It’s likely that you’ve experienced that anticipatory early-morning craving for a steaming, rich cup of espresso or a fancy, frothy latte. Many of us can’t live without that sweet first cup to combat intrinsic grogginess and carry us through our morning routines. After more than three decades of working with patients and researching brain health, I have seen the impact of the supplements & substances that patients put in their bodies and the effects they have on how they think and feel. Coffee is an almost ubiquitous supplement in people’s daily lives. The effects of coffee on energy and mood are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the health benefits of this dark brown brew.
How Does Coffee Positively Impact Brain Health?
There are over 1,000 chemical compounds within a single cup of coffee. The molecular and physiological structure of one cup of joe can have numerous positive impacts on our own neuro-wellness. From improving overall neuroplasticity and cognitive function, to reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, coffee can do a great deal of good for our brain.
The most commonly known and discussed benefit of drinking coffee daily is individual caffeine intake. Caffeine acts as an adenosine receptor antagonist in the brain. It influences synaptic strength and neuroplasticity processes like long-term potentiation of neurons. A study conducted by the Food Regulation Authorities concluded that coffee and caffeine consumption is not harmful to the body if consumed in the quantity of about 200 milligrams at once. This equals out to about two and a half cups of coffee in one sitting, or five cups of coffee spread out over a single day.
Daily caffeine intake can have a genuinely positive impact when it comes to things like increasing attentiveness and alertness, regulating mood and well-being, improving concentration, increasing positive mood, and limiting or reducing depression. Two recent meta-analyses, which include three longitudinal and five cross-sectional studies, found an inverse connection between depression and coffee consumption, meaning that coffee consumption may benefit depression.
However, it’s hard to know for certain if these findings are related to coffee and caffeine directly, or if regular coffee drinkers are merely associated with a higher-quality diet, such as the traditional Mediterranean diet. Either way, it’s worth noting that the energizing impact of caffeine tends to improve mood and alertness when consumed in moderation, not excess. It’s worth noting that there’s a threshold whereby too much caffeine can create a sense of anxiety, as too much attention or focus is associated with hypervigilance and a negative mood.
Additional Beneficial Compounds in Coffee That Benefit Brain Health
The Coffea plant, the plant that coffee beans originate from, contains an abundance of vital antioxidants and additional phytochemicals that seem to positively impact the brain. Many variations of coffee grounds actually contain phyto-rich antioxidants. Chlorogenic acid and trigonelline are two specific compounds found in coffee beans that have been shown in several studies to reduce inflammation, improve cognition, and increase overall brain function.
A study conducted in 2021 noted that regular coffee consumption is directly associated with increased gray matter volume in multiple brain areas responsible for memory and learning. It connects coffee consumption over a hundred and twenty-six months with slower degeneration of the brain and slower cognitive decline. An additional study notes a connection between lifelong coffee consumption and a reduced risk of developing a stroke, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease.
Each study similarly finds that this impact is likely the result of the antioxidants and phytochemicals in the coffee beans that increase gray matter volume, improve the stamina of the brain, and protect individual brain cells against oxidative stress and inflammation linked to neurodegenerative dementias.
What Are The Negative Impacts of Coffee on Brain Health?
While daily, regulated coffee consumption can have many beneficial brain health effects, there are also several cautions regarding the impact of coffee consumption worth being aware of if you’re an avid java drinker. For some people, daily caffeine intake has been noted to overly increase mental stimulation and, thus, increase anxiety as a result. Additionally, overconsumption of coffee can increase heart rate and elicit nervous system arousal. That’s not great for everybody. There can also be issues with the combination of high caffeine intake and a number of medical conditions, so take caution if this applies to you. The good news, however, is that the benefits of coffee consumption are not directly related to caffeination.
Caffeine itself has its downsides. Caffeine exerts some of its mechanistic actions by stimulating dopaminergic activity and then removing negative, modulatory effects of adenosine within dopamine receptors. It does not commonly lead to dependence in the way other stimulants can. Having said that, studies do show that a small minority of people experience withdrawal symptoms and addictive behavior onset from caffeine intake. The DSM-5 does not currently recognize caffeine addiction as a substance use disorder, but individuals can reach out for psychological aid from professionals if they’re withdrawing from caffeine for medical or psychological reasons and need additional aid.
There’s also prevailing evidence that overconsumption of caffeine can have a damaging impact on brain plasticity. A study from Frontiers in Psychiatry found that caffeine acts as an adenosine receptor antagonist in the brain, which influences the brain’s synaptic strength and plasticity processes, like long-term nerve and neurological pathway health.
This research also suggests that chronic caffeine consumption can diminish the brain’s capacity for presynaptic long-term plasticity, which can potentially impact the effectiveness of important brain treatments like repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). However, it’s worth noting that these current findings are based on a small-scale study and make the need for larger scale studies apparent in order to better determine the full effects of chronic caffeine use on brain plasticity and learning.
Different Coffee Roasts Affect Brain Health to Varying Degrees
Another tidbit about coffee intake and brain health that I am personally fascinated by is the way different roast variations can provide the brain with varying degrees and genres of cognitive protection. Dr. Donald Weaver, co-director of the Krembil Brain Institute, conducted a study that tested the brain health effects of three varying types of coffee: caffeinated dark roast, caffeinated light roast, and decaffeinated dark roast.
The study found that both caffeinated and decaffeinated dark roast contained identical potencies and neuro-beneficial outcomes in each of the experimental tests. The evidence now suggests that the positive neuronal effects of coffee are not only directly related to the caffeine content of the coffee grounds. Instead, Dr. Weaver’s team found that it was the length of time that coffee beans were roasted that increased their protective brain health qualities and aided in the prevention of neurodegenerative dementias. Researchers found that a specific set of proteins called phenylindanes, which are created naturally during the coffee bean roasting process and give coffee its bitter taste, actually inhibit tau and beta-amyloids from accumulating in the brain matter.
Dr. Weaver’s team suggested that the longer coffee beans were roasted, the more phenylindanes were produced. This means that darker roasted coffee, whether regular or decaf, has the strongest ability to protect the brain from neurodegenerative conditions when compared to other roasts.
Should Coffee Be Part of Your Every Day?
A cup of coffee a day doesn’t necessarily keep the doctor away in the same way that a well-balanced, nutrient rich anti-inflammatory diet does. However, the benefits are there when combined with other lifestyle pillars of brain health and a root cause approach to looking at the many physiological reasons for imbalances. While a daily cup of coffee won’t cure mental illnesses, neurodegenerative dementia, or other psychological or neurological ailment, research does back it as a positive addition to your daily rituals.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that the impact of coffee on our brain health truly comes down to a personalized approach to optimizing the health of the body and mind. As mentioned above, Each of us will react in a different way to the same substance. Knowing the patterns, ebs, and flows of your own body by developing somatic awareness is the best way to optimize any food or supplement you take. If you’re a coffee drinker, tinker with what feels like the ideal dose to enhance your attention and focus. Even if you don’t notice any stark external difference, those magic chemical compounds in your daily cup of joe are making a difference.
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