Stressing over inconsistent information about coffee’s role in heart disease is enough to cause chest flutters. Common knowledge over the years has set up coffee to look like a menace to the human heart, but fortunately for coffee fans things are not that black and white. While some people need to be a little more cautious with their coffee drinking, many people’s heart health actually benefits from moderate coffee intake. So, rather than playing into the tired storyline that coffee has it in for your heart, let’s look at coffee’s actual effects on the cardiovascular system.
“Drinking moderate amounts of coffee is linked to lower rates of pretty much all cardiovascular disease”
Aaron E. Carroll, MD MS director of the Center for health policy and professionalism research
How your bloodwork plays into heart disease
Many scientists use coffee’s effects on blood cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure as indicators of how it may affect heart disease. These are some of the most common tests your doctor administers at regular physicals.
Blood cholesterol is measured in HDL (high density lipid) and LDL (low density lipid).
HDL is considered “good cholesterol” because it can help prevent buildup in your arteries. LDL cholesterol, on the other hand, does just the opposite and encourages build up of arterial cholesterol. This leads to vein hardening and the blockages that lead to major heart problems. Triglycerides might be the most dangerous offenders. These accumulate in the bloodstream as a direct result of extra food calories that the body has not converted to energy. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when the force of blood moving through your blood vessels is too high. The speed and force of the blood can actually damage and break down your veins and arteries.
To protect against high cholesterol, the American Heart Association recommends four different lifestyle changes: eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke, and losing weight if you are obese. As for protecting against high blood pressure, they recommend these same changes as well as focusing on lowering dietary salt, limiting alcohol, and managing stress.
Nowhere in their recommendations to the general public do they say to stop drinking coffee. Their official website points out that there is still conflicting scientific evidence on the effect coffee has on the human heart, but that moderate coffee drinking does not seem to cause a problem. We will first look at how coffee may protect against risk factors of heart disease and then examine the few caveats.
Coffee reduces heart disease risk factors
Over and over again, we see that being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors associated with both high blood pressures and high cholesterol. But coffee can play a part in weight loss as well as other cardiovascular problems.
A recent study at the University of São Paulo’s School of Public Health says that in non-smokers, drinking three cups of coffee per day can actually reduce coronary calcification by 63%. The study was of 4,426 people with an average age of 50 living in São Paulo. Each person underwent a CT scan to monitor the state of their coronary blood vessels. The encouraging results for the coffee drinkers, however, came with a major “but” attached that had nothing to do with coffee. The data showed that if the subject had ever been a smoker, they did not receive the protective benefits from coffee that never-smokers did.
While smoking has a serious effect on whether coffee can help fight heart disease or not, there are other health problems that can actually be reversed. The biggest are type 2 diabetes and obesity, which both have the precursor of metabolic syndrome, which slows down the body’s ability to convert calories into energy. People with metabolic syndrome have twice as high of a risk of developing heart disease than people who don’t. Many major studies have found a significant inverse relationship between metabolic disease and coffee intake, helping reduce systemic inflammation and helping the body produce the important hormone, insulin.
The secret weapon is the chlorogenic acids (CGAs) in coffee, antioxidant compounds with major anti-inflammatory power. CGAs strengthen endothelial cells, which are the tiny cells that make up the walls of our blood vessels. This has an anti-hypertensive effect, not only protecting against high blood pressure but improving the metabolism of glucose and insulin (which helps people lose excess weight). Not having excess body fat and trouble metabolizing calories means lower triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. These are all major safeguards against heart disease.
There also studies that more directly correlated coffee consumption with lowered risk of cardiovascular disease itself. A study published in 2015 for the American Heart Association analyzed data that tracked the coffee consumption and causes of death of a whopping 30,000 people over the course of 30 years. In the end, they found an inverse association between cardiovascular disease (CVD) and coffee consumption. Researchers observed that the reason for the inverse relationship might be similar to why coffee reduced type 2 diabetes mortality; the reduction of oxidative stress and protection of the veins because of the large concentration of CGA compounds found in coffee. They also observed that the lowest CVD risk was found in subjects who drank 3 to 5 cups per day, but those who drank more didn’t put themselves at significantly higher risk.
Family history of heart disease can cause negative effects
There are certain people who should be mindful of their coffee intake: those who have a family history of myocardial infarction (also known as heart failure) and high blood pressure.
For example, a 2006 study of Portuguese men 40 years of age and older showed an interesting difference. The men had mixed family histories of heart disease, and about 25% of them drank about 4 cups of coffee per day, the amount described as “moderate” by many coffee experts. Coffee’s effects appeared to go in two separate directions. The data showed that coffee had a positive correlation for myocardial infarction in men who had a family history of it. On the other hand, there was an inverse correlation for men with no family history. This would indicate that those with a family history of heart disease should proceed with caution. Those with no family history, however, may find that the heart-health benefits of coffee far outweigh the risks.
Preparation is paramount
It should go without saying that coffee that is inundated with cream and sugar is not going to provide the same health benefits as those of pure, black coffee with little alteration. There’s also another important distinction that may not readily come to mind.
Using a filter to prepare coffee eliminates the greatest risk coffee poses to heart health: diterpenes. Unfiltered coffee that’s made by boiling the beans, which some people may do in a pinch while camping or backpacking. This method allows compounds called diterpenes to remain in your drink–compounds that raise the lipid content of one’s blood. The Journal of the American Cardiology published a study in 2010 that compared the effects of boiled coffee versus filtered coffee, which has limited contact with boiling water. They found that the subjects who drank boiled coffee had significantly increased blood LDL cholesterol levels and triglycerides. Those who drank filtered coffee showed no change in blood cholesterol.
Regularity makes a difference
We’re not talking about that kind of regularity (though most coffee drinkers can vouch for it).
Rather, people who don’t regularly drink coffee may have a hypertensive reaction when they do drink it. On the other hand, regular coffee drinkers rarely show any change in blood pressure levels–that is, when family history isn’t involved. Mostofsky et al.’s 2012 study found that people who regularly drank 4 cups of coffee per day had the largest inverse association between their coffee intake and heart failure. They also point to a meta-analysis that observed light to moderate coffee consumption of less than three cups per day resulted in a higher risk of hypertension, while those who had three or more cups did not show any change in blood pressure. “These findings are concordant with trials showing that one develops a tolerance to the acute hemodynamic effects of caffeine in response to habitual moderate consumption,” their study reads. Researchers found that habitual coffee drinkers had a 30% decreased risk of congestive heart failure.
Coffee mostly offers heart help more than harm
Yes, there are exceptions–those with family histories of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease may have issues with coffee consumption. Those who only drink coffee on occasion may experience temporary hypertension due to low caffeine tolerance. However, for everyone else, the anti-inflammatory effects of coffee are significant. With its ability to reverse the effects of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and artery damage, there is a lot to love about coffee’s effect on the heart. By being careful about the coffee you choose to drink as well as how you prepare it, you are maximizing the good effects it has. Purity Coffee has the highest level of antioxidants of any organic coffee on the market, and those effects on the cardiovascular system are proven.
O’Keefe et al. Effects of Habitual Coffee Consumption on Cardiometabolic Disease, Cardiovascular Health, and All-Cause Mortality. 2013.
Ding et al.; Coffee and Total and Cause-specific Mortality. 2015.
Mostofsky et al. Habitual Coffee Consumption and Risk of Heart Failure: A Dose–Response Meta-Analysis. 2012.