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Got coffee? That’s good

To the list of those things once thought to be bad for you — eggs, chocolate, red wine — but are now considered actually good for you, you can add coffee.

And that’s a good thing, given that half of the United States population drinks coffee every day, which adds up to 416 8-ounce cups, per person, per year. For many of these daily coffee drinkers, a common old mug of joe won’t do. Coffee has cachet. Cappuccino, mochaccino, macchiato, espresso and other variations on the coffee theme are available everywhere, and even small, out-of-the-way towns have at least one coffeehouse.

“For most people, a moderate daily intake of coffee, usually defined as three to five cups, is not a problem, and may in, fact, be good for you,” said Nancy Deming, R.N., executive director of VNA Northwest.

Swedes are avid coffee drinkers, bested only by their Scandinavian neighbors, and their per capita coffee consumption is twice that of Americans. A recent Swedish study on the effects of all this coffee drinking found that women who drink at least one cup of coffee a day exhibited a 22 to 25 percent lower risk of stroke than women who drink no coffee at all.

A Harvard School of Public Health study suggests that daily coffee consumption reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. Heavy coffee drinkers, who reported drinking more than six or seven cups a day, were shown to be 35 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than coffee abstainers, while those who drank four to six cups reduced their risk by 28 percent. An Australian study, involving more than 450,000 people, found a 7-percent drop in the odds of developing type 2 diabetes for every additional daily cup consumed.

“None of these findings is proven and researchers are quick to note that any perceived association between two things doesn’t necessarily prove cause and effect,” Deming said. “More research needs to be done. What the studies do show, though, is that coffee drinking appears to cause no harm and may be helpful in lowering the risk of developing certain diseases.”

More possible benefits

There is a long list of additional conditions that regular coffee consumption may help prevent: gallstones, heart disease, colon cancer, liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It may also help relieve headache and asthma symptoms. Coffee’s role in this, if any, has yet to be proven, but the investigation continues.

Any benefits are probably due to two major substances in coffee: antioxidants and caffeine.

Antioxidants help to prevent free radical damage to tissues at the cellular level. While coffee is high in antioxidants, studies have yet to show that the antioxidants present actually enter the bloodstream at the time coffee is consumed.

In addition to its reported ability to relieve headache and asthma symptoms, caffeine appears to play a role in staving off Parkinson’s disease and other age-related brain problems. The evidence here seems more promising, but just why caffeine has this effect has not yet been determined.

The downside

Caffeine can cause problems for some people. It stimulates the central nervous system, which is why it can help get you going in the morning and get past the mid-afternoon slump.

A stimulated central nervous system is the last thing you want when you’re trying to go to sleep, however.

“Even though the body absorbs caffeine quickly and flushes it promptly, it’s a good idea to avoid caffeine — which includes tea, sodas and chocolate — as bedtime approaches,” Deming said. Cutting off caffeine six hours before retiring should do the trick.

Caffeine sensitivity varies from one individual to another. Those who seldom consume it may react more strongly than regular users. It increases heart rate and blood pressure and can cause a mild elevation in cholesterol levels. If you feel there’s reason for concern about the effects of your coffee habit, talk with your doctor.

In general, however, coffee is meant to be enjoyed. That old saw, “moderation in all things,” holds true here. Your body should tell you how much is too much.

Headquartered in Bantam, VNA Northwest ( www.vnanw.org) provides home health care and hospice services to residents of 19 communities in northwestern Connecticut. Writer Cyd Emmons is a communications consultant.

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