Spilling the beans on coffee’s health risks and benefits

Besides textbooks and smartphones, one of the most common things to see in a college student’s hand is a cup of coffee. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise, considering that 92 percent of students consume some form of caffeine, according to a 2019 article from Clinical Nutrition.  

A walk around campus shows Kent State students are no different, with Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts cups sticking out of most trash cans and occupying almost every desk.

Being such a common beverage on both college campuses and elsewhere, it’s beneficial to have some guidelines for coffee consumption. Most people are safe to drink three to four cups of coffee, about 400 milligrams of caffeine, in a day without experiencing symptoms, said James Fuduric, staff physician at University Health Services. However, the caffeine content of a single cup varies, and those guidelines are meant for cups containing about 100 milligrams of caffeine.

Lisa Dannemiller, interim chief university physician at University Health Services, echoes the recommendation that around four cups, or 400 milligrams or less of caffeine per day, is safe. Again, this depends on the type of coffee or tea someone consumes. Coffee ranges from 100-200 milligrams per eight ounce cup or 53 milligrams of caffeine in an eight ounce cup of tea, Dannemiller said.       

In the short-term, too much caffeine can manifest itself as nervousness, trouble sleeping or jitters. Excessive amounts of caffeine can also result in headaches and worsening of acid reflux. These symptoms often occur in those who consume large amounts of coffee or those who aren’t regular coffee drinkers, Dannemiller said. In more severe cases, caffeine consumption could possibly contribute to generalized anxiety disorder or cause heart palpitations. In a patient presenting these symptoms, a doctor should look into their caffeine intake while examining their medical history, Fuduric said.   

“Caffeine is a stimulant, so it can make your heart race,” Dannemiller said. “It can make your heart go faster, it can make your heart feel like it’s beating harder. Then, if someone is predisposed to having a condition, maybe their heart has an arrhythmia, then that could increase the likelihood that that could happen.”  

Although coffee can affect heart rate, it does not cause heart disease, Dannemiller said. Moreover, consuming coffee may temporarily raise someone’s blood pressure, but it doesn’t influence it in the long run.  

However, the way coffee affects people’s health varies as widely as the reasons they consume it, including to stay awake, improve concentration or to enjoy the taste. 

“It’s been studied extensively but it’s hard to study in a real objective way, a real scientific way. You know, to do what they call randomized control studies,” Fuduric said. “Most of the information regarding both benefits and risks, if we’re talking about long-term risks, aren’t definite.”          

Despite the controversy around the subject, studies have suggested that coffee can lower an individual’s risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, both Fuduric and Dannemiller said. Some research has also shown that coffee intake may lower a person’s risk for certain types of cancer and type 2 diabetes, Fuduric said.

According to a systematic review of research published in the BMJ in 2017, normal levels of coffee consumption are more likely to benefit someone’s health than harm it. Beyond the health benefits of coffee are the ways it increases alertness, sharpens focus and even improves athletic performance, Dannemiller said.  

“If people are concerned about this, there’s a lot of stuff on the internet, a lot of good stuff written by places like the Mayo Clinic, advising people on how to deal with their overuse of coffee or information about long-term effects,” Fuduric said.   

Regardless of what current research is saying, however, it’s also important for people to listen to their own bodies. Most individuals who experience these adverse health effects realize it’s connected to their caffeine consumption, Fuduric said. What people may not know is how much caffeine they’re getting from sources other than coffee.

“People drink some coffee in the morning, may three, four cups, and then they might drink Monster, of course Red Bull, or like I mentioned the five hour little shots. That can really add up,” Fuduric said. “I just try to say be aware, there may be other sources and if you’re having these symptoms then cutting back makes sense.”

Beyond awareness of caffeine content is individual responsibility. While in pharmacy school, Dannemiller said a fellow student made a high dose caffeine capsule to aid in studying. After his heart started racing, the student ended up in the hospital with a resulting heart arrhythmia due to the intake of straight caffeine. Although coffee often takes the blame, common sense needs to accompany caffeine consumption of any form. 

To effectively cut down on caffeine intake, Fuduric suggests doing it gradually. If someone stops drinking coffee cold turkey, they may suffer severe headaches as a result. For those who experience migraines, cutting caffeine out of their diets completely and abruptly may trigger a recurrence of migraine headaches, Fuduric said. Switching to decaffeinated coffee, which has about three percent caffeine instead of the regular six percent, or drinking tea can be good alternatives for people as well, Dannemiller said.    

Both coffee drinkers, Dannemiller and Fuduric realize there is constantly new research being published on the topic.   

“I’m very much of a caffeine person; I do [drink] a lot of caffeine, and I love my coffee,” Dannemiller said. “I keep waiting for a bad article to come out about it, and there really hasn’t been one.” 

Abigail Mack is a general assignment reporter. Contact her at [email protected].