Why Is Coffee So Good for Your Brain?

The morning ritual of making coffee may be just as important as the beverage itself.

January 10, 2023


Photo by: agrobacter/Getty Images

agrobacter/Getty Images

Coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in many people’s diets. These powerful antioxidant phytochemicals, or plant chemicals can help block oxidation in the brain and minimize the effects of aging. Additionally, there are other surprising components in a couple cups of coffee (even instant!) that may protect cognitive health and even mental wellbeing.

Chlorogenic Acids May Reduce the Risk of Cognitive Decline

Clorogenic acids (CGAs) are especially potent and protective polyphenols, or plant antioxidants found in coffee. CGAs appear to be to one of the main coffee components with positive effects on brain function.

Regular coffee consumption reduces the risk of dementia and cognitive decline later in life according to a large body of research including two ground-breaking studies, the FINE study and the CAIDE study. In the CAIDE study, researchers followed around 1,400 people and found that drinking three to five cups (probably about 6-ounces each, since this was the typical cup-size at the time/location of the study) of coffee daily was associated with a decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

In the 10-year FINE study of over 600 men, researchers found that those who regularly drank coffee had less cognitive decline than those who did not. Three cups a day seemed to be the sweet spot. CGAs were mentioned as an active ingredient linking coffee to these benefits.

In a research review appearing in the European Journal Nutrition, researchers reviewed 94 studies and found CGAs linked to:

  • Anti-inflammation components stimulate the formation of healthy neurons and may inhibit the buildup of amyloid protein clusters (precursors to Alzheimer’s disease) in the brain.
  • Better blood sugar control keeps a steady stream of nourishment to the brain.
  • Increased vascular function is important to avoid strokes and increase cerebral blood flow.

Not only do CGAs appear to slow cognitive decline, but researchers in one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study found that CGAs might even help improve cognitive function.

Caffeine Can Boost Serotonin

Caffeine can increase serotonin hormone production. This “feel good” chemical regulates many brain tasks, and a daily dose of serotonin can be beneficial to mental health.

Researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health followed more than 50,000 women for 25 years and found that those drinking at least four cups of coffee daily had a 20 percent reduced risk of depression compared to non-coffee-drinkers. And another study of more than one million people linked caffeinated coffee consumption to a reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease in men. This study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers found a stronger protective effect of caffeine against cognitive decline in women than in men.

Before you go reaching for that energy drink, it’s important to note that caffeine in other beverages does not seem to have the same cognitive benefits as caffeine in coffee, according to some animal studies. Caffeine in coffee appears to be uniquely beneficial in the way it is synergistic with other coffee components.

Finally, if caffeine makes you jittery, anxious or leads to insomnia, the benefits of coffee don’t outweigh those downsides. Doctors for the American Medical Association (AMA) note that caffeine is a brain stimulant, speeding up some body processes including heart rate and blood pressure. For most people without health conditions, this is fine, but if cutting back is needed, any symptoms of withdrawal (headache, fatigue) usually only last a few days.

Anti-Inflammatory Compounds May Reduce Stress in the Brain

Inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain can manifest in conditions of depression, anxiety, memory loss, and an inability to focus. Coffee contains a great number of anti-inflammatory compounds which can calm oxidative stress caused by free radicals.

Some of these anti-inflammatory compounds include types of hydroxycinnamic acids. Like many other antioxidants, these compounds roam around the body and the brain “looking for” unstable free radicals. When these phenol compounds find the free radicals, they neutralize them by donating an electron, thus stabilizing the molecules without becoming unstable themselves.

Coffee Culture Is All About Routine

One of the most beneficial parts of your morning coffee routine is just that — it’s routine.

Few of us eat the same thing every single day. For example, most of us don’t eat berries everyday, which have more antioxidants per serving than coffee, but lots of us drink at least one cup of coffee every morning. So when researchers reviewed which foods can make an impact on health, coffee was important, and it usually topped the charts because of its consistent intake.

The social interaction of morning or afternoon coffee groups can also help with mental wellbeing. Isolation can contribute to a decline in mental health, but consistent meetings with social groups, which often center around coffee or occur in a coffee shop, can decrease depression.

Bottom Line: Daily coffee drinking is linked to a decreased risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, some mental health issues, and may help prevent some age-related cognitive decline.

The FDA recommends no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine daily, which is about two 8-ounce cups of coffee, since a home-brewed cup varies from 100 to 200 mg of caffeine. By comparison, a “tall” (12-ounce) cup at Starbucks has 225 to 280 mg of caffeine. The healthiest way to consume coffee may be in smaller amounts throughout the day, and no later than 2 p.m., according to doctors at the AMA. In other words, trade your giant coffee cup for a 6-ounce vintage cup similar to those likely used in the ground-breaking coffee-and-brain-health research, and sip throughout the morning.

Serena Ball, MS, RD is a registered dietitian nutritionist, culinary instructor, and mom of five children. She blogs at TeaspoonOfSpice.com and is the author of the best-selling The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, Easy Everyday Mediterranean Diet Cookbook and the newly-released The Sustainable Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Follow her @TspCurry on Instagram.

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