A coffee a day keeps the doctor away

Dr. Linda Friedland Women's Health & Lifestyle

Let's meet for a cup of coffee' is the starting point for most friendships, love affairs and business deals. It is the quintessential ice breaker and social lubricant. It provides the much needed break from the office, the desk, the monotony and the workload. It is the quickest way to legally provide a 'pick me up' and it smells and tastes heavenly. It's the drink we can't live without--yet few enjoy it without some guilt. 'Addictive' and 'bad for me' lurk somewhere in your thoughts as you consume another cappuccino.

Treasured as it is, however, coffee has been blamed for a range of ills, from heart disease and cancer to osteoporosis. Are health dangers really creeping in our cappucinos?

"It's easy to see why researchers take coffee seriously. One cup contains about 100 milligrams of caffeine -- enough to give infrequent coffee drinkers a potent kick", says Tony Chou, MD, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and an authority on how coffee affects our health. "But regular coffee drinkers quickly develop a tolerance to caffeine", Chou says. For a long time there was concern about a possible link with heart disease, breast cancer and bone thinning. Plenty of these alarms have turned out to be false. Italian researchers reported (in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention) no link with breast cancer. Nor does coffee appear to increase the risk of heart disease or osteoporosis according to a 10-year Harvard study of more than 85,000 women.

At last there is some good news for the millions of coffee addicts worldwide: coffee in moderation is possibly harmless and more-so may provide significant health benefits. It contains more antioxidants than cocoa and as many as those found in antioxidant-rich fruits such as blueberries. Recent studies have shown that coffee consumption may reduce the risk of many illness , including Alzheimer's disease and dementia, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and liver disease.

"Caffeine keeps us alert not by speeding us up but by keeping us from slowing down", according to Michael Bonnet, PhD, professor of neurology at Wright State University in Ohio. Each time brain cells fire, they produce a squirt of a chemical that serves as an "off" switch that keeps neural activity in check. Caffeine, in effect, blocks the chemical , jamming the switch so that it can't be turned down. Caffeine also may boost levels of brain-cell calcium, a mineral we know is important in memory.

This doesn't mean you should disregard the old dictum - 'everything in moderation'. The recommended benefits extend to a maximum of about three cups a day. Although coffee may have benefits, heavy caffeine intake in the order of five to six cups a day can cause restlessness, anxiety, irritability and sleeplessness.

If you are feeling anxious or depressed, it's worth easing up on the caffeine, which can exacerbate symptoms. Also be aware that caffeine is a stimulant that can trigger or aggravate insomnia. You might also want to lay off coffee if you are trying to fall pregnant as a few studies have linked caffeine to infertility (although others have found no association). Keep in mind too that coffee accompaniments such as cream and sugar add fat and significant calories to your diet.

Next week discover some of the history of the booming coffee culture and why idling away in a coffee shop may be good for you!

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