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Which Coffee Compounds Protect the Brain?

A combination of two coffee compounds act synergistically to protect the brain in mice. Human coffee drinkers also benefit.

If you, like many people, can’t face the day without a hot cup of coffee, there’s good news. Scientists at Rutgers have evidence that the combination of caffeine with a special fatty acid present in coffee can protect the brain (PNAS, Dec. 3, 2018).

Combo of Coffee Compounds Protect the Brain in Mice:

They studied mice and found that neither caffeine nor the fatty acid EHT alone had much impact (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online Dec. 3, 2018). EHT stands for eicosanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamide.

On the other hand, the two ingredients combined prevented a buildup of proteins in mouse brains. These proteins are markers for both Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. Mice given this combination for six months had less brain inflammation and better neuronal integrity. They also performed better on tests such as balancing on rotating rods.

Will Coffee Compounds Protect the Brain in Humans?

The scientists caution that they will need to do more research to determine appropriate doses to help protect humans from these devastating brain diseases. Previous research has indicated that people who drink coffee regularly, in moderation, reduce their chance of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Other researchers have been studying coffee to try to figure out if the apparent benefits of this beverage are due to caffeine alone. After all, coffee is a botanical product that contains hundreds of distinctive compounds. A number of these are biologically active. In summary, they identified phenylindane, a compound that is enhanced with darker roasting, as a way to protect the brain.

Other Benefits of Drinking Coffee:

Coffee and Cognitive Function:

A study published in Scientific Reports explains how coffee improves cognitive function (Scientific Reports, July 13, 2021). The scientists used electroencephalograms to determine functional connectivity of brain regions before and after caffeine consumption. In addition, the 21 subjects completed several cognitive tests. After they drank their coffee, volunteers had improved executive function. This correlated with more efficient brain connectivity. The results reinforced previous data suggesting that caffeine improves attention, cognition and memory.

According to the researchers,

“The beneficial effects of coffee on cognitive function might be attributed to the reorganization of FC toward more efficient network properties.”

Coffee May Boost Longevity:

Coffee drinkers may also live longer, as an earlier study indicated. An observational study that included 167,000 female nurses and about 40,000 male health professionals found that those who drank three to five cups of coffee daily were 15 percent less likely to die during the long-term study than people who didn’t consume coffee.

The research was published in the journal Circulation (Nov. 16, 2015). The study lasted 30 years and linked both regular and decaf coffee to better survival. In particular, coffee drinkers were less likely to die of stroke, heart disease, neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and suicide.

Previous Research That Found Coffee Can Be Healthy:

Coffee drinking has been linked previously to positive health outcomes. Investigators have found that coffee drinkers have lower risks of type 2 diabetes and several cancers as well as Parkinson’s disease. Chemicals naturally found in coffee may reduce insulin resistance, control inflammation and, of course, protect the brain.

Readers Respond to the Idea That Coffee Can Protect the Brain:

Several readers noted that drinking coffee can trigger heartburn or exacerbate GERD.

For instance, Carrie noted:

“I wish I could drink coffee, but it gives me heartburn every time, and I have GERD. I’m unable to take prescription meds for heartburn, so it looks as though coffee isn’t an option for me. Neither is mint, citrus, chocolate, or tomato dishes. Looks like those of us with GERD are out of luck.”

Other readers became addicted to caffeinated coffee.

Joe in Florida wrote:

“From my experience, I drank 4-5 cups of coffee each day. As a result, I became addicted to caffeine. When I did not drink coffee on a particular day (like while camping or visiting my in-laws who did not drink coffee) I would develop a TERRIBLE headache. I would have to retreat to a dark bedroom for several hours until the pain passed.

“My condition went away when I experienced an heart attack. After spending a couple of days in intensive care without coffee, I found I was not addicted to caffeine anymore. The headaches went away when I did not drink coffee. At the recommendation of my cardiologist, I now drink ONE cup per day.”

Deborah agreed:

“It’s important to drink really good, fair trade coffee, dark roasted locally, and a variety that’s low in acidity. I drink it black, which allows me to appreciate the uniqueness of varieties from around the word, and take pleasure in sipping it, as I do fine wines.

“I too was addicted — but then I was drinking the kind of coffee made in offices and restaurants and drinking it all through the day. Now that I’ve given that up, I’ve cut back to one full mug of fair-trade coffee every morning, which I prepare in a French press, drink black and savor every drop. It is so satisfying that office-made coffee is totally unappealing to me now, and I get through my days and evenings without headaches.”

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Yan R et al, "Synergistic neuroprotection by coffee components eicosanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamide and caffeine in models of Parkinson's disease and DLB." (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online Dec. 3, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1813365115
  • Ding M et al, "Association of coffee consumption with total and cause-specific mortality in 3 large prospective cohorts." Circulation, Nov. 16, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.115.017341
  • Kim H et al, "Drinking coffee enhances neurocognitive function by reorganizing brain functional connectivity." Scientific Reports, July 13, 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-93849-7
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