Can caffeine make us healthy?

Make mine a cappuccino - with a double shot of cancer prevention!

Whatever pleasure your morning coffee brings you, there’s always a bit of a sting in the dregs – we’ve been programmed to view caffeine as the enemy, a tasty hit of energy which can increase the risk of heart disease, play havoc with your skin, affect concentration and drive stress levels soaring. Not to mention those terrible headaches.

But it tastes so good. I love coffee in all its incarnations, be it a swig of espresso, a milky cappuccino with chocolate dusted on top or a scalding black Americano.

Coffee is the enemy

I’ve always been a little suspicious of the panic-inducing health warnings. There have certainly been times when I have drunk too much coffee, leading to that unpleasant jittery feeling, a dull headache and the sensation of the parch of the Gobi desert spreading from the roof of my mouth to the skin on my face and hands.

So I applaud the news that opinion is swinging back in favour of coffee, with studies finding that moderate amounts can reduce headaches, protect against diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart disease and even prevent cancers.

But can caffeine actually make us healthy?

The hangover myth

We’re told to rehydrate with water when hungover, even though the instinct is to reach for a shot of caffeine to get things moving. A study from Phildelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University has concluded that coffee and a painkiller is the best combo for killing a hangover, because the caffeine and anti-inflammatory together react against the alcohol causing the headache.

Cancer and heart disease

Caffeine can help prevent both cancer and heart disease. An overview of 59 different studies suggests drinking coffee can reduce your overall risk of getting cancer. In particular, it may cut the risk of skin cancer by more than one third.

Coffee drinkers are less likely to need hospital treatment for irregular heartbeats or rhythms. Astonishingly, the more coffee one drinks, the less likely such conditions are. Women who drink three cups a day might reduce their risk of dying from heart disease by a quarter; men drinking five or more coffees a day reduce their risk by 44%.

This sounds like encouragement to clutch a cup of coffee to your breast 24/7. Can that much really be good for you? Imagine how terrible you would feel with all that caffeine pumping through your system.

And what about sleeping?

And the bad news…

Time to buy shares in Starbucks? As ever, there’s a ‘but…’ here, and I’m afraid it’s a big one. For all the good news medical science trots out about drinking coffee, it finds equal servings bad news to confuse us with.

For starters, coffee will not sober you up, but further impair your judgement if there is alcohol left in your system.

The high levels of caffeine in some energy drinks and even energy chewing gum have caused users to be hospitalized.

Women who drink tea are at a greater risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Sadly, coffee is no silver bullet for health problems. Yet so many people seem intent on fashioning it into one. The problem is that we love our coffee so much that we’re desperate to validate our consumption of it.

Do we need science to do that? Inevitably, too much of anything is a bad thing. I’d feel as equally wrung out and listless had I eaten four breakfasts as I do after four cups of coffee.

What the evidence does suggest is that there is no need for us to give up caffeine completely, as so many coffee lovers feel impelled to do from time to time.

Enjoying your first drink of the morning is one of the few things you can control on a working day. It is something the health wonks have no control over. Let’s keep it that way.

Personally, I’m going to keep on savouring my first cappuccino of the day whether it improves my health or not. How about you? Let me know what you think using the comments box below!

Also worth your attention:

I’m never going to Starbucks again

Giles Coren on coffee culture

Elizabeth David’s chocolate mousse



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