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Through the Eyes of a Psychiatrist: How Does Coffee Protect the Brain? Does it Support Memory?

It’s no secret that coffee affects energy levels, digestion, and athletic performance. While these physical effects of coffee consumption are usually short-term, they appear to have some long-term impact on brain health. Different research bodies suggest that coffee can support memory function and reduce neurodegenerative disorders such as blood circulation-related dementia.

Coffee and brain health

In 2017, Boukje van Gelder and colleagues published a report on 676 elderly male participants who studied together for more than ten years to see if coffee protects against cognitive decline. According to this report, participants who drank coffee were found to experience less cognitive decline compared to non-drinkers.

The most significant effect was people drinking three cups of coffee daily. Less dramatic results were found in people who drank less or more.

In another 2009 study, Marjo Eskelinen and her colleagues did a report on a group of people they followed for more than 21 years to examine whether coffee could help cognition. They found that middle-aged people who drank coffee had a lower risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life compared to those who didn’t drink coffee or drank less than two cups a day. The lowest risk of dementia was seen in people who drank three to five cups of coffee daily.

Three components in coffee that support the brain

There are many substances in coffee that are beneficial for the brain. The following are just a few of them:

Caffeine: Caffeine increases serotonin and acetylcholine, which stimulate the brain and help stabilize the blood-brain barrier.
Polyphenols: The polyphenols found in coffee can prevent brain blood vessel blockage and tissue damage caused by free radicals.
Trigonelline: The high amount of trigonelline found in coffee beans protects blood vessels in the brain by activating antioxidants.

Are some coffees better than others?

Despite its many benefits, this does not mean that every ingredient in coffee is beneficial. Unfiltered coffee contains natural oils called diterpenes that increase LDL cholesterol levels. These (although they have some beneficial anti-inflammatory properties) can potentially cause thickening and hardening of the artery walls in the brain.

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

As a result, because there are a wide variety of chemicals in coffee, researchers cannot confidently say whether coffee can protect against dementia. However, as long as it is not overdone, we can say that it has more good than harmful effects.

Drinking two to four glasses daily or less than 400 mg daily is recommended. Drinking dark-roasted and freshly ground coffee beans can reduce unwanted chemicals.