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Coffee has a bad reputation when it comes to heart health. Some contend that it causes high blood pressure, while others link it to heart attacks. We have good news for America’s 150 million coffee drinkers. Relax and have your morning cup of coffee—it won’t hurt your heart.
Coffee and health throughout history
Interest in the links between coffee and health dates back hundreds of years. In seventeenth-century Europe, coffee was thought to aid digestion and gout but cause impotence and paralysis—not a favorable trade-off, and also not correct. Others have linked coffee to short stature and the development of cancer; these claims have also been refuted. Today most scientific studies and media headlines concerning coffee focus on its relationship to the heart.
Coffee and blood pressure
The most common heart-related claim is that coffee causes or aggravates high blood pressure (hypertension). In fact, among people who are not regular coffee drinkers, the caffeine from two cups of coffee increases blood pressure by 2 to 3 mm Hg, a relatively small change. This effect is short-lived and is usually absent among those who drink coffee regularly.
Coffee does not hurt your heart rhythm
Other “coffee opponents” cite effects of coffee on heart rate and rhythm. Anybody who has a cup of coffee in the morning recognizes that coffee can cause a slight increase in heart rate. Like the blood pressure effect, this is temporary and harmless. Claims that coffee often triggers irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias) like atrial fibrillation are flat-out wrong. And those who already have atrial fibrillation generally experience no ill effects from coffee.
Does coffee cause heart attacks?
The biggest concern is that coffee might be harmful to those with pre-existing coronary heart disease (blockages in arteries of the heart). The specific question raised by recent scientific studies and media reports is whether coffee can trigger a heart attack in people with coronary heart disease
In fact, the answer is “yes.” But the risk of coffee triggering a heart attack is tiny and applies only to a small minority of individuals who are not habitual coffee drinkers and who may have a particular genetic profile. The short message here—the risk of coffee triggering a heart attack is so small that it is not worth worrying about it.
There is, however, one potential issue when it comes to coffee and your heart’s arteries, and this concerns boiled coffee that is not filtered. Boiled, unfiltered coffee contains oils that can increase plaque-causing LDL cholesterol, and this, in turn, may contribute to the development of coronary heart disease.
Coffee as a health food?
Could coffee actually improve health? Recent studies find that coffee drinkers are less prone to diabetes than are those who don’t enjoy a morning cup. While these studies do not prove causality—they don’t prove that coffee actually prevents diabetes—they do suggest a possible health benefit to coffee. Coffee is also our number one source of dietary antioxidants, although the truth is that we don’t yet know if consuming antioxidants improves health.
You and your morning cup of coffee
The bottom line on coffee is this—coffee does not cause heart problems. But you should drink your coffee “wisely.” Avoid boiled, unfiltered coffee, which increases cholesterol. And don’t change the health profile of your coffee by your choices at the coffee station. If you must add a sweetener or cream, use low-calorie and low-fat varieties. Enjoy your morning cup.
Drs. Nissen and Gillinov are authors of the new book Heart 411: The Only Guide To Heart Health You'll Ever Need.
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