As college students who go through many sleep-deprived nights, we often indulge ourselves in a cup of coffee to help us stay awake during our first morning class. Of course, we attribute this miracle property of coffee to caffeine, one of the most well-known and widely-accessible stimulants known. However, as coffee aficionados may tell you, coffee is more than just caffeine. There are entire dimensions of taste, smell, and aesthetics that define the world of coffee, and many of these are associated with its rich chemistry. This has inspired many researchers to delve into the mysterious world of coffee to see if any of its other components are responsible for additional health consequences.
Fortunately, much to the coffee lover’s relief, the past decade has produced numerous studies that detail the multitude of benefits of drinking coffee.1,2 In May 2012, researchers from the American Heart Association found that habitual consumption of coffee led to a decreased risk of heart failure.3 Just four months later, another study suggested that coffee could alleviate back, neck, and shoulder pains.4 Perhaps most intriguing is the study done by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, who found that coffee may protect you against certain types of cancer, such as prostate cancer,5 breast cancer,6 and basal cell carcinoma.7
With so many health benefits discovered, surely not all of them are attributed to caffeine? This is most likely the case because coffee contains thousands of different chemicals, many of them understudied or even undiscovered. Nevertheless, chemists have identified several candidates that could be responsible for these health effects, including certain hard-to-pronounce chemicals such as phenols, chlorogenic acids, and quinides, all of which act as oxidants, as well as diterpenoids that can raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol.1 Also, many of these chemicals don’t have to be ingested for them to work their magic. A 2008 study found that the smell of coffee beans alone could be linked to stress relief.8 Perhaps now is a good time to do that last-minute exam cramming at a Starbucks!
However, many of these findings are at their early stages with many studies simply drawing a correlation between habitual consumption of coffee and decreases in certain health risks. Until studies draw a strict causational link between specific compounds in coffee and their interaction with cellular systems in the body, we should not wholeheartedly embrace these conclusions just yet. The research is nevertheless taking gradual steps forward. For example, a study published in Neurobiology of Aging has linked a single tongue-twister of a molecule in coffee, eicosanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamine, to an increased resistance in the brain pathology changes typical of Alzheimer’s in mice.9 So while it is still too early to say whether coffee can protect the brain, promising studies such as this can reassure you that a daily cup of coffee couldn’t hurt.
James Siriwongsup is a sophomore from McMurty College at Rice University.
1. Abrams, L. The Case for Drinking as Much Coffee as You Like. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/11/the-case-for-drinking-as-much-coffee-as-you-like/265693/ (accessed 11/6/2015), part of The Atlantic
2. Rodriguez, R. Coffee and Tea May Protect the Brain. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coffee-and-tea-may-protect-the-brain/ (accessed 11/6/2015), part of Scientific American
3. Mostofsky, E. et al. Habitual coffee consumption and risk of heart failure: a dose-response meta-analysis. Circ Heart Fail 2012, 5, 401-405.
4. Strøm, V. et al. Coffee intake and development of pain during computer work. BMC Research Notes 2012, 5, 1-4.
5. Wilson, K. M. et al. Coffee consumption and prostate cancer risk and progression in the health professionals follow-up study. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2011, 103, 1-9.
6. Li, J. et al. Coffee consumption modifies risk of estrogen-receptor negative breast cancer. Breast Cancer Research 2011, 13, 1-10.
7. Song, F. et al. Increased caffeine intake is associated with reduced risk of basal cell carcinoma of the skin. Cancer Research 2012, 72, 3282-3289.
8. Seo, H. S. et al. Effects of coffee bean aroma on the rat brain stressed by sleep deprivation: a selected transcript-and 2D gel-based proteome analysis. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2008, 56, 4665-4673.
9. Basurto-Islas, G. et al. Therapeutic benefits of a compound of coffee in a rat model of Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiology of Aging 2014, 35, 2701-2712