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How Coffee Protects The Brain & Supports Memory, From A Psychiatrist

Uma Naidoo, M.D.
Psychiatrist and Nutritional Expert
By Uma Naidoo, M.D.
Psychiatrist and Nutritional Expert
Uma Naidoo, M.D. is a board-certified psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutrition specialist.
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August 15, 2020
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It's no secret that drinking coffee can affect energy levels, digestion, and even athletic performance. While these physical effects are generally fast-acting, coffee consumption also has some long-term effects on brain health. Different bodies of research have suggested coffee may even support memory function and lower neurodegenerative disorders, like dementia. 

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Coffee and brain health.

In 2017, Boukje van Gelder and her colleagues reported on 676 elderly men they had studied over 10 years to see if coffee protected them from cognitive decline. They found men who drank coffee had less cognitive decline than those who didn't. 

The greatest effect was seen in those who drank three cups of coffee a day. Those who drank more or less saw less dramatic effects.

In another 2009 study, Marjo Eskelinen and her colleagues reported on a group of people they had followed over 21 years to see if coffee helped cognition. They found coffee drinkers at midlife had a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease later in life, compared with those who drank no coffee or up to two cups per day. The lowest risk of dementia was found in people who drank three to five cups of coffee per day. 

3 ways coffee supports the brain.

There are a number of ways in which coffee might protect the brain. These are just a few: 

  1. Caffeine: Caffeine increases serotonin and acetylcholine, which may stimulate the brain and help stabilize the blood-brain barrier. 
  2. Polyphenols: Polyphenols in coffee may prevent tissue damage by free radicals, as well as brain blood vessel blockage. 
  3. Trigonelline: High concentrations of trigonelline are found in coffee beans, which may also activate antioxidants, thereby protecting brain blood vessels.
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Is some coffee better than others?

Despite the benefits, not every substance in coffee is helpful. Unfiltered coffee contains natural oils called diterpenes, which increase LDL cholesterol levels. These can potentially result in a thickening and hardening of the walls of the arteries in the brain (though they do have some helpful anti-inflammatory properties).

Acrylamide, a chemical formed when coffee beans are roasted, can inhibit neurotransmission, destroy dopamine neurons, and increase oxidative stress. The amount of acrylamide in coffee can vary, but dark-roasted, fresh coffee beans generally have the lowest amount. 

Bottom line.

Because there's a wide range of chemicals in coffee, researchers can't say definitively whether coffee can protect against dementia. However, there are more good effects than bad when consumed in moderation. Plus, it may have benefits later in life.

Two to four cups per day, or less than 400 mg/day is recommended, and drinking dark-roasted, freshly ground coffee beans may decrease unwanted chemicals.

Excerpted from This Is Your Brain on Food. Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Uma Naidoo. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark. New York, New York. All rights reserved.
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Uma Naidoo, M.D.
Uma Naidoo, M.D.

Uma Naidoo, M.D. is a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of This Is Your Brain on Food (An Indispensible Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More). She is currently the Founder and Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the first US clinic of its kind where she consults on nutritional interventions for the psychiatrically and medically ill. Naidoo is also a culinary instructor at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. She writes for Harvard Health and Psychology Today and has just completed a unique video cooking series for the MGH Academy, which teaches nutritional psychiatry using culinary techniques in the kitchen.

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