Coffee – it’s Australia’s favourite stimulation these days. More than eight million of us drink coffee regularly, with average consumption having risen from 200ml/person in 1949 to 4000ml/person in 2006. We now make 5-billion cups of coffee each year, and a billion of these are bought while we’re eating out. We’ve gone from having one cappuccino machine in the country in 1953 to having one-in-three households owning one 2013. It’s a dream come true for the coffee industry…but is it all good news for us?
Just like cigarettes have nicotine, coffee has caffeine. This alkaloid is the powerhouse of our ‘hot cuppa’ and literally the reason most of us want to get up in the morning. And plants produce it as their own private insecticide. Yes, that’s right, the most popular stimulant in the world actually evolved to paralyse and kill bugs as they munched on leaves. Makes you realise how brave that first coffee drinker was…doesn’t it?
So if caffeine can be as effective against a critter as a size-12 shoe, what does it do to us? Well, if you can manage to drink around 85 cups in one sitting, it can kill you. Short of that, caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and the body’s metabolism. It increases the heart rate and respiration, is mood altering and acts as a mild diuretic. Caffeine achieves all this by blocking the adenosine hormone receptors in the brain and major organs. As the body enters – or wants to enter – a period of rest, it releases adenosine. However when caffeine is ingested, it stops the nerve cells receiving the ‘rest’ message from the adenosine. Without the ‘rest’ message, the stimulated nerves demand a shot of adrenalin to keep going instead – and it’s this latter hormone that speeds up the heart, the breathing and the bladder.
Long term exposure results in a caffeine tolerance, which means the body becomes over sensitised to adenosine. If we stop with the caffeine the body is suddenly ‘bombarded’ by the adenosine – something the nerves have almost forgotten about – the results usually being a drop in blood pressure, lethargy and headaches. Meanwhile, consuming more than 250mg of caffeine a day (that’s about four cups of coffee) can lead to caffeine intoxication – symptoms of which include insomnia, nervousness, an over-active bladder and hallucinations.
All in all, this drug can put our body and mind through the wringer, and like anything that alters our moods or actions it’s not something to be taken lightly. However, at least when compared to similar alkaloids like nicotine, caffeine appears to have more than the average number of benefits. A 2002 Dutch study of 17,111 adults found that drinking seven cups of coffee a day halved the likelihood of developing type 2 Diabetes. Further studies since then have confirmed the results, with additional findings showing a 25% decrease in type 2 Diabetes risk when consuming three to four coffees a day. Caffeine has also been shown to improve the effectiveness of headache medications when the two are combined, while a team from the Duke University of Medicine recently discovered that four cups of coffee a day can reduce non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
But, as you may have noticed from most of these studies, beneficial levels of coffee consumption equal or exceed the point where coffee drinkers may start suffering from caffeine intoxication, so with the good comes the bad.
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