The Three Major Health Benefits of Coffee

Coffee? Your first associations are likely Starbucks, pretentious baristas, and MacBooks, in that order.

Yet, coffee has been around for a long time. The popular beverage has its origins in the 11th century, when the "magical fruit" was first discovered in Ethiopia. From there its popularity spread through the Arabian Peninsula, and later to the rest of Europe.

In fact, the modern coffeehouse/shop began in 17th century London, with the introduction of "penny universities," where patrons could not only enjoy a cup of morning joe, but the intellectual culture that came to grow around it. Philosophers, students, economists... all came to these 'penny universities' to stimulate and grow their minds in engaging discussion over a cup of coffee. So next time you hear two people talking loudly about Russian literature in your local espresso joint, wearing their Warby Parkers, and hating on capitalism, blame the British.

But who cares about history when we're talking about healthcare.  Three reasons coffee might be the new aspirin:

1. You'll live longer.

A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology which mined a data set of 90,317 Americans (roughly the population of Gary, Indiana) found that drinking four-five cups of coffee a day was associated with a 20% lower chance of death during the study. This trend also included Americans using coffee additives or (*gasp*) DECAF. Interestingly, the deaths prevented included those from heart disease and diabetes, but NOT from cancer.

tl;dr - if heart disease or diabetes runs in your family, consider adding another cup of coffee to your morning regimen. If cancer, maybe consider sticking to the aspirin.

2. Your weekend bar-hopping won't hurt so bad.

This is not to say I support your getting black-out this next Friday. But a study published in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics suggested that two extra cups of coffee a day was associated with a 44% lower risk of developing cirrhosis (liver disease) and nearly 50% lower risk of dying from the disease.

Plus, Michael Oshinsky, a research director at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, says the best cure for a hangover - aspirin + coffee. And this is a man who gives rats hangovers for a living.

...I chose the wrong job.

Trivia: other causes of liver cirrhosis include deadly viruses, such as hepatitis B and C. Which one can you prevent with a vaccine?

3. Your brain... like... won't get stressed.

Caffeine works on the body by blocking the adenosine receptor. Adenosine is a fancy molecule that is both one of the building blocks of DNA (the 'A' in ATCG) and the main component of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the primary energy for every living cell. Researchers are unsure exactly what blocking the adenosine receptor does in the brain, but a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests it may underlie the brain's response to chronic stress.

In short, the researchers gave some mice a steady pump of water and the others a $%^&-ton of coffee. Then they pissed all the mice off for a few weeks with damp bedding, food restriction, and a lot of other things which make me feel ethically gray. At the end of all the torture, the researchers looked for changes in the mices' brains.

The mice given the coffee had less neuronal changes in response to stress. These changes likely cause the mood and memory problems commonly seen in stressed individuals. More coffee, less change. In fact, blocking the effect of adenosine receptors another way (which didn't involve coffee) caused the same result.

tl;dr - blocking adenosine receptors might be the best thing for your health, memory, and mood since these llamas.

Conclusion - Drink More Coffee

Coffee has a number of health benefits. Even Harvard admits it. But at best, these studies prove that coffee is ASSOCIATED with positive health findings, not that coffee is CAUSING them.

And as if to prove that point, coffee consumption has been linked to higher levels of inflammation in the body.


In conclusion, keep drinking your extra shot, fat-free, no whip caramel macchiato, even if it makes no damn sense. It just might improve your health. But in terms of hard science, let's just say the jury's still out.

P.S. If you want some more trivia, to overdose the body on coffee you'd have to consume 100 cups of joe in one sitting. I'm thinking of a variant on Cool Hand Luke. But... like instead of eggs... coffee.

Internal medicine resident at NYU in New York City with an interest in heme / oncology (cancer care).