How Coffee Could Be a Healthy Choice

Coffee may provide many health benefits

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

If your preferred morning beverage is a cup of strong coffee, you have plenty of company. But is that cup of java really a good choice health-wise?

Research has shown coffee to have varying effects on health. Some studies have shown that drinking coffee may destroy gallstones and lower the risk for prostate cancer and diabetes. Other studies, however, have revealed that coffee may increase cholesterol and blood pressure.

The experts disagree on whether something so widely enjoyed can really be so good for you, but several recent studies suggest that may be the case. Here we explore the possible top five health benefits of coffee.

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that results from damage to a region of the midbrain called the substantia nigra. This damage can lead to tremors, difficulty walking, and later on, mental decline. Recent studies have suggested that the onset of Parkinson's (usually around age 50) is delayed by coffee and that the motor issues (body movement) associated with the disease may improve with drinking coffee. Coffee has even been shown to prevent Parkinson’s.

Back in 2000, a study led by G. Webster Ross, MD, of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Honolulu, Hawaii, that appeared in JAMA found that the higher the caffeine intake, the lower the incidence of Parkinson’s disease. This study linked this effect to caffeine itself rather than other nutrients in coffee.

There are questions as to whether women benefit from coffee as much as men when it comes to Parkinson's disease. In a 2001 prospective study of caffeine consumption and risk of Parkinson’s disease in men and women that appeared in the Annals of Neurology (by Ascherio et al), the researchers suggested that hormones may decrease the effect of caffeine on the risk for Parkinson's in women.

Improvement in Cognitive Functioning

Several studies have suggested that coffee may improve memory and other brain functioning. This effect seems to be particularly true for the elderly and for women.

According to the European Food Safety Authority, the amount of caffeine in one regular cup of coffee (about 75 mg) improves alertness and concentration.

Some studies have suggested that if you regularly drink coffee, you may build up a tolerance and need more to achieve this effect.

Research also has suggested that coffee may help keep young people from being distracted.

Some studies have suggested that a few ounces (6 to 8 ounces) of coffee throughout the day is what works best, and others say too much coffee can work in the opposite way and make a person who drinks too much become jittery and less able to concentrate.

A 2010 study in Appetite (by De Bruin et al) found that tea also improved attention and alertness. Other studies have suggested that decaffeinated coffee also may work, if only that it might offer a placebo effect (not real but imagined), i.e., if you think it can cause you to be more alert, you may actually become more alert.

Less Depression

Three studies by Harvard researchers found that people who drink coffee may be less likely to commit suicide.

A study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that women who drank four cups of coffee a day were 20 percent less likely to be depressed. This study found that any source of caffeine conferred the same benefit. 


Several studies have suggested that drinking coffee may reduce diabetes risk. In a study that appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, during the more than 20 years of follow-up, coffee consumption, regardless of caffeine content, was associated with an 8 percent decreased risk of type 2 diabetes in women. In men, the reduction was 4 percent for regular coffee and 7 percent for decaf.

It seems that the more coffee an individual drinks (up to 6-8 cups per day), the lower their risk for diabetes may be.

In one Harvard University study, increasing coffee consumption by an average of one and a half cups per day reduced a caffeine drinker’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 11 percent.

One study that appeared in Diabetes Care suggested that in people who already have diabetes, drinking coffee may make it harder to control blood sugar. According to that study, caffeine seemed to increase insulin resistance (insulin is released by the pancreas, but the body doesn't use it properly, so blood sugars aren't lowered as they should be). Therefore, a person with diabetes who expects their glucose to be low based on what they have eaten may find it's high because the caffeine they ingested did not allow insulin to do its job.

Other studies have shown that decaffeinated tea or coffee also may protect against type 2 diabetes (the type of diabetes caused by insulin resistance). 

Lower Risk for Certain Cancers

Several studies have suggested that prostate cancer, liver cancer and endometrial cancer may be prevented or reduced by the intake of coffee.

In one study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, men who drank the most coffee reduced their risk of getting the most lethal form of prostate cancer by about 60 percent compared to the men who drank the least amount of coffee. 

Coffee has also been linked to lower rates of liver cancer in several studies, including one by Leung et al that showed that the incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma was reduced by 30 to 80 percent among coffee drinkers (the difference dependent on how much coffee was consumed).

A study that appeared in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention also revealed evidence that drinking coffee may cut the risk of endometrial (uterine) cancer. The researchers found this effect when women drank four or more cups of coffee per day.

Enjoy Your Coffee!

Coffee also has been associated with a reduced rates of gallstones, liver disease and other ailments. As with all the conditions listed here, coffee may offer some protection, and moderate consumption is always a good choice, particularly if you have high blood pressure (coffee is known to increase blood pressure), a stomach ulcer (coffee can hurt these openings in the lining of the stomach) or other heart issues (caffeine makes the heart beat faster). 

In many of these studies, the researchers pointed out that it is hard to be sure if theses association are with coffee, and not other lifestyles factors that participants shared. For example, are coffee drinkers more likely to smoke or to eat healthily? Could they exercise more or worry less than people who don’t drink coffee?

There are many ingredients in coffee, so what is working against  one condition may not be what is working against another.

The American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs states that moderate tea or coffee drinking is not likely to be harmful to your health as long as you have other good health habits.

According to Deborah Gordon, MD, a homeopathy and nutrition expert, “As a practitioner who has spent years advising coffee avoidance, I am also someone who keeps abreast of current nutritional research, and there is no denying the numerous studies validating the health benefits of coffee."

Dr. Gordon told dailyRx News, “Some uncertainties remain, however, such as the question of discerning the separate effects of coffee vs. caffeine. Caffeine-induced adrenaline secretion, for instance, helps release fat from body stores and boosts insulin resistance to allow that fat to be burned as fuel, yet coffee itself is linked to lower body weight, lowered insulin resistance and protection from type 2 diabetes. I believe that apparent dilemma reflects the difference between acute and chronic effects, and have in common the beneficial mobilization of stored fat."

There are other aspects that make the controversy more difficult, she noted. “Additional confounding issues include the effects of rare vs. habituated coffee or caffeine intake, and the undeniable pleasure of a sweet treat taken with your coffee and cream — which can easily undo all the benefit you might derive from the coffee. I would suggest you drink the coffee, with organic whole cream is best, and let its effects satiate any cravings you have for sweets: pass on the pastries!" she said.

“If you don't like the caffeine effect, you can still benefit from coffee's many other components, so enjoy decaf. If you don't like the flavor at all, tea has also been shown to confer some of the same health benefits, though not all.”

Review Date: 
April 24, 2014