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Coffee isn’t just about caffeine

Scientists have discovered that the buzz you get from your morning cuppa is more complicated than first thought.

  • Health
  • Read Time: 5 mins

Many of us joke about getting our “caffeine hit” before we start the day or undertake a difficult task. 

But, as the true connoisseurs already know and scientists are now discovering, a good coffee isn’t just about its caffeine content. 

The stimulant, which also occurs naturally in tea and cocoa, is just part of the picture. 

Researchers at the University of Minho School of Medicine in Portugal used MRI scans to observe 83 people before and after their morning beverage. 

Among the volunteers, 47 were scanned before drinking a cup of coffee, then again 30 minutes afterwards. The 36 others were given caffeine diluted in hot water rather than coffee but underwent the same scans. 

The scans revealed that, after their drink, both groups had decreased activity in a part of the brain that puts people in a resting state. This meant all the volunteers were more ready to start their days and engage with others after consuming a beverage. 

But the scans also revealed that drinking coffee increased activity in parts of the brain involved in short-term memory, attention, and focus, while drinking caffeine on its own did not. 

Scientists think the sight, smell, or taste of coffee may help people feel alert, regardless of the caffeine content. But they caution that people who don’t usually drink coffee may not experience the same effects. 

Dr Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, said the sight of coffee may trigger positive memories or beliefs in some people. 

“The visual impact of coffee is powerful,” she said. “It could be like, ‘Oh, I think there’s something that gives me energy now. I’m going to have something that gives me that second wind I need at work or to study.’” 

And now for the big question: Is coffee healthy or not? 

Well, there is some evidence that it is good for you – if consumed in moderation. 

The Mayo Clinic says coffee may offer some protection against Parkinson’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, liver disease, heart attack, and stroke. 

But it cautions that coffee’s high caffeine content can temporarily raise blood pressure. 

“Women who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or breastfeeding need to be cautious about caffeine,” the clinic’s Dr Donald Hensrud said. “High intake of boiled, unfiltered coffee has been associated with mild increase in cholesterol levels.” 

Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said, “The overall evidence has been pretty convincing that coffee has been more healthful than harmful in terms of health outcomes. 

“For most people, moderate coffee consumption can be incorporated into a healthy diet.” 

If you have any concerns about your coffee intake, consult your general practitioner or other health professional. 

Related reading: NBC, ABC7, Mayo Clinic, Discover Magazine 

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