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Is Coffee Good for the Brain: It Depends on How Much You Drink

Article at a Glance
  • Research shows that caffeine is beneficial to brain health in most people
  • Variants in the CYP1A2 gene play a role in caffeine metabolism and how much coffee an individual can tolerate
  • Drinking more than 5 cups of coffee per day is bad for health
Is Coffee Good for the Brain?

If you are anything like the majority of us, the first thing you do in the morning is reach for your coffee mug. You may see that morning cup as a vehicle to give you the energy you need to get through your day, but what else is it providing? As it turns out, coffee carries a number of health benefits that go beyond that morning buzz. For starters, the traditional “cup of Joe” is the biggest source of antioxidants in the diets of most Americans. 

In addition to enhanced attention, coffee can also provide a variety of benefits to a person’s brain health. 

What amount of caffeine benefits brain health?

It is suggested that coffee, and its energy boosting counterpart, caffeine, are beneficial when consumed in the proper portions. In terms of dose, consuming around two and a half cups of coffee provide the body with caffeine that enhances brain health. Coffee also provides anti-inflammatory and antioxidant health benefits. 

See also: Oxalates and kidney stones: what you need to know

Coffee’s benefits may accrue over time

A 2016 review discussed the preventative effects a lifetime of coffee consumption can offer. Caffeine and coffee can reduce cognitive decline, and reduce the risk of stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, regular consumption of coffee can assist in migraine and headache management. 

How much coffee is too much?

One small cup per morning can pack all this cognitive health into just a few sips, but does too much coffee cause any harmful effects? Perhaps. The same review suggests consuming more than 5 cups of coffee a day may be too much and may negate the beneficial elements of health that coffee promotes.  For example, too much caffeine can increase anxiety response and decrease peaceful sleep in some people. Additionally, for regular coffee drinkers, quick cessation of the beverage may lead to small symptoms of withdrawal, though it is rare and seen more likely in sensitive people. 

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Factor in caffeine sensitivity

Who may be defined as sensitive? Individuals who have A/C or C/C variants in CYP1A2 gene are considered to be slower metabolizers of caffeine. This means, it takes them longer to clear caffeine from the system and with each new cup there is a continued buildup. Recent studies teach us that variants in the CYP1A2 gene determine whether caffeine will have a positive impact on athletic performance. For individuals with this genotype, it’s recommended to limit caffeine consumption from all sources to 200 mg a day. As coffee is the main contributor of caffeine in the American diet, this translates to no more than 2 cups a day.

Though 5 – 6 cups of coffee may seem like a lot for some people, especially for those with faster caffeine metabolism, the body may begin to provide signs that it’s not comfortable with the excessive amount. Researchers have recently discovered that drinking anything past a 6th cup of coffee can actually decrease brain volume and may lead to higher chances of dementia.

For more information on this topic, check out my recent Today Show article where I provide comment on this new study. 

Adverse effects are few and far between for the majority of coffee drinkers consuming less than 5 cups a day. Therefore, adding coffee into your diet on a regular basis may be worth it, even for those who don’t like the taste. Another study found coffee provides other compounds other than caffeine that are beneficial for cognitive and behavioral health.

Coffee offers the body ferulic acid, caffeic acid, and chlorogenic acid all of which are beneficial for the brain. Some of these effects include, enhanced mood, performance, and increased attention. These effects are more likely to be shown in longtime consumers of coffee. This means, if you still want benefits, but want to achieve them through a decaffeinated version, you can.

Not all coffee is created equal

Before grabbing your cup from the cabinet, take a look at the brand of coffee you are choosing to brew. For maximum cognitive benefit there are a few suggested guidelines to the get the most out of your brew. 

A 2014 study published in The Journal of Nutrition discovered that participants with higher caffeine consumption scored better on tests of mental function, indicating that these caffeine sources provide more than just short-term benefits. So, sticking to fully a caffeinated brew should provide the brain with the most benefit. 

The roasting process actually improves the protective benefits of coffee since it leads to higher quantities of phenylindanes. This compound inhibits toxic brain proteins that are linked to increase risk of neurodegenerative conditions.   If you’re looking for the most beneficial cup of coffee, choosing dark roasted seems to be preferable to light roasted coffee.

The bottom line

Coffee is perhaps the greatest source of antioxidants in the world. However, this could be due to the fact that more people drink coffee than eat broccoli. Regardless, if coffee is a pleasure for to consume, then go for it. 

The idea that coffee is in fact a guilty pleasure has certainly been debunked. 

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Kristin Kirkpatrick is a nationally recognized registered dietitian, best-selling author, TODAY Show contributor, and member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Board. She served as the lead dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio for 15 years.

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