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  • Writer's pictureLouise H Connolly MD


I love coffee. Love it!! And it's not a guilty pleasure. Even four cups of it. I'm here to tell you it's good for you. Ummm, I think. That is. Sometimes it is. For some people anyway. And it's not about the caffeine. It's the coffee itself. Coffee is very good for your brain.

Coffee originally come from Ethiopia. That's were mankind originated! Certainly coffee has been consumed by man for many centuries. The earliest evidence of coffee drinking appears in the 15th century in the Sufi shrines of Yemen. There, coffee was involved in religious rituals. Now it certainly seems like a religious ritual in American morning culture. Four million cups of coffee are consumed in the US daily. Four million cups. Every day. Amazing. The actual word coffee comes from the Arabic. One translation means "lack of hunger", another means "strength". I think it's both.

So what's in coffee anyway? Caffeine, beans, and their caramel coloring, right?

Right and wrong.

Yes the caffeine is there. It's a natural insecticide aimed at killing coffee beetles. I know, somewhat shocking but true. We're different. What we get from caffeine is energy. Surprisingly, it does so in a very natural way. It is not just a minute dose of poison. Here's how it works. Our body's basic unit of energy is something called ATP. Our mitochondria, the little "batteries" in each of our cells, make ATP and off we go. When ATP is used up, it turns into ADP. There are sensors, receptors, in each of our cells which monitor ADP.. Too much ADP and we take a nap. Caffeine effectively blocks these "fatigue" receptors, our cells think that there is no ADP around, and off we go full of energy.

Can you get too much caffeine? Of course! One coffee bean puts an insect into overload. And 12 energy drinks might give you a heart attack. The lesson? Dose matters. Up to 4 cups a day of coffee is good for you, after 6 cups there is diminishing return. So why do some people not tolerate coffee? Because metabolism also matters. Metabolism is how quickly you can break down the caffeine. It varies dramatically between people, and the variation is genetic. So some people are jittery all day from one cup of Joe, others can drink a cup of coffee and 10 pm and fall asleep an hour later. That's me. I metabolize caffeine very rapidly. So I can enjoy coffee's other benefits fully.

Beans? No! It's not a bean. It just looks like a bean. Actually it's a fruit, the berry of the coffee bush. And this berry is susceptible to a fungus called "Coffee Berry Disease" or CBD. In defense against CBD, the coffee "bean" makes over 1,000 antioxidant polyphenols, all of them good for you. It's the polyphenols you want, even if you THINK that you're only after the caffeine.

Caramel? No! Unless you get one of those high sugar bombs at Starbucks. Then all bets are off. Instant coffee may contain caramel coloring and a whole list of undesirable fillers such as corn, soy, wheat and even sawdust. It really isn't coffee anymore.

Forget the sugary ice-creamy stuff, forget the donuts, and don't buy instant.

So does coffee really sharpen your brain? Numerous studies say yes. Less dementia, less Alzheimer's disease, better scores on cognitive tests, quicker mental processing, less Parkinson's disease. Other health benefits? Less cardiovascular disease, less diabetes, less liver and colon cancer, increased longevity. Just google it. You'll see all the details. If you are a slow metabolizer of caffeine, a high quality decaf will do. The polyphenols are still there.

Just what is the "good stuff" in coffee? Once again, it's a combination of things - antioxidants, vasodilators, polyphenols, alkaloids, chlorogenic acid, trigonelline. - so many words! I'll just call them the good stuff.

How do you maximize the good stuff and minimize the bad in coffee? There are several ways. Decaf certainly minimizes the caffeine, if you like it. Shade grown coffee, with it's greater moisture exposure, more stress, smaller berries makes more concentrated polyphenols. Then there's the processing. The lighter the roast, the higher the caffeine is you measure by scoops. The opposite is true if you measure by weight - dark has the most caffeine. Capsules are measured by weight, so if you want to minimize caffeine, chose a light roast. If you scoop beans into a grinder every morning, scoop a smaller amount. A light roast brings out more of the good stuff. The darker the roast, the lower the benefit. You want light roasted, slow roasted, not green but not burned. Charring a steak or charring a coffee bean produces some of the same unfavorable chemicals. (AGE's and PAH's) Underdone coffee beans may contain mold and acrylamides.

You don't want your coffee old and oxidized. Almost all of the good stuff goes away. Green coffee beans can last 15 months. Once roasted, coffee is best for 15 days. Once ground, it maybe lasts 15 minutes. No one really gets this perfect. But it's good to bear this in mind. Find a coffee shop where they are roasting it on the premises and enjoy yourself. Or buy a capsule.

And don't forget to mix it up. Buy blends, switch things around thus further diversifying your antioxidant protection.

Finally, there is your coffee maker. And please buy a coffee grinder! Then, please don't grind your beans in the store. Coffee oxidizes, and a lot of the good stuff is volatile, so it immediately dissipates into the air. Remember, ideally there is 15 minutes or less between grinding and making your cup of coffee. Even the oxygen in those tall plastic chutes in the supermarket detracts from coffee's total benefits. Save all these benefits for yourself..

Different types of coffee makers have vastly different effects. Drip coffee filters out some caffeine and also some harmful diterpenes. These diterpenes, which give the coffee bean it's oily surface, raise your cholesterol and increase inflammation. Dry roasting eliminates most of them and it liberates antioxidants. French Press traps these harmful diterpenes in the coffee you drink. So for heaven's sake, if you have cholesterol issues, don't use a French press. Capsule coffee is surprisingly good for you, A double espresso contains boatloads or antioxidants. Nespresso seems to have a superior technology to Keurig, although it's hard to get past the hype here. Both capsules preserve freshness very well through lack of oxidation as well as concentration. What about the aluminum and plastic in the capsule itself? Nestle provides some information here. Their patented aluminum based capsule is coated with a nontoxic vegetable shellac. According to the manufacturer, the resulting brew only comes in contact with the shellac, not the aluminum.

What about Starbucks? If you skip all the additives, the coffee is not bad. For me, it's just too expensive and I don't like the plastic lined paper coffee cup contaminating the precious coffee contents with BPA.

Organic coffee? Yes, that's what I buy. Actually the fungicides and pesticides used on the coffee bush tend to disappear during processing. But the nonorganic coffee bean hasn't been stressed out, it's had Roundup to protect it. So it makes far fewer polyphenols.

What about the green coffee bean extract? It's supposed to help you lose weight, at least there is a very small amount of evidence to suggest so. The active ingredient is an antioxidant called chlorogenic acid. When coffee is roasted, some of the chlorogenic acid is metabolized. And these metabolites have different beneficial effects, So the green bean is touted as superior, I'm not sure that is true. Certainly chlorogenic acid restricts carbohydrate entrance into the body, but I do believe in consuming the whole suite of beneficial antioxidants in coffee, not just extracting the chlorogenic acid or the caffeine. I'd stick to coffee if I were you.

Then there is Whole Coffee Fruit Concentrate. That's the small amount of fruit around the bean that usually is thrown away. In amount, it's much like the cherry around the cherry pit, only more so. Dr Perlmutter popularized WCFC as a strong inducer of a brain repair hormone called BDNF. This data is based on one study of 20 young adults. (That's not very many people.) 100 mg of Whole Coffee Fruit Extract doubled their BDNF levels as compared to a cup of Keurig coffee. So, it may be true, or maybe not. Patented WCFC is very expensive. But Swanson has somehow gotten around this patent and is marketing WCFC from the island of Kona in Hawaii.

Finally there is Coffee Flour. It's made from ripe coffee fruit. It MAY have the same benefit as whole coffee fruit concentrate in increasing BDNF. It's very high in fiber, iron, calcium and low in net carbs and caffeine. If you bake, it would be a great addition to most of your recepies.

At any rate, vigorous exercise quadruples your BDNF, so I think I'll pass on the supplement. Omega 3 almost doubles it, and curcumin up it too. You do what you want. Just bear in mind that Green Coffee Bean Extract and Whole Coffee Fruit Concentrate MUST be certified organic. Coffee is heavily sprayed and only the roasting gets rid of the toxins.

In summary: Pick a shade grown light to medium roast of your choice. Buy different blends of shade grown coffee. The body thrives on diversity. Minimize oxidation of the bean. Grind your coffee at the last minute. Don't use a French Press if you have cholesterol issues. Consider a capsule. Shun instant. Buy organic.

Yours in health.


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