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How well studied is caffeine?

by Mark Miller January 12, 2017

How well studied is caffeine?

An espresso, or as the French call it, a petit noir (small black). Certain types of preparation that use no paper filter leave potentially harmful cafestol in the coffee. ( Wikimedia Commons/Photo by DocteurCosmos)

Studies of caffeine show that it does not increase the risk of death, but it causes a habit or possibly a dependence that the American Psychiatric Association now lists in its diagnosis manual as a disorder that warrants more study.

Scientists study caffeine and its use by humans a lot, some say more than any other psychoactive substance in the world. Caffeine is the most widely used drug, and more scientists are saying now there should be yet more studies into dependence and other aspects of caffeine consumption.

“For many people, drinking coffee on a regular basis may become a habit, but habit is not the same as addiction,” says the website Coffee & Health in an article titled “Coffee and the Mind”.  “The World Health Organization has stated that there is no evidence to suggest that caffeine use has comparable physical and social consequences to addiction.”

Caffeine Use Disorder

However, scientists have even come up with a name for a coffee habit:  Caffeine Use Disorder. Don’t fret yet, though. Other studies of caffeine say caffeine and coffee carry no increased risk of death.

Caffeine research shows that drinking as many as 6 cups a day of coffee carries no increased danger of death, whether from cardiovascular disease or cancer or any other pathology.

Scientists with the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association have termed caffeine use as problematic at least for some users. The Journal of Caffeine Research did a major study of studies of caffeine dependence. The paper calls for yet more studies in several areas just with respect to caffeine dependence and addiction. The meta-analysis focused on addiction, not other possible study areas, such as scholarly research reports saying caffeine has so many health benefits, including physical and mental.

The conclusion of the journal’s article on Caffeine Use Disorder calls for more study:

Indeed, there is a critical need for more clinical, epidemiological, and genetic research on caffeine dependence. To date, no national population-based study has been conducted to investigate the prevalence and severity of caffeine dependence in the general population, and most studies that have characterized caffeine dependence in the general population and among special populations relied on relatively small sample sizes. Nevertheless, several recent reports have shown that caffeine dependence can result in clinically significant distress and functional impairment, and many individuals are sufficiently distressed by their caffeine dependence to seek treatment. Due to this new evidence, Caffeine Use Disorder is now recognized by the DSM-5 as a condition in need of further study.

Studies of coffee benefits

Even if you do become dependent, the benefits of caffeine and coffee may outweigh the risks.

The Harvard School of Public Health featured an article about coffee and mortality among 130,000 subjects over the course of 24 years. The volunteers were in their 40s and 50s when the study started, and the researchers followed them for 18 to 24 years. The researchers tallied up who died and tracked their lifestyle and diet habits, including the consumption of coffee.

Even people who drank up to six cups of coffee per day were at no higher risk of death. Consistent with our findings, recent meta-analyses that combined data from all published prospective studies on coffee and risk of cardiovascular diseases or premature mortality did not show any increase in risk for high coffee consumption as compared with non-consumption. These findings fit into the research picture that has been emerging over the past few years: For the general population, the evidence suggests that coffee drinking doesn’t have any serious detrimental health effects.

Coffee lowers risk of diseases

The Harvard press release says people need not worry about drinking even as many as 6 cups of coffee per day. Their health will not be harmed, and the press release goes on to say drinking coffee may lower risk of type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and liver cancer.

Just with respect to diabetes, the meta-analysis or analyses of other 25 studies in Europe, North America and Asia show coffee may lower type 2 diabetes risk, Harvard says. The meta-analysis also shows drinking 3 to 5 small cups of coffee per day may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.

Go ahead, enjoy your coffee

Harvard says the good news about coffee and mortality is important because over the years people have been told drinking coffee is bad. Some people have tried to get off the coffee habit even when they enjoy coffee a lot.

“Our findings suggest that if you want to improve your health, it’s better to focus on other lifestyle factors, such as increasing your physical activity, quitting smoking, or eating more fruit, vegetables, nuts and whole grains,” wrote Dr. Rob van Dam of Harvard.

Harvard says you can tell if you’re drinking too much coffee if you have problems sleeping, get tremors or are feeling stressed and uncomfortable.

Yet another article, from Coffee & Health, explores recent articles and research into the effects of coffee and caffeine on the mind. The article says there have been many studies of caffeine and coffee and how they affect the brain.

One section cites six studies into coffee and mental performance, stating:

The caffeine in coffee acts as a mild stimulant to the central nervous system. Studies have shown that, depending on level of intake, caffeine can help to improve mental performance, especially on alertness, attention and concentration.

Another section of the article cites seven studies into sleepiness and coffee. The studies suggest an association between sleep quality, day-time sleepiness and caffeine intake. The studies found that caffeine intake can impair sleepiness if taken too late in the day. The studies also suggest quitting coffee at any time can improve sleep patterns.

The Coffee & Health article cites eight studies that showed habitual coffee drinking may help older people, particularly women, maintain mental function and reduce risk of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Another Harvard article includes a video with Harvard scientists touting the benefits of coffee, including a mortality rate 10 to 15 percent lower than non-coffee drinkers.

“The work at Harvard is just part of an emerging picture of coffee as a potentially powerful elixir against a range of ailments, from cancer to cavities,” the article states.

Medical News Today has a long article with links to a dozens of articles on the health effects of caffeine that it has published on its website. Click here for that article.

Mark Miller
Mark Miller

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