Coffee has its proponents and detractors like anything else. These groups continuously argue over the health benefits and risks. Their arguments are combinations of facts, opinions, and fake news, leaving many coffee drinkers confused. The problem is both sides are correct in their presumptions, especially concerning the effects on the brain.
Coffee affects the brain in numerous ways. It can protect against some cancers and neurodegenerative diseases. It can also alleviate insomnia and anxiety, among other health benefits. However, it can also lead to addictions, strokes, irritability, and fatigue.
The trick is consuming enough coffee to reap the health benefits while minimizing the risks. By reading further, you will learn how coffee changes your brain and how much you should be drinking.
Is It Safe to Drink Coffee?
Millions of people drink coffee daily, making it the most popular drink in the world. More people drink it than they do juice, soda, and tea combined. Coffee is even used in international trade negotiations. You are probably drinking one or two cups as you read this article. Despite its popularity, most people do not understand how the drink affects their health.
Before we go further, you must understand that there is nothing wrong with drinking a cup or two in the morning. In many cases, you probably should be drinking more of it. Coffee only becomes a problem for most people once you reach the sixth cup.
Beyond that, your potential health benefits and risks largely depend on your overall health and lifestyle and your sensitivity to the caffeine chemical.
Active Ingredients in Coffee
Caffeine is coffee’s main biologically active ingredient, but the beverage also contains a whole suite of antioxidants. Whether coffee is good for your brain or not ultimately comes down to how these chemicals affect you.
Extracted from the fruits and leaves of several consumable plants, caffeine is the most popular psychoactive drug in the world. Over 95 percent of all adults drink the stimulant in one form or another. Its deep integration into society has many concerned individuals questioning if it is healthy or not.
The main concerns revolve around caffeine’s effect on the central nervous system and brain. The drug speeds up the communication between your body and brain. It also modifies the effects of hormones such as adenosine which helps us sleep, rest, and relax.
How Coffee Affects The Brain – It Alters Your Brain Structure
According to a recent study, caffeine does more than just keep you awake. It physically changes the structure of your brain by reducing the size of your grey matter.
Gray matter is the collection of neurons your brain uses to think, remember stuff, and function. Your gray matter volume (GMV) is directly correlated to your comprehension and intelligence. High GMV means you can solve problems quickly and efficiently.
However, caffeine significantly reduces your GMV. While this effect will not make you a “super productive, super-fast, super talky jitter machine,” it can change how you think and react to things.
The Many Health Benefits of Drinking Coffee
Despite the health risks, coffee is among the healthiest drinks out there. For instance, it enhances your adrenaline levels and brain activity, making you focused and alert. A single cup will give you these benefits in under 20 minutes, letting you control when and where you have them.
Some of the more popular brain benefits include:
- Improved mood
- Improved memory
- It helps you stay awake and remain alert
- Improved focus and increased attention span
- Reduced risks for diseases and disorders
Coffee Makes You a Better Thinker
While it may appear as a contradiction, coffee does make you a better thinker as it protects your brain against cognitive diseases and other impairments. However, the impact does not come from caffeine but mostly from the byproducts of roasting coffee beans.
Roasting coffee creates antioxidants called phenylindanes. These compounds give coffee its bitter flavors, but they also prevent the buildup of toxic proteins in the brain. Your nerves make better connections in the process and other cognitive improvements.
Research shows that the effect is the same for both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffees. Plus, you get more of these beneficial compounds the longer you roast the beans with dark roasted coffee harboring the most benefit for brain health.
That does not mean caffeine does not play a role. While it is a temporary effect, the stimulant does boost your memory, mood, reaction time, vigilance, and general brain function.
Reduced Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Risks
The onset of Alzheimer’s disease causes memory loss, behavior issues, and problems with thinking. Currently, there is no cure for the disease, which often ends in dementia. You can only reduce your risks for developing it, and that is where your diet comes into play.
While not confirmed, there is some evidence that drinking coffee protects you from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. You only need to drink moderate amounts regularly to reduce your risks by 65 percent.
Coffee Reduces Your Risks for Parkinson’s Disease
Coffee also helps reduce your risk for Parkinson’s disease. In particular, caffeine can cut your risk for chronic nervous system diseases by a third. The disease kills brain cells, restricting your muscle movements. There is no cure for it either, but you only need three cups a day to help in prevention.
However, there are diminishing returns if you go beyond 3 cups of coffee. Coffee may keep your brain healthy, but you may not see any benefit if you go over 5 cups per day.
Coffee Has Natural Antioxidants
Your body produces waste products as a result of its natural metabolic processes. These oxidized molecules can damage brain tissue if left alone. Luckily, your body produces antioxidants to remove the waste from your body.
There is some debate over whether you can supplement your antioxidant production through your diet, but there is also no evidence that supplements cause harm. Either way, you want to get it naturally, and coffee offers more than enough.
Coffee Reduces Your Risk for Brain Cancers
While it will not cure cancer, coffee’s caffeine and antioxidant content may prevent it from developing. These ingredients protect you from the cellular damage that often leads to cancerous tumors, including harmful mutations.
There is also no exact dosage to reap this effect. Recent studies seem to indicate that there are no downsides here either. You can keep yourself cancer-free with a single cup, or with as many cups as you need to fill your cravings.
Coffee Keeps You More Alert
People usually drink coffee to stay awake. If that is your reason, you are in luck as your brain is the first thing caffeine alters. The “black gold” stimulates your senses by reducing your sensitivity to sleep hormones. You get a quick burst of energy and mental focus for whatever task you need to do.
While you run the risk of crashing, you can minimize the risk by drinking only as needed and then letting your body rest. This moderation will let you maintain a sleep cycle while reaping the benefits of extra comprehension skills and memory.
Coffee Helps Fight Depression
Coffee keeps you happy while it keeps you awake. Caffeine stimulates your brain’s reward and pleasure centers, giving you feelings of euphoria with every cup you drink. It does this by increasing your dopamine and serotonin levels as well as many other hormones that keep you happy.
Coffee works so well that women only need 4 cups of coffee per day to lower their risks for depression by 20 percent.
Coffee Drinking Health Risks
With all the good coffee does to your brain, it is easy to overlook the side effects. Caffeine physically alters your brain, even if it is temporary. As such, drinking too much coffee can have adverse effects on your mind and body.
Some common side effects of coffee consumption include:
- Sleep deprivation
- Fatigue and anxiety
- Strokes and heart attacks
- Insomnia and restlessness
- Increased sensitivity to stress and irritability
- Caffeine addiction
Too Much Coffee Can Lead to Sleep Deprivation
Every side effect of coffee revolves around sleep deprivation in one form or another. Coffee keeps you awake, but avoiding sleep is not healthy for anyone. Sleep deprivation can alter how you think, leaving you delirious if left untreated.
You may even end up with insomnia after you reach your consumption threshold. You will find it very difficult to sleep.
Luckily, the effect is temporary. As soon as you stop drinking, your sleep cycle will return to normal. However, any modification to your brain can remain active for days, affecting the rest of your health in the process.
However, caffeine responses can vary between different people. While most people only suffer from temporary deprivation, others may have their sleep cycle ruined for weeks or months. Many of those individuals may require professional medical help as the stimulant can kill them.
Coffee Can Leave Your Anxious and Irritable
The lack of sleep can leave you anxious and irritable. Your nerves fire in overdrive with each new cup of coffee you consume. Drink enough, and your body reacts as if you are in the fight of your life. The anxiety can lead to headaches, migraines, and drowsiness. You may even develop fatigue in some cases.
While most of these problems develop as withdrawal symptoms, there is a small chance that you can overdose on coffee as well. Overdosing can leave you confused and hallucinate while you vomit. If not treated, overdosing can even lead to death through convulsions.
Coffee Can Stunt Brain Development
While not a severe issue for adults, caffeine can delay brain development in children. It prevents the key neural connections your child needs to remain active and curious about the world. Your child can become withdrawn, timid, and overly cautious.
Coffee Can Lead to Vasoconstriction in Your Brain
Caffeine is one of the few drugs known to cause vasoconstriction or the narrowing of blood vessels. The condition slows down or blocks blood flow. While you can take medications to treat it, the problem can leave lasting effects on your brain.
According to a study conducted in 2009, caffeine-induced vasoconstriction can reduce the blood flow to your brain by as much as 27 percent. Your cup of coffee may give you more mental energy, but it might give you a stroke in the process.
Caffeine is mildly addictive. Depending on your body type, you can even develop some physical dependence on it through regular consumption. Fortunately, caffeine addiction is nowhere near the kinds of dependencies you can develop from other stimulants. As such, you are unlikely to die from a caffeine overdose.
Regardless, you can still develop a coffee drinking problem. The symptoms are easy to spot through casual observation with symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, irritability, and anxiety. Most of these symptoms will not show up until the second cup, but their effects are very noticeable. While it may take about forty-five minutes to reach it, these symptoms can last for up to five hours once they reach their full effect.
Coffee Is Good for the Brain but Bad for the Body
Overall, coffee, and caffeine in general, is good for your brain. It gives you a similar high as amphetamines and other stimulants, but without the severe adverse effects. There are some negative effects, but they are mainly temporary unless you are especially sensitive to them.
However, that cannot be said for the rest of your body. Sure, drinking coffee does give you some temporarily improved muscle performance, but the negative effects can get quite severe.
Overdosing on caffeine can lead to:
- Stiffer arteries
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Various heart conditions
Coffee’s antioxidants may counteract many of these effects, but it would be in your best interests to quit drinking coffee if you start developing them.
Coffee Affects Insulin and Blood Sugar
While the effect is temporary, caffeine significantly increases your insulin and blood sugar levels to where you become at risk for developing diabetes.
Coffee Drinking Can Give You a Stroke
Though moderate drinking can lower your overall risk for stroke, your risk can spike to dangerous levels while you are drinking.
Sleep deprivation and the other adverse effects of caffeine can increase your risk of developing heart diseases and failure, especially if you overdose on the stimulant. Luckily, you can keep your risk under control by keeping your coffee consumption to less than four cups per day.
Moderation is the Key
Drinking coffee is good for your brain, but only if you do it in moderation. The key is drinking enough to get the many health benefits with minimal risks. That means you must watch how much you drink, including your consumption of other caffeinated such as soft drinks and teas.
Generally speaking, the average adult can consume about 400 milligrams of caffeine per day without any adverse effects. This amounts to about 4 cups of coffee. Please note that the 400 milligrams are the combined total overall beverages. Your numbers will be lower if you also consume soda or energy drinks, and so forth.
However, caffeine sensitivity varies widely between different people. While most people will be fine with just 4 cups of coffee, you might have to avoid the fourth cup. There is no fast rule for how your caffeine affects your brain and body, but your age, weight, and overall health play a role.
Other important factors include frequency and dose. Someone who spread out their coffee drinking over the day will have a better response to caffeine than someone who drinks several cups in a single sitting.
Alternatives to Caffeine
If you suffer from caffeine addiction or are otherwise overly sensitive to caffeine, you can still get the mental benefits of coffee through other means. However, you want to wean yourself off caffeine slowly so you can reduce your risks for withdrawal symptoms. You also should not shift to decaffeinated coffee as decaf still contains some caffeine.
Some alternatives to caffeine are foods. Others are activities. You probably want to do a mixture of two groups. Just make sure you consult your physician or a nutritionist before making any drastic changes to your diet or daily routine.
The more popular food alternatives include:
- Caffeine-free teas such as peppermint or chai tea
- In-season fruit smoothies with milk and yogurt
- Glass of water
Popular activities you can do instead of drinking coffee:
- Open a window or go outside and bask in natural light
- Take a cold shower
- Listen to music
You can use these alternatives while you decrease your coffee consumption. It may take time before you see any changes to your cravings, but each step will bring you closer to a healthier you.
Coffee is a great way to jump-start your day. It provides numerous benefits for your brain’s health, as long as you do not overdo it. By keeping things in moderation, you can enjoy a cup or two without worrying about the withdrawal jitteriness and anxiety.