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Coffee, caffeine, and your heart

June 28, 2018

A neat study from Germany looks at some interesting effects of caffeine:

Scientists in Germany report they were able to modify a common age-related defect in the hearts of mice with doses of caffeine equivalent to four to five cups of coffee a day for a human. The paper .. describes how the molecular action of caffeine appears to enhance the function of heart cells and protect them from damage.

Seemingly, caffeine helps endothelial cells move a regulatory protein, p27, into their mitochondria. There are, of course, quite a few caveats in drawing health conclusions from this study (cite). Judith Haendeler, one of its authors, states the obvious:

If you hear about this study and decide to drink coffee but you do nothing else — no exercise, no proper diet — then, of course, this will not work. You cannot simply decide, ‘Okay, I’m sitting here and drinking four, five or six cups of coffee and everything is fine.’

The experiment itself studied caffeine, not coffee. And was done on mice. But the biological mechanism discovered provides a possible explanation of some of the health benefits seen from human studies:

In recent years, a number of cohort studies have convincingly demonstrated that habitual coffee consumption is associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Coffee consumption was inversely correlated with total as well as cause-specific mortality, such as heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, and diabetes, whereas no relation or a positive correlation was found with cancer-related deaths. In addition, several studies have shown that consumption of caffeinated coffee is associated with lower risk for coronary heart disease mortality, specifically in older subjects. Finally, the beneficial effect of caffeine appeared to be dose-dependent, as coffee consumption of 4 cups or more per day resulted in a further reduced risk for adverse events when compared to lower coffee consumption.

That said, there likely are quite a few things going on besides the mechanism discovered, some having nothing to do with caffeine. Always be cautious in extrapolating the health effects of any natural food from an understanding of any single compound in it. Coffee is not caffeine. Like every natural food, coffee contains thousands of compounds that are biologically relevant.

And some are carcinogenic. Which shouldn’t be surprising. Every plant has some carcinogenic compounds. And when you toast or roast or sautee them, you create more. In particular, acrylamide. It would be quite silly to leap from that fact to the conclusion that coffee causes cancer. Let’s hope California’s regulators show more sense than requiring written cautions about that in coffee shops.

The painting by her son shows Countess Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec drinking her morning coffee.


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