Donders Wonders

Could coffee harm or help you?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world, together with water, tea, and alcohol. But do we know if coffee is healthy? When is it too much?

Image by Annelies (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Setting a clear coffee guideline for everyone is an impossible task because people are just too different. In short, it is wise to drink ‘not too much, not too often’. Coffee sensitivity can differ a lot: two cups of coffee in the morning can be fine for one person, but it can be too much for someone else. This has to do with how we process caffeine (the active substance in coffee) in our body.

The reason for differences in coffee sensitivity

We have proteins in our body that can break down the caffeine in our system. This way it doesn’t stick around for too long, disappearing before it can become harmful. These proteins are also important in explaining the differences in coffee sensitivity. There is variation in the genes concerning the building blocks of the proteins that break down caffeine. Some versions are much more efficient than others, which can lead to huge differences. Where John could have no traces of caffeine after 4 hours, this could take a hypothetical Jane up to 10 hours!

There are a few typical things influencing how quickly we can break down caffeine. Nicotine actually accelerates this process, so smokers will generally have a lower caffeine concentration in their blood. Oestrogens in the contraceptive pill will slow the process down, meaning that caffeine will stay in your blood a lot longer if you are on these contraceptives.

Who should pay extra attention?
There are a few groups of people who’d do well drinking less or no coffee at all. If you are pregnant, drinking more than 3 cups of coffee a day can be bad for the baby. It can slow down the growth of the baby and slow down the baby’s brain development.

Coffee also gives you an increased risk of heart problems and cardiovascular disease if you drink more than 5 cups of coffee a day for a prolonged period of time. It could also worsen anxiety problems: people prone to anxiety reported higher anxiety levels and more panic attacks when drinking coffee than without. Of course, if you are suffering from sleeping problems, coffee would be one of the first things to quit, especially during night times.

Safe for most
Apart from these special cases, it seems that coffee, in moderate to low doses, is pretty safe. Actually, scientists found that in some specific cases coffee might in fact help. They found that for people with diabetes type 2 the course of the disease was slowed in the case of moderate coffee consumption (although they didn’t have a clear idea why). We do know that coffee can increase your metabolism, and there are reports that people’s performance was better after drinking a cup of coffee.

In short, coffee is one of those habits which require a good dose of common sense (and sensibility). If you’re not sleeping, have shaking hands, or are anxious all the time, you might want to cut down on that coffee! If you’re fine, it doesn’t do too much harm at least in a healthy moderation.

If you want to find out how coffee keeps you awake, you can read more on this here!

This blog was written by Annelies.  Edited by Jeroen.


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