The Cognitive Benefits Of Coffee vs. Isolated Caffeine
Take a whiff of a fresh cup of coffee and you may pick up on fruity, nutty, or smoky notes depending on the brew's beans. The distinct phytochemicals (plant compounds) in coffee beans mean that no two types smell exactly the same.
Researchers set out to determine if it's these unique phytochemicals that are responsible for coffee's cognitive boost, or if that's purely the result of its caffeine content. What they found will have you clutching your morning cup even tighter.
Studying caffeine vs. coffee
For this study published in the Frontiers Journal of Behavioral Neuroscience, a team of researchers from Portugal took MRI scans of people before and after drinking a cup of coffee and drinking an isolated caffeine beverage1.
A total of 83 men and women with an average age of 30 were included in this study—all of whom were regular coffee drinkers.
After analyzing participants' scans, researchers found that both the coffee drinkers and the caffeine drinkers experienced changes in the brain that would make them less tired and more prepared to switch between tasks.
However, only the coffee drinkers had increased activity in the higher visual and right executive control networks of the brain, which are involved in working memory, cognitive control, and goal-directed behavior.
"The subjects were more ready for action and alert to external stimuli after having coffee," the study authors said in a statement.
The authors also found that the coffee drinkers seemed to derive more pleasure from the experience, and they think the sensory nature of coffee may trigger neurochemical effects similar to those we get when we listen to a beautiful song. Music to any coffee drinker's ears.
This helps explain what keeps habitual coffee drinkers coming back for more and shows that caffeine alone cannot stimulate the same cognitive benefits as a cup of joe.
What makes coffee so healthy?
And the compounds in coffee beans do a whole lot more than just help us feel more alert and focused. The phytochemicals in green coffee beans, for example, can improve cardiovascular risk factors3 such as cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. They can support metabolic health too. One particular compound in coffee beans—chlorogenic acid—is also being researched for its positive impact on body weight and glucose tolerance in those with Type 2 diabetes4.
Regular drinkers of coffee—not just caffeine—have been shown to have a lower risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure, as well as some neurodegenerative diseases and cancers5. Long-term coffee consumption also appears to be associated with a more diverse gut microbiome6. And yes, many6 of these benefits7 stick around when you're sipping decaf.
Of course, there's a point when you can have too much of a good thing. Research demonstrates that drinking more than four cups of coffee a day (about 400 mg of caffeine8) will not yield any additional benefits and could actually be harmful. Those who are very sensitive to the effects of caffeine or suffer from anxiety might want to reap healthy plant polyphenols from their diet instead.
Recent research found drinking coffee is more beneficial for working memory, cognitive control, and goal-directed behavior than drinking straight caffeine. Next time you sip a cup of coffee, savor it as a brew for overall cognitive health and well-being—not just a quick energy fix. And if you're going to take a supplement for focus and attention, look for one that contains all the compounds that the mighty coffee plant has to offer.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.