19 May 2019
The jury is still out on whether coffee increases the risk of developing osteoporosis. Photo: HKEJ
The jury is still out on whether coffee increases the risk of developing osteoporosis. Photo: HKEJ

Drinking coffee: For pleasure or palpitation?

I’ve been a coffee lover for almost half a century. 

But two years ago I was diagnosed with heart rhythm problems. And since caffeine could contribute to heart palpitations, I was left with no choice but to break this habit of a lifetime.

It took me some time to overcome my dependence and indulgence in the drink. I remember asking a patient of mine to quit smoking and drinking. Now I realize how difficult it was.

Coffee contains caffeine, which is a natural stimulant to the central nervous system.

People react differently to the substance. Some might suffer insomnia, while others become nervous, or have headaches, shaky hands or an upset stomach.

Many coffee drinkers experience an elevated heart rate.

Recently I have gone through some medical reviews and meta-analysis reports, most of which are published in the past five years, regarding the health benefits and hazards of drinking coffee. Let me summarize what I have learned so far.

Coffee might increase risk factors for the following persons/diseases:
● Pregnant women who drink more than two cups of coffee a day would see the probability of miscarriage increase by 8 percent.
● The relative risk of getting laryngeal cancer is 1.5 times.
● Blood lipids increase according to the consumption of unfiltered coffee.

As for osteoporosis, the conclusions are mixed. Some found that women are more vulnerable and subject to higher risks, but this could be offset by the daily consumption of enough calcium, i.e., coffee with milk.

In contrast, men who drink coffee have lower risks for osteoporosis.

Apart from caffeine, coffee contains over 100 substances, including anti-oxidants. They are good for the health and could lower the risk of getting the following illnesses:

● Cardiovascular diseases, heart failure;
● Metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes (decaffeinated coffee also applicable), gout, formation of gallstones or kidney stones;
● Cancers such as oesophageal cancer, stomach cancer, liver cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer (especially for postmenopausal women), uterine cancer;
● Cirrhosis, dementia and depression.

Though coffee could elevate the heart rate several hours after consumption, it would not increase the risk of high blood pressure.

Similarly, while coffee could cause heart palpitations, the risk of getting irregular heartbeat such as ventricular fibrillation remains unchanged.

Unfortunately, the studies don’t support the widely held belief that the more you drink coffee, the more health benefits you receive.

A research found that it is ideal to limit drinking coffee to three or four cups, or 300mg to 400mg of caffeine a day. Drinking six cups or more could have adverse effects.

According to a 2013 report by the Consumer Council, a short, 236mL or 8oz, of latte, Americano or Cappuccino contains 75mg of caffeine, while a flat white would give 130mg.

A 12oz cup of black coffee from McDonald’s has 109mg of caffeine.

But since the ability to process caffeine varies according to the drinker, taking three or four cups a day could only be taken as an easy reference.

Take note of your physical and mental wellness, and find the appropriate amount of coffee for your own pleasure and consumption.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 16.

Translation by Darlie Yiu with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong College of Family Physicians (HKCFP)

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