Study Finds Fascinating Proof of How Coffee Protects Your Brain

We drink it to start our day and sometimes we drink it just to make it through the day, with the average American drinking 3.2 9-ounce cups per day. 

Brain degeneration is potentially one of the scariest and saddest parts of aging, in part because there are no known cures for diseases like Parkinson’s or dementia. And this is also exactly why learning of any proven methods of preventative care can be so groundbreaking. This may be the case thanks to the work of scientists at Rutgers University who have just identified how coffee may protect against those very degenerative brain diseases. 

“Prior research has shown that drinking coffee may reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease,” Professor Mouradian, lead author and director of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Institute for Neurological Therapeutics, said. “While caffeine has traditionally been credited as coffee’s special protective agent, coffee beans contain more than a thousand other compounds that are less well known.” 

We drink it to start our day and sometimes we drink it just to make it through the day, with the average American drinking 3.2 9-ounce cups per day.  Studies have found that too much coffee can lead to raising blood pressure, an increased risk of heart attacks, and even causing breast cysts in women. Outside of this most recent study, it’s even been found that at least five cups of coffee a day have been found to offer a 40% lower risk of types of brain cancer.  


Caffeine is often getting all the glory of health benefits when it comes to protecting our brains, with scientists having already uncovered that it can reduce the risks of developing Parkinson’s. As of now, doctors still don’t fully understand the exact cause of Parkinson’s, only understanding some of the development process and potential risks. When researchers focused on a compound called Eicosanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamine (EHT), an anti-inflammatory found in the waxy coating of coffee beans, they found that caffeine had a partner in fighting some of the harmful proteins associated with Parkinson’s disease and dementia.


Now, this adds to other research that says coffee reduces your risk of diabetes, boosts your mood, and makes you smarter but what does it have to do with fighting dementia and Parkinson’s specifically? And coffee beans are known to contain more than a thousand other compounds, so how and why did researchers choose to focus on the pairing of EHT and caffeine? 


"EHT is a compound found in various types of coffee but the amount varies,” says Mouradian. “It is important that the appropriate amount and ratio be determined so people don't over-caffeinate themselves, as that can have negative health consequences.”


Findings distinguished a clear difference between caffeinated coffee and a decaf brew in its ability to lower risks of these brain aging illnesses. While beneficial compounds are also found in decaffeinated coffee, the Rutgers study says that EHT works best when it’s paired with caffeine. The magic combination seems to be caffeine and EHT working together rather than either compound acting on its own. Researchers figured this out by giving mice small doses of caffeine or EHT separately as well as together as a control. Alone, the compounds had no effects on the parts of the brain that protect against dementia. But together they boosted the catalyst for protecting the brain. 


This comes very soon after another study this year pointed out dark roast coffees may reduce risks of Alzheimer's and dementia. In that study, researchers discovered that phenylindanes, another one of the bean’s compounds, inhibit beta-amyloid and tau, two protein fragments that come together and disrupt your neural pathways and are common in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. “Dark roast coffee extracts are more potent inhibitors of Aβ oligomerization (IC50 ca. 10 μg/mL) than light roast coffee extract (IC50 = 40.3 μg/mL), and pure caffeine (1) has no effect on Aβ, tau or α-synuclein aggregation,” the report says. It’s simply that dark roast coffee has the greatest potential for producing phenylindanes in the roasting process than anything else. And the quality of the bean itself matters as well. Coffee beans are actually highly susceptible to molding, and mold toxins in coffee are a major trigger of toxic protein formation in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s. This means cheap, low quality coffee is not likely to do you much good as far as brain health is concerned. A recent study found that just under 92% of green coffee beans were contaminated with mold, and green coffee is unprocessed, which is the most opportune time for mold to grow. Many large processing facilities don’t actually clean their tanks between batches of coffee beans. Mold then grows in the bottoms of these tanks and contaminates the next batch of beans. 


“We wanted to investigate why that is—which compounds [in coffee] are involved and how they may impact age-related cognitive decline," said lead study author Dr. Donald Weaver, co-director of the Krembil Brain Institute in Toronto.


"What this study does is take the epidemiological evidence and try to refine it and to demonstrate that there are indeed components within coffee that are beneficial to warding off cognitive decline,” One researcher said. “It's interesting but are we suggesting that coffee is a cure? Absolutely not. The next step would be to investigate how beneficial these compounds are, and whether they have the ability to enter the bloodstream or cross the blood-brain barrier.”


But of course, we can’t just gulp down pots of coffee and hope to fend off degenerative brain diseases, can we? According to the Mayo Clinic, as much as 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. This is the equivalent of about four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola, or two “energy shot” drinks. Anything beyond that can lead to a laundry list of side effects, including migraines and headaches, insomnia, nervousness, irritability, restlessness, frequent urination or inability to control urination, stomach problems, a fast heartbeat, and even muscle tremors. For some, even a little bit of caffeine can lead to uncontrollable jitters. So while the impacts of coffee on brain health show promise, it’s still important to note the possible negative side effects of having too much. 

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