By Dr. Josť V. A. Humphreys, M.D., FICPS

Posted: 18 September 2005

I have been observing with great interest the many articles about coffee/caffeine and its alleged pros and cons. I deemed it necessary to add my "two cents" or less.

Coffee, the dried, ripe seed of the small evergreen coffee tree of the Madder (Rubiaceae) family, is widely used as a beverage worldwide. However, not many of us appreciate the value of its properties and the important of moderation in all that we do. The major effect of coffee, whether positive or negative comes from its caffeine content.

Though given a bad rap, coffee does have some health benefits according to some reputable research groups.

Coffee has significant effects upon the digestive system. It stimulates contractions of the gallbladder (it increases the motility of the gallbladder). It does this through the release of the hormone cholecystokinin which in turn stimulates the release of bile from the gallbladder; thus its important role in the world famous liver/gallbladder flush.

Coffee also helps to prevent gallstones (however decaffeinated coffee does not exert this effect as the active constituent of Coffee that helps to prevent gallstones is caffeine). Studies have also shown that coffee alleviates hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) by stimulating the production of hydrochloric acid. However this can have adverse effects upon persons who suffer from hyperchlorhydria.

The immune system is also significantly impacted by the use of coffee. Polyphenols compounds found in plants that has more than one benzene ring in their chemical structure. They contain groups of 'phenols' and has powerful antioxidant characteristics. It is the richness of such polyphenols why coffee is touted for its ability to prevent some forms of cancer; especially colon cancer. Its high potency polyphenols are also known to inhibit the conversion of nitrates and nitrites to carcinogenic nitrosamines. However, it is important to note that coffee can also contribute to some forms of cancer. Also, coffee is a deterrent for tooth decay as it inhibits streptococcus mutans; the detrimental bacteria indicated in tooth decay (due to its caffeine and tannin content), and prevent the formation of plaque. However, it is famed for causing tooth discoloration.

Coffee also increases the body's Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), helps to prevent cirrhosis may temporarily improve some aspects of mental function, significantly but temporarily improves mood, temporarily increases concentration, acuity and attention span. However, there are some scientific findings that discredit this claim.

- Have you had enough? Let us delve a little deeper. I have noticed a significant decrease in asthma attacks and the lessening/alleviation of symptoms associated with asthma and hay fever (sneezing and itching). Caffeine and Theobromine (a type of Methylxanthine - it is an isomer of theophylline but is regarded as less potent than caffeine and Theophylline) are responsible for the relaxation of the smooth muscles and the dilation of the bronchial tubes.

Coffee increases the production of Hydrochloric Acid and functions as a potent diuretic (can induce Polyuria or frequent urination in excess). Coffee also facilitates the production/release of Acetylcholine. However, caffeine acts as an antagonist of Adenosine, a compound that inhibits the synthesis and release of Acetylcholine. On the other hand, the ability of choline to encourage the synthesis of acetylcholine has been established.

The buck does not stop there however. Coffee has not vindicated from potential ill effects that can arise from its use. Excessive coffee intake (greater than 3-5 cups daily) has been proven to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, raise homocysteine levels, increase blood pressure (hypertension), stroke (ischemic) especially in hypertension patients, heartburn (by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter and by increasing the body's production of Hydrochloric Acid (due to Methylxanthines)), foot odor, food allergies, lung cancer, osteoporosis (by depleting calcium. Research: effect lessened by adding milk to coffee), headaches and migraines, insomnia, and birth defects.

Coffee does contain two harmful toxins: Methyglyoxal and Atractylosides.

Coffee causes the release of excessive amounts of adrenaline and should be avoided by schizophrenia sufferers. Using coffee with the pharmaceutical drug Propranolol (a water soluble beta blocker) can cause nausea.

Although the caffeine content of coffee was previously linked to Breast Cancer in women, it has now been cleared of Cancer causing suspicions. It has also been cleared of suspicions of causing pancreas cancer.

So the questions still stands for you to answer, "To brew or not to brew?" That is still the question! Ponder over this question carefully; perhaps over a cup of coffee.