Many of us LOVE a cup of coffee (or two or three) throughout the day. With 64% of Americans drinking a cup of coffee daily, researchers have attempted to get to the bottom of the question: Is coffee healthy and does it boost brain health?
It’s no secret that drinking coffee can affect energy levels, digestion, and even athletic performance. While these physical effects are generally fast-acting, coffee consumption also has some long-term effects on brain health. Different bodies of research have suggested coffee may even support memory function and lower neurodegenerative disorders, like dementia.
How does coffee affect the brain?
Caffeine affects the central nervous system in several ways. However, the effects are mainly believed to stem from the way caffeine interacts with adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that promotes sleep. Neurons in your brain have specific receptors that adenosine can attach to. When it binds to those receptors, it inhibits the tendency of neurons to fire. This slows neural activity.
Adenosine normally builds up during the day and eventually makes you drowsy when it’s time to go to sleep. Caffeine and adenosine have a similar molecular structure. So, when caffeine is present in the brain, it competes with adenosine to bind to the same receptors.
However, caffeine doesn’t slow the firing of your neurons like adenosine does. Instead, it prevents adenosine from slowing you down.
Caffeine promotes central nervous system stimulation, making you feel alert.
Coffee and Brain Health
A recent study reported on 676 elderly men they had studied over 10 years to see if coffee protected them from cognitive decline. They found men who drank coffee had less cognitive decline than those who didn’t.
The greatest effect was seen in those who drank three cups of coffee a day. Those who drank more or less saw less dramatic effects.
In another study, a group of people were followed over 21 years to see if coffee helped cognition. They found coffee drinkers at midlife had a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life, compared with those who drank no coffee or up to two cups per day. The lowest risk of dementia was found in people who drank three to five cups of coffee per day.
3 Ways Coffee Supports the Brain
There are a number of ways in which coffee might protect the brain. These are just a few:
- Caffeine: Caffeine increases serotonin and acetylcholine, which may stimulate the brain and help stabilize the blood-brain barrier.
- Polyphenols: Polyphenols in coffee may prevent tissue damage by free radicals, as well as brain blood vessel blockage.
- Trigonelline: High concentrations of trigonelline are found in coffee beans, which may also activate antioxidants, thereby protecting brain blood vessels.
Is some coffee better than others?
Despite the benefits, not every substance in coffee is helpful. Unfiltered coffee contains natural oils called diterpenes, which increase LDL cholesterol levels. These can potentially result in a thickening and hardening of the walls of the arteries in the brain (though they do have some helpful anti-inflammatory properties).
Acrylamide, a chemical formed when coffee beans are roasted, can inhibit neurotransmission, destroy dopamine neurons, and increase oxidative stress. The amount of acrylamide in coffee can vary, but dark-roasted, fresh coffee beans generally have the lowest amount.
The Bottom Line
Because there’s a wide range of chemicals in coffee, researchers can’t say definitively whether coffee can protect against dementia. However, there are more good effects than bad when consumed in moderation. Plus, it may have benefits later in life.
Two to four cups per day, or less than 400 mg/day is recommended, and drinking dark-roasted, freshly ground coffee beans may decrease unwanted chemicals.
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