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The Beverage Guidance Panel, assembled to provide recommendations on relative health and nutritional benefits and risks of various beverage categories, found tea and coffee—preferably without creamer or sweetener—tied as the number-two healthiest beverages, second only to water, the top-rated drink.

Indeed, studies have shown many potential benefits to coffee consumption. For those infected with hepatitis C, for example, drinking coffee may reduce DNA damage, increase the clearance of virus-infected cells, and slow the scarring process, which may help explain the role coffee appears to play in reducing the risk of liver disease progression.

What about Parkinson’s, one of our most crippling neurodegenerative conditions? At least 19 studies have been performed on the role coffee may play in the disease, and overall, coffee consumption seems to be associated with about one-third lower risk. The key ingredient appears to be the caffeine, since tea also seems protective and decaf coffee does not. Like the berry phytonutrients, caffeine has been shown to protect human nerve cells in a petri dish from being killed by a pesticide and other neurotoxins. And for treating Parkinson’s? In a randomized controlled trial, giving Parkinson’s patients the caffeine equivalent of two cups of coffee a day (or approximately four cups of black tea or eight cups of green tea) significantly improved movement symptoms within three weeks.

The National Institutes of Health–AARP Diet and Health Study, the largest-ever prospective study conducted on diet and health, investigated whether people who drink coffee live longer lives than those who don’t and found that people who drank six or more cups per day had a 10–15 percent lower mortality rate due to fewer deaths from heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, injuries and accidents, diabetes, and infections. However, when a study looked at people under the age of 55, the opposite effect was found: Drinking more than six cups of coffee daily was found to increase the risk of death. The bottom line, based on all the best studies to date, is that coffee consumption may indeed be associated with a small reduction in mortality, on the order of a 3 percent lower risk of premature death for each cup of coffee consumed daily. Don’t worry, it’s not “wake up and smell the coffee or don’t wake up at all”—the findings are less prescriptive than they are reassuring for those concerned about their coffee addiction.

We used to think caffeine might increase the risk of an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation, but when actual studies were performed, they revealed that caffeine intake does not appear to increase the risk of atrial fibrillation after all. Moreover, “low-dose” caffeine, which was defined as drinking fewer than about six cups of coffee a day, may even have a protective effect on heart rhythm.

Moderate caffeine consumption in healthy, nonpregnant adults is not only safe but has been found to potentially increase energy and alertness and enhance physical, motor, and cognitive performance. Researchers from Harvard University looked at data from three large-scale cohort studies of more than two hundred thousand American men and women. They found that people who drank two or more cups of coffee daily appeared to have about only half the suicide risk compared to non-coffee drinkers. What about drinking more than four cups a day? A Kaiser Permanente study of more than one hundred thousand people found that suicide risk seemed to continue to drop with increases in coffee dose. People who drank more than six cups a day were 80 percent less likely to commit suicide, though drinking eight or more cups a day has been associated with increased suicide risk.

Coffee is not for everyone. For example, be careful if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). While a population study found no link between coffee consumption and subjective symptoms of GERD, such as heartburn and regurgitation, scientists who actually stuck tubes down people’s throats to measure their pH found that coffee does seem to induce significant acid reflux (whereas tea does not). Daily coffee consumption is also associated with a slightly increased risk of bone fractures among women, but, interestingly, a decreased fracture risk among men. However, no association was found between coffee and hip fracture risk.

People with glaucoma, or perhaps even with merely a family history of glaucoma, may also want to stay away from caffeinated coffee. Coffee intake has been associated with urinary incontinence in both and men. And there are case reports of individuals with epilepsy having fewer seizures after laying off coffee, so avoiding it is certainly worth a try for people with seizure disorders.

Finally, it almost goes without saying that people who have trouble sleeping might not want to drink too much coffee. Just a single cup at night can cause a significant deterioration in sleep quality.

Image Credit: Amanda Rae. This image has been modified.

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