The Coffee Paradox

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Most people drink coffee for energy, alertness or productivity and try to quit it for health concerns. It turns out however, that if your goal indeed is productivity, you’re better off without coffee consumption, and if you’re concerned about health, then you should keep drinking it. I personally drink coffee, perhaps even a bit too much and I don’t intend to quit it.

But let me explain the aforementioned paradox. It can be explained in terms of 2 things: addiction & health benefits.

Addiction

Caffeine is addictive. There’s no doubt about it. When you get addicted to caffeine you can’t function without it. You need it to wake up in the morning. You need it to keep functioning throughout the day. If you skip your dose, you feel sluggish, lethargic, sleepy, drowsy, and you might even get a headache. So many times I jokingly said : “Wait until I finish my coffee and become a human being again.” Without coffee I am almost like a zombie, only instead of going around looking for brrraaaaiiinnnsss, I look for coffeeeeee!

Now imagine being perfectly able to wake up and get alert in the morning without any coffee. Imagine being able to stay productive whole day at work without the need for coffee breaks. Remember when you were a child, you were able to play whole day with other children, or to follow the lessons at school, without ever sleepiness getting in the way of it. You were a functional human being, not a caffeine zombie.

But now that you have become a caffeine zombie, it’s not all that bad. First of all, as long as you get your daily doses, you can still be a perfectly functional human being. And second, and more important: coffee has many health benefits, that are often overlooked.

Health benefits and concerns

When it comes to health effects of coffee it has always been a very controversial topic. One day they say it’s bad for you, the next day, it’s good for you, and so on. In recent years however, the scale seems to be tipped in the positive direction, so the main message is: coffee is good for you, keep drinking it. However it’s not that simple.

2017 meta-analysis of multiple health outcomes concludes that coffee is probably safe within usual levels of intake, with most benefits associated with intake of 3-4 cups per day. I recommend that you read the full article as it really dissects effects of coffee on many of various diseases and summarizes years of research. What I will say is: it’s not that simple. Coffee has clear positive influence on some conditions and negative influence on others. Yet the overall effects seem to lean in the positive direction. However, the study also says that “existing evidence is observational and of lower quality, and randomized controlled trials are needed” so the results are not yet definitive. One particular concern is pregnancy: higher consumption of coffee is associated with: pregnancy loss, low birth weight and premature birth. Also there’s quite strong association between coffee intake and acute leukemia in childhood. So my overall advice would be: children should avoid coffee, pregnant women should likewise avoid it or at least limit coffee intake. For all the rest, positives seem to outweigh negatives, so drink your coffee, unless you’re in some risky groups with already elevated risk for certain conditions that coffee seems to impact negatively.

Positive effects of coffeeNegative effects of coffee
Associated with lower all cause mortality risk even at highest consumption levels (7 cups per day), while the benefit is greatest with consumption of 3 cups per day.Associated with higher risk of acute leukaemia in childhood.
Associated with a lower risk of mortality from all causes of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke in a non-linear relation, with summary estimates indicating largest reduction in relative risk at 3 cups a dayAssociated with increased risk of lung cancer (though studies that controlled for smoking show diminished risk, and there was no association for never smokers)
Associated with lower risk of liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and especially chronic liver disease.Associated with the risk of pregnancy loss when consumed in higher quantities.
Associated with lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.Associated with higher risk of lymphoma.
Associated with lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.Associated with higher risk of urinary tract cancer.
Higher consumption associated with lower gout risk.Associated with low birth weight when consumed in higher quantities.
Higher consumption associated with better survival after myocardial infarction (heart attack).Associated with higher risk for rheumatoid arthritis when consumed in higher quantities.
Higher consumption associated with lower leukaemia risk.Associated with premature birth, when consumed in higher quantities.
Associated with lower risk for non alcoholic fatty liver disease.Associated with higher risk of laryngeal cancer when consumed in higher quantities.
Associated with lower risk of chronic kidney disease and urinary incontinence. Higher consumption associated with lower risk of renal stones.Associated with slightly increased risk of endometriosis.
Associated with lower risk of liver fibrosis.Associated with slightly increased risk of hypertension.
Higher consumption associated with lower risk of oral cancer.Associated with slightly increased risk of gastric cancer.
Associated with lower risk of colorectal cancer.
Higher consumption associated with lower risk of diabetes type 2.

I personally drink coffee every day and I don’t intend to quit. However, as you’ll see soon, not every coffee is the same. Particular attention should be payed to instant coffee as it might have higher concentrations of some carcinogenic substances than regular coffee.

Avoid instant coffee if you can; Don’t drink coffee that’s too hot

Instant coffee contains twice as much acrylamide as regular coffee. Studies say that it’s still within safe limits, but when we are dealing with a substance that is both carcinogenic and neurotoxic, it’s better to be safe than sorry. While instant coffee provides all the same benefits that regular coffee does, there’s no reason to choose it over regular coffee when you can make that choice. Not only does regular coffee taste better, but also why risk something when you don’t have to. Regular coffee is always a better choice.

Here’s a study on acrylamide neurotoxicity.

And here you can find an article exploring acrylamide’s carcinogenic effects.

Another word of advice: don’t drink your coffee too hot, not only will you burn your tongue, you may also increase your risk of esophageal cancer. According to some studies, very hot drinks (over 65°C) may increase risk of cancer of esophagus.

To sum it up

Unless you are a pregnant woman, a child, or a person susceptible to some types of cancers (such as bladder cancer), coffee is most likely good for you. It has especially beneficial effects on liver health, lowering the risk of liver cirrhosis, liver cancer, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and chronic liver disease. It’s also beneficial for your central nervous system lowering the risk of both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. When it comes to keeping your alertness and energy, coffee will give you some edge, but it is also addictive and paradoxically our productivity may plummet if we depend too much on it.

Still, I value health more than productivity, so I’ll stay happily addicted to my daily Java fixes. 🙂

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