How Coffee Can Help Keep Your Brain Healthy

Whether steaming hot or poured over ice, Americans love their morning cup of coffee – and afternoon latte and sometimes, even an evening cappuccino. In fact, the most recent National Coffee Association USA study reveals 64 percent of Americans drink coffee daily.

But is all that caffeinated coffee good for your brains?

“For the most part it is,” says neurologist Karla Madalin, MD.

Potential Benefits

Researchers believe the benefits of caffeinated coffee may be attributed, in part, to detoxifying enzymes known as glutathione S-transferase.

A high-test coffee habit may decrease a person’s chance of developing neurological conditions as long as consumption is capped at about 400 mg daily, or the equivalent of about three cups of coffee, depending on the blend and how it's brewed, Dr. Madalin says.

The potential benefits of high-test coffee include a lower risk of developing:

  • Parkinson's disease, except in postmenopausal women
  • Alzheimer's disease, which affects about 26 million people worldwide, according to the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee
  • Depression in women
  • Stroke

“In seniors, it can improve cognitive performance and memory performance and decrease depression with about 280 mg – or one to two cups a day,” Dr. Madalin says.

There are also benefits of drinking coffee on the job.

“People might be more productive at work and perform better,” Dr. Madalin says. “The risk comes with higher doses, which make some people irritable, anxious and nervous. Smaller doses are better.”

Caffeine: A Double-Edged Sword

Caffeine – which is also present in some chocolates, teas and energy drinks – is considered a stimulant or psychoactive drug. Like most drugs, it can be a double-edged sword.

“It antagonizes adenosine receptors and causes the release of excitatory neurotransmitters,” Dr. Madalin says. “With smaller doses, it's beneficial, but it’s harmful or deleterious with higher doses.”

No matter your age, Dr. Madalin offers these seven cautions about caffeine:

  1. Avoid or limit caffeinated coffee if you have anxiety, a history of seizures, heart issues or are jittery.
    “A patient with a tremor in his hands was drinking 15 cups of coffee a day,” she says. “I told him to cut down on the coffee and he came back and said, ‘You cured me and didn’t even have to give me medication.’”
  2. Don’t drink more than six cups of joe a day if you are a menopausal woman who is on hormone replacement therapy. This increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
  3. Don’t substitute coffee for sleep. Lack of shuteye will eventually catch up to you and affect everything from job performance to mood to memory.
  4. Consider switching some or all of your coffee consumption to half-caff, which is a blend of regular and decaffeinated coffee. Decaf is also a good choice for decreasing the likelihood of side effects, but be aware it doesn’t provide benefits to brain health.
  5. Be mindful of what you mix into your java. Nondairy creamer contains trans fats, which, along with sugar, can decrease the antioxidant effect of caffeine.
  6. Drinking too much regular coffee can lead to caffeine dependency and abuse, so keep intake in check.
  7. Don’t turn to the powdered form of caffeine, which is highly concentrated and can be toxic.

Karla Madalin, MD is a neurologist at University Hospitals Bedford Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Madalin or any other doctor online.

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