The main biologically active ingredients in coffee are caffeine (a stimulant) and a suite of antioxidants. What do we know about how caffeine and antioxidants affect our bodies? The fundamentals are pretty simple, but the devil is in the details and the speculation around how coffee could either help or harm us runs a bit wild.
The stimulant properties of caffeine mean that you can count on a cup of coffee to wake you up. In fact, coffee, or at least the caffeine it contains, is the most commonly used psychoactive drug in the world. It seems to work as a stimulant, at least in part, by blocking adenosine, which promotes sleep, from binding to its receptor.
Caffeine and adenosine have similar ring structures. Caffeine acts as a molecular mimic, filling and blocking the adenosine receptor, preventing the body’s natural ability to be able a rest when it’s tired.
This blocking is also the reason why too much coffee can leave you feeling jittery or sleepless. You can only postpone fatigue for so long before the body’s regulatory systems begin to fail, leading to simple things like the jitters, but also more serious effects like anxiety or insomnia. Complications may be common; a possible link between coffee drinking and insomnia was identified more than 100 years ago.
Antioxidant benefits of Coffee
What about the antioxidants in coffee and the buzz that surrounds them? Things actually start out pretty straightforward. Metabolic processes produce the energy necessary for life, but they also create waste, often in the form of oxidized molecules that can be harmful in themselves or in damaging other molecules.
Antioxidants are a broad group of molecules that can scrub up dangerous waste; all organisms produce antioxidants as part of their metabolic balance. It is unclear if supplementing our diet with additional antioxidants can augment these natural defences, but that hasn’t stopped speculation.
Interestingly, coffee consumption has also been linked to reduced rates of other diseases as well. Higher coffee consumption is linked to lower rates of Parkinson’s disease and some other forms of dementia. Strikingly, at least one experimental study in mice and cell culture shows that protection is a function of a combination of caffeine and antioxidants in coffee.
Higher consumption has also been linked to lower rates of Type 2 diabetes. Complexity, combined effects and variation between individuals seems to be the theme across all the diseases.