Health Break | Published August 7, 2006 | Written by Andrea Yevchak, RN

Coffee Drinkers Can Perk Up To Health Benefits

As I sit down to write this article, I have just finished my second cup of coffee this morning, a morning ritual for me and about 108 million Americans. Do I need coffee to start a day? Probably not, but without this small treat my day just isn't quite the same. The surprising benefits to indulging in coffee every morning are just starting to appear.

Recently published studies report that coffee is high in antioxidants, and could possibly contribute to preventing type II diabetes, an ever-increasing medical epidemic. Recent evidence also suggests that moderate coffee consumption (1 to 3 cups daily) may lower an individual's risk for Parkinson's disease and colon cancer, as well as relieve headaches, uplift mood and prevent cavity formation.

Research in this area is the newest "buzz" among major universities, including Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., which has an Institute for Coffee Studies (ICS). According to the ICS, coffee can also be linked to suicide prevention, decreased risk of liver cirrhosis and cardiovascular death.

The purpose of this research center is to study the many compounds of coffee and their benefits, in hopes of preventing certain diseases, as well as helping coffee producers develop more beneficial brews.

Overall, the health benefits of moderate coffee consumption outweigh any negative consequences. For example, over six studies have shown that individuals who drink coffee regularly are 80 percent less likely to develop Parkinson's disease, according to Vanderbilt's ICS.

The focus of current investigations is to examine why coffee does what it does. Most of the effects can be attributed to the higher amount of caffeine found in coffee compared to soft drinks or tea.

Caffeine is a known stimulant and the most widely self-administered drug. It can improve mental performance by stimulating the brain, which is the mechanism researchers believe makes coffee beneficial in the prevention of Parkinson's disease and now possibly even Alzheimer's disease, according to WebMD. The consequences of increased caffeine consumption include increased blood pressure, cholesterol levels and heart rate.

In addition to caffeine, coffee contains multiple antioxidants, which are linked to cancer prevention and other benefits. Antioxidants are found in many foods, most widely known are fruits and vegetables—which also provide other vitamins, minerals and health benefits—but the majority of Americans consume their antioxidants in the form of coffee. The compounds in coffee—called polyphenols—are helpful, but coffee does not contain as many nutrients as fruits and vegetables.

In the end, science claims that more research is warranted before coffee can be claimed as a "healthy" beverage. In the meantime, nutritionists recommend that in moderation, 1-3 cups daily, coffee can be beneficial.

Coffee can interfere with sleep and activity patterns, so an afternoon caffeine "jolt" can be provided by tea, which also has multiple antioxidants and potential health benefits.

Also, the studies that have been conducted were performed on regular black coffee, not coffee with extra sugars, milk and sweeteners. Remember that these extras can also mean extra calories if you are watching your diet, so choose skim milk over whole and try to add less sugar to your morning brew.

So, here's to drinking to my health. I think it is time for that third cup of coffee.

Andrea Yevchak is a registered nurse on the Medical/Surgical and Orthopaedics Unit at Mount Nittany Medical Center.