Like Your Coffee? Check Out the Protective Effects of Caffeine


You’ve heard the good and bad about coffee—Dr. Williams gives you the real scoop.
Coffee has been with us a long time. The energizing effect of wild coffee was first used in Ethiopia more than a thousand years ago. The earliest evidence of coffee cultivation was in the 15th century in Yemen. Apparently Sufi monks liked it. The Arabian Peninsula is a very hot desert. Perhaps the Sufis figured out that drinking coffee did more than wake them up—it also granted protection from the sun. Now, scientists are picking up the thread: caffeine has anticancer effects.

Caffeine Protects Against Sun Damage and Cancer

Caffeine in your sunscreen? You’ve likely been putting it on for several years and didn’t know it. Scientists worked out how caffeine protects against certain types of skin cancers, which has already lead to better sunscreens.

Professor of Pharmacy Allan Conney at Rutgers University found that the specific anticancer molecular mechanism involves a gene called ATR (Ataxia telangiectasia and Rad3-related), which is suppressed by caffeine molecules. Apparently, dampening ATR activity promotes apoptosis, or the death of DNA-damaged cells. These findings may lead to new ways of preventing skin cancer.

Experts caution, however, that it doesn’t mean coffee lovers are better protected against the disease than non-coffee drinkers. The effect is only found when applied directly to the skin. Read the label on your sunscreen to see if it contains coffee extract or caffeine.

Other studies suggest coffee consumption reduces the risk of prostate cancer, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, diabetes mellitus type 2, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, gout—and keeps you alive longer.

Caffeine’s Longevity Effect

In a large-scale study published in 2012, researchers followed 400,000 volunteers, ages 50 to 71, all free of major diseases at the onset of the study in 1995. By 2008, more than 50,000 of the participants had died. But men who reported drinking two to three cups of coffee a day were 10 percent less likely to have died than those who didn’t imbibe coffee.

Women did even better: those who drank the same amount of coffee as men had a 13 percent less risk of dying. Scientists don’t know why coffee increased their longevity, but the correlation got researchers’ attention.

Caffeine Remodels The Brain

Caffeine may reshape the biochemistry of our brains in ways that might prevent Alzheimer’s, dementia, and memory loss. In a 2012 experiment at the University of Illinois, researchers found that caffeine disrupted the action of adenosine, a substance inside cells that usually provides energy, but can become destructive if it leaks out of cells when they are injured or under stress. Too much adenosine triggers an inflammatory cascade, which can contribute to neurodegeneration. (For more information on the inflammation and neurodegeneration, see my book, Prolonging Health.)

In a 2012 study, researchers from the University of South Florida and the University of Miami tested the blood levels of caffeine in older adults with mild cognitive impairment and then re-evaluated them two to four years later. Those with the lowest levels of caffeine in their bloodstreams were more likely to have progressed to Alzheimer’s than those whose blood indicated they’d had about three cups’ worth of caffeine. The coffee drinkers also had better memories.

Weight Loss Benefits

Most everyone knows that almost all natural weight loss supplements contain caffeine. Now, researchers find that it might be a compound found in the coffee bean that works for weight management.

With an expected 2.3 billion overweight adults in the world by 2015, the World Health Organization takes obesity seriously. Expensive weight loss drugs and surgeries won’t be used in poorer countries. Besides, there’s only a few approved drugs, and they don’t work that well. Plant medicines, however, have known health value and are better accepted by people in the underdeveloped world and by those interested in natural medicine.

Researchers have found that coffee drinkers don’t gain weight as easily as non-coffee drinkers. (Green tea, which also contains caffeine, has the same effect.) A 2012 study evaluated the benefits of high chlorogenic acid green coffee bean extract in reducing weight, body mass, and body fat percentage in healthy human people. The results of the study showed a dramatic reduction in weight, along with diabetes and cardiovascular preventive effects. Green coffee bean extract provides an all natural, low-cost effective therapy for overweight individuals.

Why Did We Think It Was Bad For Us?

If caffeine has so many benefits besides it’s morning wake-up effect, where did the idea that coffee is bad for you come from?

It seems that early research found that exposing cells in a test tube stimulated cancer growth. But by 2000, as more studies were conducted, researchers found that though coffee is mutagenic in vitro it is not mutagenic in vivo – in living tissue. Test tube tests are not relevant to humans. Since then, a growing volume of research attests to the anticancer, and now anti-dementia and other benefits, of caffeine.

However, there’s a rate limiting effect. It seems that like with most potent plant medicines, a little helps a lot when taken over a long time, but too much is not good for you. That’s why I doubt that chugging more coffee improves your odds against preventing cancer. Moderation seems to be the key. Enjoy, but don’t over-indulge. And, also consider green or black teas, which have similar benefits.

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