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10 Things Coffee Does to Your Body

The good and the bad of the world's most popular mood-altering drug.
 
 
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Caffeine is the most commonly used mood-altering drug in the world, and coffee is one of the most popular means of ingesting it. Over 50% of Americans drink coffee on a daily basis, and that figure is thought to be increasing every year.

But there's more to coffee than its caffeine content, and scientists are perpetually trying to make sense of the various effects that this mysterious brew has on our bodies. Coffee's most recent brush with media attention came just a few weeks ago, with the release of a study that showed women who drank four cups of coffee per day had a 20% lower risk of depression than those who drank a cup or less per week. But coffee isn't always billed as a wonder beverage; caffeinated and decaffeinated versions alike have built up a pretty serious rap sheet over the years. Here are 10 reasons coffee is either an elixir of the gods, or an evil concoction we've all been duped into loving unconditionally.

10) Pro: Coffee + pain medication = extra pain relief
Cutting off your coffee intake may lead to headaches and other withdrawal symptoms, but even if you aren't a regular coffee-drinker, caffeine can actually help speed pain relief. According to WebMD, caffeine can make pain relievers 40% more effective in treating headaches, and also speeds the body's reaction to the medications. This is why many over the counter headache medications also contain caffeine.

9) Con: Just kidding — because coffee is also linked to headaches. Sort of. Probably.
As it turns out, investigations into the relationship between coffee consumption and headache relief go back a number of years, and are full of seemingly contradictory findings.

Take this study, for example, published in 2009 in the Journal of Headache and Pain. The authors found a relationship between high caffeine consumption (~500 mg/day) and headache prevalence, but they also showed that chronic headache symptoms (more than 14 days/month) were actually more common in low-to-moderate caffeine consumers (~125mg of caffeine/day). (As a point of reference, a tall brewed coffee from Starbucks averages around 270 mg of caffeine.) The authors write that "the results may indicate that high caffeine consumption changes chronic headache into infrequent headache." In other words: Fry may very well have been onto something with the idea of a golden threshold of coffee consumption.

8) Con: Those who French-press need to watch their cholesterol
A study conducted in 2007 at Baylor college of medicine determined that ingesting the structurally similar molecules cafestol and kahweol (both of which are found exclusively in coffee beans) can lead to significant increases in LDL levels in humans.

Here's the good news, though: paper coffee filters can actually bind cafestol and kahweol in the course of brewing, so the molecules never make it to your morning cup in any significant quantities. In other words, coffee really only ups your cholesterol if you prefer it prepared sans filter.

7) Pro: Cancer isn't fond of coffee
I almost wrote that cancer hates coffee, but the word "hate" is probably a little too strong. Sure, plenty of studies have demonstrated correlations between coffee consumption and reduced risk of cancer; rates of oral/pharyngeal, esophageal, breast, liver and prostate cancers all tend to be lower among java drinkers. The thing is, none of these studies can speak to causation, and many of them fail to turn up particularly strong correlations. Having said that, the correlations are significant — and it's definitely comforting that the balance tends to tip in favor of coffee having a beneficial impact on cancer incidence.

 
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