Coffee: a jolt of good health

If you’ve always thought of coffee as a vice, it’s time for a wake-up call. Coffee is actually a natural product with much more healing potential per cup than the highly (and erroneously) touted green tea.

As I reported in the April issue* of Insiders’ Cures, you may have to drink 16 cups a day of green tea to get the optimal health benefits. But with coffee, you can get substantial health benefits from as little as two cups a day.

New research on coffee and caffeine continues to show benefits for both body and mind. A few cups  a day can help lower your risk of diabetes, keep your liver healthy, stave off depression, and dramatically reduce your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

And another recent study of more than 400,000 men and women ages 50 to 71 years found that over a 13-year period, people who drank coffee were less likely to die from any cause than those who didn’t.1

I’ll share more details on these benefits in just a moment. But first, it’s interesting to examine the evolving attitudes towards coffee.

Attitude change is brewing

When I was a child, I was routinely given “café au lait” which is  milk with a little coffee, warmed up together (it has a different taste and texture than adding cold milk to hot coffee). But as I got older, I became aware that coffee was considered a stimulant, a crutch, and even a vice.

I didn’t want any of that, so I gave up this tradition, and all through college, medical school, and even my hospital medical residency, I never drank coffee (to the amazement of friends and colleagues).

In the early 1980s, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine appeared to back up my choice.  It reported that coffee drinking was associated with an increased risk of deadly pancreatic cancer.

But not long thereafter, it was found that this research only applied to decaffeinated coffee, which can use toxic chemical solvents during the decaffeination process. I realized it wasn’t the caffeine that was bad; it was the chemicals.

So, finally, when I became a Florida State Medical Examiner in Miami-Dade County, I started drinking coffee regularly. Really, it became a matter of survival. I would be called in the middle of the night and had to navigate territory larger than the size of Rhode Island, including large portions of the (then-trackless) Everglades, to conduct scene investigations—then go straight to the morgue that morning to conduct the post-mortem examinations.  My record was 10 cases over a 24-hour period. And, thanks to coffee, I was able to get through it.

But it wasn’t just helping me get through long nights and days.  I also found that drinking a cup of coffee helped me with congestion from seasonal allergies without antihistamines and their awful side effects. This effect makes perfect sense, since the caffeine expands respiratory passages.2  An ingredient in tea called theophylline has the same potential, but I found a couple cups of tea didn’t do the trick—it just isn’t strong enough.

From a medical standpoint, I saw the tide begin to turn toward coffee about 20 years ago. Around that time, I was asked to talk about coffee for a syndicated health TV program hosted by Mike Rowe (more recently, you might know him as the host of the popular show “Dirty Jobs” on The Discovery Channel). I figured it would involve cautioning viewers about possible detriments to their health. But as I did the preparatory research, all I found were early hints about all of coffee’s possible health benefits.

I enjoyed being interviewed by Mike Rowe and found him to be an unusually well-informed and perceptive reporter. He struck me, even then, as a guy who was always willing to get his hands dirty for a story.

Since then, the health research supporting coffee has just kept expanding. Let’s take a look at the latest science showing how coffee and caffeine can help keep both your body and brain healthy.

Coffee, no sugar

A new study reports that drinking just two cups of coffee a day reduces your chance of getting diabetes by 12 percent.3

And another new study of more than 130,000 men and women shows for the first time that increasing your coffee consumption by as little as one cup a day reduces your diabetes risk by 11 percent.4

How does coffee do it ? Researchers, always wanting to find the single “magic bullet” active ingredient, believe the caffeine in a cup of coffee may increase a hormone called adiponectin that affects insulin and blood sugar levels. Although, as usual, this is really only part of the explanation. A natural compound like coffee has many different physiologic activities.

Love your liver

We’re hearing a lot more these days about liver toxicity, which is often caused by acetaminophen (Tylenol), anti-depressants and other drugs. In fact, liver disease—including liver cancer, hepatitis, and cirrhosis—is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.5

Of course, the new drugs to treat liver problems  are minting more new multibillion-dollar biotech companies. But what big pharma doesn’t want you to know is that a few cups of coffee a day can keep your liver healthy, without the side effects of drugs.

A new study of more than 60,000 people in Singapore found that over a 15-year period , there was a strong association between higher coffee intake and lower risk of liver inflammation and death from liver failure.

In fact, researchers found that drinking two or more cups of coffee per day reduced the chances of dying from liver failure by a whopping two-thirds, or 66 percent.6 Meanwhile, green tea, black tea, and fruit juice had no impact on the risk of liver failure.

What’s on your mind?

Antidepressants like Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil have been shown to cause liver toxicity and are only really effective for about 15 percent of people who are clinically depressed (see the Daily DispatchPopular drugs help only 1 in 7 patients.”*)

But now, there is evidence that coffee is effective at treating both liver toxicity and depression.

In the study of 400,000 people I mentioned above, researchers looked at all types of beverage consumption, including coffee. They discovered that people who drank four or more cans of soft drinks a day had  a 30 percent higher chance of depression. That number increased to 38 percent for people who drank fruit drinks.

But for people who drank four or more cups of coffee a day, depression risk decreased by 10 percent. No association was observed for iced tea or hot tea.

But there is a caveat. Adding artificial sweeteners (but not sugar or honey) to your coffee actually increases your risk of becoming depressed.

Finally, a  new review of 13 studies found the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease was 31 percent lower for coffee drinkers.

This research backs up other studies showing that coffee can have a powerful effect on Parkinson’s disease. The caffeine in coffee is thought to affect the parts of the brain that control the onset and progression of the disease.

Considering all of this evidence, it seems coffee has a lot more going for it than helping to keep you awake. In fact, my “Miami vice” may very well end up being touted as the next health drink.


1 Freedman ND, et al. Association of coffee drinking with total and cause-specific mortality. N Engl J Med. 2012;366:1891-1904

2Martinet Y, et al. Effects of coffee on the respiratory system. Rev Mal Respir. 1992;9(6):587-92.

3 Jiang X, et al. Coffee and caffeine intake and incidence of type 2 diabetes mellitus: a meta-analysis of prospective studies.Eur J Nutr. 2014 Feb;53(1):25-38. doi: 10.1007/s00394-013-0603-x.

4 Shilpa Bhupathiraju et al. Changes in coffee intake and subsequent risk of type 2 diabetes: three large cohorts of US men and women. Diabetologia, April 2014 DOI: 10.1007/s00125-014-3235-7

5 Saint Louis University Liver Center. Liver Disease Facts. Accessed May 14, 2014.

6 Boon-Bee Goh G, et al. Coffee, Alcohol and Other Beverages in Relation to Cirrhosis Mortality: The Singapore Chinese Health Study. Hepatology; (DOI: 10.1002/hep.27054)