Stephen Moss: A fresh dose of coffee medicine

As I write this, I am drinking a large latte - so why don't I feel better? After all, it is now generally established that coffee is the elixir of youth, the one surefire way of ensuring a fit and healthy life. This week, a US research team reported that two or three cups of coffee a day make you 40% less susceptible to cirrhosis of the liver; four or more cups make you 80% less susceptible. It seems that coffee has no effect in sobering you up - that old husbands' tale - but it will at least stop the booze killing you.

But these latest claims are just the froth on the cappuccino. Other recent research has shown that drinking coffee also reduces the risk of colorectal cancer, Parkinson's disease, asthma and gallstones. A much-disputed Harvard School of Public Health report even argued that women drinking two or more cups a day were 65% less likely to commit suicide. Coffee lovers also claim that it stimulates you mentally (undisputed), boosts athletic performance and increases stamina (less clear cut), improves your motivation and sense of wellbeing, reduces the risk of heart disease (especially among post-menopausal women), reduces the risk of liver and other cancers, relieves headaches, combats depression and reduces the risk of diabetes.

The key, apparently, is the antioxidants in coffee, which are proven to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. Antioxidants are also present in fruit, grains and vegetables, and if we ate a balanced diet we would obtain a sufficient quantity from those sources. But many of us don't - and the coffee makes good the shortfall.

Unfortunately, there are potential downsides. Coffee can cause anxiety and sleeplessness, induce headaches if you stop drinking it (because of caffeine deprivation), worsen irritable bowel syndrome, increase cholesterol levels, cause rapid and irregular heartbeat, raise blood pressure, increase breast cysts in women, reduce calcium levels, increase hypertension, and make it less likely that you will get pregnant. There are also indications that excessive caffeine can heighten the risk of miscarriage and rheumatoid arthritis. No wonder I'm not feeling so great.

Reading a large number of reports on coffee has one certain effect: befuddlement. Is it good for you or not? Will it reduce the risk of me getting heart disease - or of getting pregnant? All these individual, unconnected bits of medical info add up to general confusion. There is also the worry of this seasoned cynic that some of the research might just be being financed and the results disseminated, with a suitably positive spin, by the coffee industry itself. It has certainly not been slow to trumpet the slew of healthy findings. "Since there are so many bad habits to feel guilty about, it's awfully nice when one of those vices actually turns out to be something of a virtue," crows one coffee company. Clearly this is something that our increasingly coffee-obsessed culture would like to believe. But in terms of reaching a definitive verdict, the jury is still out - and probably drinking coffee to keep itself awake.

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