Coffee is the cattle prod of beverages. The very aroma is enough to coax most people out of bed in the morning, and millions of Americans rely on java’s jolt to ramp up their energy and propel them through the workday. Collectively, we drink an astounding 350 million cups of coffee a day in this country.
Coffee presents a conundrum for the body, however.
On one hand, the brew brims with free-radical-fighting antioxidants, which helps explain its protective, anti-inflammatory effect against everything from type 2 diabetes to heart disease. Caffeine itself, which is a nervous-system stimulant, leads to sharper focus and enhanced concentration, and it can brighten a bad mood.
“For some individuals, caffeine is something of a miracle drug,” says Daniel Evatt, PhD, a researcher in the department of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “These individuals report several benefits with minimal negative effects. However, other caffeine users can develop a bad relationship with it, consisting of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and other problems, such as sleep difficulties and anxiety.”
That’s the catch. Coffee came by the nickname “jitter juice” honestly. Ingest too much caffeine and a pleasant buzz can nosedive into restlessness, nervousness, insomnia and even muscle twitching. The effect is so reliable, says Laura Juliano, PhD, a caffeine researcher at American University in Washington, D.C., that researchers who study anxiety use caffeinated coffee to incite feelings of anxiousness in study participants.
But not everyone responds the same. A small cup of coffee leaves some people feeling twitchy while others can down a pot without batting an eye. Body weight, age, gender and even genetics may factor in to how the body metabolizes caffeine, says Evatt. Which is why coffee’s vice-and-virtue story is comparable with red wine and chocolate — satisfying substances that are healthy and that attract enthusiasts, but require sensible consumption.
Here’s what the experts say about squeezing the health benefits from the bean without getting burned.