beyond the nutrient value of what was in my cup. There is just something about taking a moment a midst the joyfully chaotic lives we lead to simply sit still and experience quiet self-reflection.
While the advantages of a moment of mindfulness may seem somewhat obvious, more and more scientific evidence is emerging that elucidates the profound health benefits of practicing mindfulness. Reported benefits include reducing stress and chronic pain, and improving immune and cognitive function. (1-3) Remarkably, a 2011 study actually found that among participants regularly practicing mindfulness behaviors, there was an increase in the gray matter density in regions of the brain involved in learning, memory processing and emotion regulation. (4)
Mindfulness is a form of meditation, but it is not about sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat; it is about intentionally becoming an observer of yourself – your thoughts, your feelings and your behaviors – in any moment, and without judgment. Just observing during relaxation or during activity, and even just for a few moments at a time.
O.k., I confess… as a doctor, nutritionist, professor and a uber-conscious consumer, as much as I can revel in the ritual and appreciate the ritual for what it is – those of you who know me, know that I would not be letting that coffee touch my lips if I didn’t know about the impact it had on my health.
For some, the stimulating effects of caffeine in coffee can lead to stomach upset, insomnia, headaches, irritability, nervousness, even a rapid heart beat or muscle tremors. Naturally, if you are sensitive to caffeine or if you are under the age of 18, there is no reason to consume coffee. In such cases, the potential harm likely outweighs any possible benefit. Additionally, if you are pregnant, over 300 mg of caffeine a day may put the fetus at risk (5) so it is not advised. (NOTE: 300 mg = ~ 2 to 4 cups of brewed coffee) Furthermore, if you’re the type that will drink coffee all day long, then you are falling into that old dangerous trap of too much of a good thing. One study has even suggested that over 4 cups a day might increase the risk of death! (6) Finally, if your idea of coffee is a moca-frappe-double whip-vanilla-choco-latte then you and I are not referring to the same thing. I am talking about a phytonutrient and antioxidant rich bean that has been ground up and brewed in hot water, you are referring to a liquid cake. Sorry, but the health benefits no longer apply.
The case for coffee
With the caveats in mind, I now get to sing the praises of coffee. So what makes coffee good? As mentioned above, it is an abundant source of antioxidants and phytonutrients. Most famously, it can combat sleepiness and improve alertness. But the benefits may extend beyond these obvious ones. In fact, your morning coffee may also come with distinct anti-cancer benefits. For example, a meta-analysis published earlier this year reported that 2-3 cups a day may decrease the risk of liver cancer by up to 50%! (7)
Other chronic diseases may benefit from that cup of joe as well: a 2009 systematic review found that coffee drinkers had a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (8) and other studies have found that coffee consumption may reduce the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. (9) It also has been shown to reduce inflammation and boost HDL in people with type 2 diabetes (10) and may even help reduce the risk of gout. (11)
One study has even gone so far as to suggest coffee may be the fountain of youth! A study of Greek elders attributed their longevity and low risk of cardiovascular disease to coffee consumption. (NOTE: in this study they looked at the consumption of a specific type of boiled Greek coffee) (12) Other studies have also reported an inverse association between coffee drinking and mortality. (13)
Even the most long held rumor about coffee has recently been debunked. Scientists out of England published a paper suggesting that the dehydrating effect of coffee is a myth. In fact, they claim that based on their findings coffee may be as hydrating as water! (14)
The Bottom Line:
While coffee has certainly been the subject of much controversy over the years, so far it has withstood its critics. It seems that for many of us, the benefits appear to outweigh the risks. As reported by O’Keefe et al., “(up to) 2 to 3 cups (a day) appears to be safe and is associated with neutral to beneficial effects”. (15) Overall, I have enough confidence in its safety and the prospect of its potential goodness to rest-assured that not only is my morning coffee ritual satisfying, but it also appears to support my well-being for reasons beyond the calm, comforting, mindfulness it grants me.
So, that is how I start my day.
In fact, that is also how I end my day. In the evening the ritual is similar, except the coffee is now replaced with a hot cup of my favorite caffeine-free, herbal, Ayurvedic, organic, ginger tea; the brand with the inspirational quote on each packet.
The big question that remains is…
I wonder which mug I will reach for tonight?
A final word: Much of the of the research on coffee’s impact on our health comes from observational studies and not randomized controlled trials. It is therefore important to keep in mind that an association, while encouraging – does not prove cause. Time will tell if coffee is truly a “fountain of youth” or just a benign, neutral beverage that seem to be enjoyed by otherwise healthy people.
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- BMC Med Educ. 2013 Aug 13;13(1):107
- Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine October 2013 vol. 18 no. 4 243-247
- Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. 2011 Jan 30; 191 (1): 36-43
- BMC Medicine 2013, 11:42
- Clinical Gastronenterology and Hepatology, Published 22 October 2013.
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- Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2011 Apr;51(4):363-73.
- Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Apr;91(4):950-7
- Arthritis Rheum. 2007 Jun;56(6):2049-55
- Vasc Med March 18, 2013 doi: 10.1177/1358863X13480258
- N Engl J Med. 2012 May 17;366(20):1891-904
- PLoS ONE 9(1): e84154. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084154
- J Am Coll Cardiol. 2013 Sep 17;62(12):1043-51