Updated: Dec 12, 2022
Have you been told that coffee is sabotaging your health? On the contrary, active compounds in coffee and regular coffee consumption have been associated with several health benefits!
Most Americans start the day with a cup of coffee, and we aren’t alone! In fact, roughly 80% of the adult population worldwide consumes coffee on a regular basis. As a self-proclaimed coffee enthusiast, this delicious brew is a vital part of my morning routine.
Coffee has been recognized for its various health benefits for over 1000 years! As early as 4th century BC, coffee was used as a mood stabilizer and often even given as a prescription for various illnesses. Coffee is a blend of several different bioactive compounds that can have beneficial effects on the body.
First and foremost, caffeine. Caffeine is the most well-known compound found in coffee and is the reason most of us drink coffee in the first place. Caffeine is a heat-stable alkaloid that stimulates the central nervous system, acting as an adenosine-receptor antagonist. In simple terms, this means that caffeine binds to certain receptors in the brain, blocking the effects of adenosine. Adenosine is a compound that signals to our brain that it is time for sleep. When caffeine binds instead, we feel energized and ready to take on the day. Caffeine also functions to enhance mood, improve exercise performance, and has even been shown to decrease tremors in individuals with Parkinson’s disease.
You might also be surprised to find that coffee is actually full of antioxidants! In some countries, coffee is actually the major source of antioxidants for the general population (6). A class of phenolic compounds called chlorogenic acids are the main bioactive components responsible for coffee’s abundant antioxidant activity. Several studies have reported that chlorogenic acids found in coffee are largely associated with a decreased risk of diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, and several types of cancer.
Over the years, researchers have also found that brewed coffee demonstrates a significant oxygen scavenging ability. However, longer roasting periods can result in a total loss of chlorogenic acid and overall antioxidant activity. Therefore, light or medium-roasted coffee tends to have the highest oxygen scavenging ability or the highest amount of antioxidants.
Trigonelline is an alkaloid compound found in coffee and is largely responsible for coffee’s bitter taste. Trigonelline has been shown to regenerate dendrites and axons in the brain, which may help to improve memory. Through the brewing process, trigonelline is converted to nicotinic acid or a B-vitamin known as Niacin. Essentially, niacin helps the body utilize the energy in our food.
Cafestol & Kahweol
Cafestol and Kahweol are also major bioactive compounds in coffee. Both compounds are diterpenes, which have been shown to help protect against liver damage as well as prevent premature cell death resulting from neurotoxins produced by Parkinson’s disease.
Coffee has also been shown to be neuroprotective. Researchers believe that this is due partly to caffeine and caffeic acid. Certain studies have found that caffeic acid protects against amyloid β-induced neurotoxicity and tau phosphorylation, which means that coffee can possibly decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and help to support cognition through old age.
Health Benefits for Everyone?
All of these health benefits sound amazing, right? Does all of this prove that coffee is in fact good for everyone? Well, no. Of course not. That would be too simple. Whether or not you experience positive effects from coffee all depends on how you process it!
"Fast" vs. "Slow" Metabolizers
The caffeine in coffee is metabolized by an enzyme in the liver, resulting from the gene CYP1A. Variations in the CYP1A gene affect how quickly you metabolize caffeine. Do you ever wonder why some people are anxious and jittery after just one cup of coffee, while others still struggle to keep their eyes open after 3 or 4 cups? Well, the answer lies in your genetics!
Variations in the CYP1A gene place each of us in one of two groups: “fast” metabolizers vs “slow” metabolizers. Individuals with the “fast” CYP1A gene metabolize coffee roughly 4 times faster than individuals with the “slow” metabolizing variant (9). So how does that affect the health benefits mentioned previously? Well, several research studies have found that for “slow” metabolizers, many of the perceived health benefits of coffee consumption seem to actually have the opposite effect. Moderate to high coffee consumption among “slow” metabolizers has been associated with a higher risk of heart attack, heart disease, hypertension, and a lack of “protective” effects against some cancers when compared to those with the “fast” metabolizing variation of CYP1A (2).
Approximately 50% of the population has the genotype to be considered “slow” metabolizers. With a country divided, this could definitely explain the immense amount of conflicting data surrounding coffee consumption as it relates to overall health.
My Best Advice?
Obviously, not all of us are able to be tested for which CYP1A genotype we have. My best advice? Listen to your body! If you think you are a “fast” metabolizer, go ahead and stumble out of bed each morning to pour yourself a big cup of warm, delicious coffee. If you aren’t sure which group you fall into, just be sure to listen to your body! If you don’t feel like you tolerate coffee very well, then it might be time to swap to decaf or find an alternative beverage to add to your morning routine.
About the Author:
Shelbie Greenville is a Registered Dietitian & the owner of Mindful Nutrition Counseling. She has a bachelor's and a master's degree in human nutrition with a focus in metabolism and chronic disease management. Shelbie specializes in weight loss, diabetes management, insulin resistance, mindful eating, and general health and wellness. Shelbie takes an "all foods can fit" approach to long-term health and wellness.
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