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Coffee Is

Research is showing benefits for everything from depression to liver disease. Is it just the caffeine?

Remember when people (and their doctors) used to worry that coffee would harm their hearts, give them ulcers, and make them overly nervous?

In excess, coffee, and more particularly, caffeine, can cause problems. But the fretting about two or three cups a day, or even more, is fading as study results suggestive of health benefits from coffee keep on coming in. In 2011, researchers reported findings that coffee drinking is associated with a lower risk of depression among women, a lower risk of lethal prostate cancer among men, and a lower risk of stroke among men and women. Go back a little further, and you’ll come across reports of possible (it’s not a done deal) protective effects against everything from Parkinson’s disease to diabetes to some types of cancer (see sidebar below).

Caffeine has been studied more than any other ingredient in coffee, and it tends to get credit if the body part benefited is the brain. But coffee contains literally a thousand different substances, and some of the lesser lights are thought to be responsible for healthful effects in other parts of the body. Some studies show caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee as having the same effect, which suggests that something else in coffee is involved.

It gets complicated, though. Caffeine and some of these other substances in coffee seem to have their good and bad sides, and coffee’s overall effect may depend on how much they cancel each other out.