I was absolutely affronted the other day when my husband casually judged my caffeine habit. “It’s not good for you, you know,” he said after I had just one innocent latte.
No, I don’t know that. I’ve heard that caffeine can actually be good for us, and at any rate it’s a better option than muttering angrily under my breath for the first three hours of work every day, right? And I know I read somewhere that coffee protects against cancer, but then again, I’ve also heard that it can increase my risk of osteoporosis.
So, can I justify my caffeine habit? (Not that I couldn’t quit anytime I want.) Or is it really hurting my body as much as it hits my wallet? I decided to find out, and not surprisingly, the answer is more complicated than just “yes” or “no.” Here are the top 10 pros and cons of caffeine:
1. Pro: Coffee May Protect Against Cancer
There’s been a lot of buzz about this in the news with California ruling that coffee needs to carry a cancer warning, but after wading through all the research, it looks like coffee can actually help prevent certain cancers, like oral, throat, uterine, colon, prostate, liver, and breast cancer. And I’m not being biased, both the American Cancer Society and World Health Organization think that coffee may reduce cancer risk.
The bad news? Coffee doesn’t have a monopoly on caffeine, and the stimulant itself is not linked to reduced cancer risk. If you get your caffeine fix from black or green tea you still may be getting an anti-cancer effect, but soda an energy drinks aren’t going to do it for you.
2. Con: Caffeine Can Contribute to Acid Reflux and Heartburn
Caffeine can worsen acid reflux symptoms because it relaxes the sphincter muscle that’s supposed to keep stomach acid safely in your stomach. A relaxed sphincter means stomach acid can bubble up into the esophagus, and coffee and tea are acidic in and of themselves. Decaf has less of an effect, so that may be an option for coffee lovers prone to reflux.
Coffee specifically can also irritate the gastrointestinal tract and contribute to heartburn, but in this case switching to decaf won’t help.
3. Pro: Caffeine Is Good For The Brain (within reason)
Caffeine may protect against cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. A study from the University of Florida found that three to five cups of caffeinated coffee in adults in their 40s and 50s could reduce Alzheimer’s and dementia risk by up to 70 percent. But it’s not clear if the potential benefits are from coffee specifically or caffeine in general, and there has not been a definitive study that caffeine (or coffee) can reduce risk of dementia, so take the results with a grain of salt.
In the short-term, caffeine can definitely increase mental focus and boost your mood. But that much we already knew!
4. Con: Caffeine Is Seriously Addictive
I know what you’re thinking—there’s addiction and then there’s addiction. But caffeine dependence is included as a disorder in the DSM 5, as is caffeine withdrawal. Some caffeine users get so addicted that they can’t quit despite chronic caffeine-related health problems. Ouch.
And when someone does decide to quit, they can face headaches, grumpiness, fatigue, lack of concentration, depressed mood, and anxiety. Reducing caffeine intake gradually should mitigate these side effects.
5. Pro: Coffee can help you live longer
Coffee and tea could reduce your risk of death from all causes. Granted, no one is getting out of death altogether, but a study by the National Cancer Institute and AARP followed 400,000 people ages 50 to 71 for over 10 years and found that regular coffee drinkers (decaf included) had a lower risk of death overall. It’s hard to nail down causation in a study like that, but it’s still encouraging if you’re a java junkie. In the study, those who drank coffee were particularly less likely to die from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even injuries and accidents.
A Chinese study that followed over 164,000 adult men for at least five years found that green tea drinkers had significantly lower all-cause mortality, even with adjusted for other factors. Green tea’s protective effects seemed greatest against heart disease and cancer.
6. Con: Caffeine can contribute to insomnia and anxiety
It’s not a secret that caffeine can contribute to sleeplessness, but consider that if caffeine keeps you up at night, then you’ll likely be tired the next morning. So then you grab some caffeine and perpetuate the cycle of too little sleep and too much caffeine. Too little sleep is associated with increased health risks, including weight gain, depression, and diabetes, and the potential health benefits of caffeine will go down the tube if sleep deprivation ravages your health.
Caffeine can also cause anxiety. Since caffeine withdrawal can also cause anxiety, those needing to cut back should do so gradually.
7. Pro: Coffee Reduces Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Coffee, decaf and regular, can reduce risk of type 2 diabetes. Some studies have found that tea also has a protective effect. Given the increasing rate of type 2 diabetes diagnosis in the United States, prevention is key. But keep in mind that excess weight is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, so if you take your caffeine with sugar and fat, you’ll reduce, and possibly reverse, any potential benefit.
8. Con: Caffeine Raises Blood Sugar
Caffeine may help protect against type 2 diabetes, but it can also raise blood sugar, making diabetes management even tougher for those with any type of diabetes. Caffeine can also raise blood pressure, so folks with high blood pressure already should be cautious.
9. Pro: Caffeine can boost alertness and performance
If you have an exam or sporting event scheduled, caffeine may be just the thing. Caffeine increases attention, learning, alertness, and memory, and it can give your endurance a boost. The American Council on Exercise found that caffeine helped cyclists ride farther during a one-hour ride, and it gives at least a modest boost to strength performance.
Even the International Olympic Committee recognizes caffeine’s performance-boosting ability: athletes aren’t allowed to have more than 12 μg of caffeine per milliliter of urine.
10. Con: Caffeine Can Hurt Your Bones… And More
Too much caffeine contributes to osteoporosis. A reasonable amount is probably safe, but in older women who don’t get sufficient calcium, high caffeine intake may increase risk of bone loss. And, to be fair, caffeine can contribute to a host of health risks: migraines, restlessness, upset stomach, muscle tremors, and (of course) frequent urination and even incontinence.
So… is it all a wash? It does seem there are almost as many pros as cons (especially on this list), but the potential harms and benefits have to be evaluated in the context of your individual situation. Here are some common sense guidelines:
- Plain tea and coffee provide maximize benefit with minimum risk. Add cream and sugar, and you’re looking at an entirely different beverage. And sugary soda? Definitely not good for you.
- Caffeine affects everyone differently. Pay attention to how your body reacts, especially if you experience insomnia and anxiety.
- Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or may become pregnant should talk to their doctor about safe levels of caffeine.
- Caffeine can interact with some medications, so be sure to talk to your doctor.
- Caffeine affects children and teens differently than adults, and the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages caffeine intake in youth.
- The FDA says that 400mg of caffeine a day (equivalent to a generous four to five cups of coffee) is generally safe for adults and not associated with health risks. (Some sources recommend a max of 300mg a day.)
So, is my flavored latte really that unhealthy for me? Well, at 150mg in a 16-ounce serving (my preferred size), the caffeine will probably won’t hurt me, and may provide benefits (including me feeling great). But the afternoon sugar crash and the hefty price tag? Well, that I’ll have to pay for.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.