"I can't function without my coffee." It's a sentiment moaned in millions of homes every morning. Americans average 2-3 cups of coffee a day, each with anywhere from 85-140 mg of caffeine, a substantially higher amount than its tea counterpart [Source: Muncie, Weisburger, Barone]. It's long been known that caffeine is unhealthy, but many patients assume that 1-2 cups a day is fairly benign, and thus, justifiable. This is not necessarily the case. The boom in coffee shops like Starbucks over the last decade has quenched the increased consumption of gourmet coffees, most of which contain substantial amounts of dairy, sugar and artificial sweeteners [Source: Shields].
The effects of coffee generally depend on the amount consumed and any underlying risk factors pertaining to the individual. In many instances, coffee doesn't seem to be a negative factor at all, and can even provide a few benefits. A large study of women examined their consumption of coffee in relation to the development of Parkinson’s disease. Ladies who were not using hormone replacement therapy had some protection from Parkinson’s disease with higher coffee intake versus ladies who drank 1 cup or less a day [Source: Ascherio]. Another study demonstrated that coffee did not worsen death rates for consumers after having had a heart attack [Source: Mukamal]. In nonsmokers, coffee did not show a link to heart disease [Source: Klatsky]. Other data has suggested that coffee does not influece or increase a woman's risk for breast or colon cancer [Source: Michels]. And elderly women had improved verbal recall, a sign of cognitive health, from coffee intake [Source: Ritchie].
The data wasn't all good, however. Higher coffee consumption was shown to increase the rate of heart disease in smokers [Source: Klatsky]. Though women not using hormones may have had some protection against Parkinson’s disease with a few more cups of coffee, women who were using hormones did not [Source: Ascherio]. Another study showed that coffee consumption was directly associated with prostate cancer risk [Source: Gallus].
Coffee is a mild diuretic, which means it increases the frequency of urination [Source: Muncie]. This isn’t necessarily a problem by itself. But for those that are not drinking adequate amounts of water, or for those doing extensive athletic training, high coffee intake could mean dehydration. Heavy coffee drinkers can also have an increased loss of minerals such as calcium and magnesium, which could lead to other problems like leg cramps.
Heavy coffee consumption of 5 cups or more was found to correlate with increased rates of heart failure and raised blood pressure, with the caffeine equivalent of 2-3 cups of coffee proving detrimental to both men and women [Source: Wilhelmsen, Hartley]. Blood pressure medication is also known to deplete certain minerals, so you can see how the combination of excess coffee and these treatments could be risky.
Gourmet coffees bring a new dimension of problems to this dilemma, with many boasting substantial amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners along with the, often extremely high, amounts of caffeine. This makes comparisons with previous studies more difficult because the coffee used in older research generally did not contain added flavorings or sweeteners like today's fancy offerings.
Today, it isn't rare for people to reach double-digit cup intake in one day. There will always be a level where the benefits plateau and the negatives start piling up. Replacing water with coffee is never an ideal choice. Inadequate hydration coupled with a standard American diet that lacks enough minerals in the first place, is leading many to muscle spasms, fatigue and even heart palpitations. You can still be a coffee lover, just in moderation. For the average person, 1-2 cups a day is plenty.
While coffee remains a staple of the daily grind, its health benefits are limited to certain groups of individuals; more so nonsmoking females who do not use hormone replacement. Men, especially those who smoke, may not obtain the same benefits, and may actually increase their risk of prostate cancer. For a healthier morning pick-me-up, try a warm travel mug of freshly brewed green tea. You get a stimulating effect comparable to your daily java fix, but with an antioxidant bonus.