Monique Keiran: Benefits and drawbacks in your morning coffee

Nature Boy was up with the chickens this morning. With clocks falling back last night, his own internal clock kept on ticking in daylight time with the approaching sunrise.

Although he didn’t enjoy any extra sleep, he did have the extra hour to enjoy a morning coffee.

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Nature Boy says he’s resistant to the effects of caffeine.

“Too much coffee? Affect my sleep? Pshaw!” is his refrain. He says his frequent hours of night-time tossing and turning have nothing to do with the coffee and Coke he drinks during the day.

Admittedly, he seems to thrash about at night whether he drinks a lot or a little, in the evening or only in the morning.

On the other hand, he’s not interested in doing without caffeine for days to test his caffeine sensitivity.

The average 250-millilitre cup of brewed coffee contains 85 to 110 milligrams of caffeine. About 130 cups of coffee in a day would deliver a lethal dose of the stimulant, but evidence from more than 200 studies suggests that drinking moderate amounts of the stuff could provide some health benefits.

Studies in recent years suggest drinking just three to four cups of coffee daily might help to decrease the risk of heart disease. Coffee drinking might also be linked to reduced risk of developing some cancers, including prostate, endometrial, skin and liver cancer, as well as type 2 diabetes, gallstones and gout.

In some of the studies, it’s not clear whether caffeine or another chemical in coffee might be providing these benefits. Drinking decaffeinated coffee shows similar benefits for some health outcomes, but less evidence supports those findings.

Coffee’s possible benefits aren’t universal, however. Some evidence suggests that when pregnant women drink even one or two cups of coffee — or two to three cups of black tea — a day, their children are more likely to become overweight by age eight. In this case, caffeine seems to be the responsible ingredient.

Caffeine, the main stimulant in coffee, colas, chocolate and tea and one of the stimulants in energy drinks, has a half-life of about six hours. That means if you ingest 24 milligrams of caffeine, 12 milligrams of caffeine will remain in your system six hours later.

But that varies. Some people’s bodies simply clear caffeine more efficiently than others. A person’s response to caffeine is determined mainly by two genetic factors. These are how quickly a person’s liver breaks caffeine down and how effectively the person’s central nervous system grabs and holds onto the molecule.

Somebody who is highly sensitive to caffeine combines slow caffeine breakdown in the liver and a high degree of caffeine binding in the central nervous system. Even small doses of caffeine stimulate these people, and higher amounts disturb sleep.

People with regular levels of sensitivity enjoy combinations of efficient caffeine inactivation in the liver and moderate central nervous system binding. These individuals typically can drink as few as two to as many as five cups of coffee during the day without jitters or sleep disturbances resulting. However, reactions vary.

The livers of those with low sensitivity break down caffeine quickly. Drinking coffee before bedtime does not usually interfere with sleep. However, these people likely will also not enjoy the wakefulness, alertness and increased concentration that caffeine produces in other people — reasons why most people turn to coffee in the morning.

Other, non-genetic factors also influence how quickly the body breaks caffeine molecules down and flushes them out. For example, drinking alcohol can prolong caffeine half-life and decrease caffeine flushing, as can using oral contraceptives. However, eating broccoli and other dark-green vegetables from the cabbage family or consuming large quantities of vitamin C can help speed the liver’s clearance of caffeine from the body.

Whether his liver breaks down caffeine efficiently or he enjoys merely regular sensitivity to the stimulant, Nature Boy prefers to forgo coffee if it doesn’t meet his quality standards.

Fortunately for him, he lives in Victoria, home to many excellent independent coffee roasters and cafés — some of which were open even early this morning.

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