“Almost all my middle-aged and elderly acquaintances, including me, feel about 25, unless we haven’t had our coffee, in which case we feel 107.” — Martha Beck
It’s true that coffee can do wonders to perk us up in the morning and help us feel energetic and ready to face the day. But now, new research has found another potential benefit to coffee drinking: Lowering your risk of depression.
The study, at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, found that women who drink four or more cups of coffee every day have less of a chance of developing depression than those who drink only one cup or fewer.1 The scientists followed nearly 51,000 women, with an average age of 63, who were taking part in the Nurses’ Health Study. The women were tracked between 1996 and 2006 to determine whether they had developed depression. None of the participants had been diagnosed with depression prior to the research, nor were any of them taking antidepressants.
Over the 10-year course of the study, 2,607 cases of depression were reported among the subjects. The women who drank at least four daily cups of coffee had a 20 percent lower risk of developing depression compared to the women who drank a cup or less each day. Those who drank two to three cups a day were found to have a 15 percent lower risk of developing depression compared to those who drank less. The researchers defined depression as a diagnosis in combination with a prescription for antidepressants taken long-term. Decaffeinated coffee did not have any association with depression, positive or negative.
The scientists are not sure exactly why caffeinated coffee would reduce the likelihood of depression, but it does have certain effects within the body such as releasing the “feel good” chemicals dopamine and serotonin that improve mood. Many experts in the field believe that an imbalance in serotonin levels or a serotonin deficiency can lead to depression. Blood levels of serotonin have been determined to be lower in those diagnosed with depression, but no one knows if the levels of serotonin in their brains are correspondingly low. Studies have shown, too, that when dopamine levels are decreased, depression is more likely.
Then again, it could be as simple as the correlation between fatigue and depression. Back in 2004, the World Health Organization sponsored a study that found that people who are depressed are more than four times as likely to develop unexplained fatigue, and those who suffer from fatigue are nearly three times as likely to become depressed.2 Although the nature of the relationship between the two conditions is unclear, the study suggests that depression and fatigue may act as independent risk factors for each other. Thus caffeine may help relieve depression simply by helping to relieve fatigue.
The current research seems to bolster earlier findings about coffee lowering the risk of suicide as well. A study back in 1996 at Harvard Medical School in Boston found a connection between women who regularly drink coffee and reduced suicide rates.3 Those who consumed two to three cups a day had nearly half the risk of suicide as their peers who did not drink coffee at all.
So, with all these benefits to our mental health — not to mention other research that has found links between coffee and lower risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and more — should we all start consuming coffee by the pot-full each morning?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are still a lot of issues regarding caffeine that we need to be concerned about. One of the major problems with caffeine is that it can severely impact sleep patterns. Yes, if you have a morning cup of coffee, 75 percent of it will clear your body by the time you go to bed. But if you have a couple of cups of drip coffee in the morning, that means you will be going to sleep with some 50 mg still percolating in your veins — more than enough to disrupt the depth and quality of your sleep. And if you drink coffee throughout the day, or as an afternoon pick-me-up, the level in your blood at bedtime will climb dramatically.
There are other problems with caffeine as well. It is a diuretic and can dehydrate you. There have also been many studies linking caffeine intake by pregnant women with lowered birth weight and a significant increase in birth defects. It has been associated with nervousness, irritability, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and more. It’s also probably worth mentioning that caffeine is routinely used to induce panic attacks in clinical experiments. When given caffeine doses of the equivalent of that in 4 – 5 cups of coffee, nearly half of panic disorder patients, experienced a reaction that was indistinguishable from a spontaneous panic attack.4 And really, are you looking to swap out depression for anxiety?
When it comes to coffee drinking, there are no clear cut, easy answers. It’s up to you to arm yourself with knowledge about both the upside and downside of caffeine consumption and do what you think works best for your body. If you’re a coffee drinker, keep moderation in mind and try to limit yourself to two cups early in the day. This will provide 75% of the maximum anti-depressive benefit, while at the same time minimizing any chance of negative side effects. Try to avoid other sources of caffeine on the days you are drinking coffee. And don’t discount getting a good night’s sleep and living a healthier lifestyle — with the right improvements, you may not feel such a strong need for that morning jolt of java every day.
1 Lucas, Michel; Mirzaei, Fariba; Pan, An; et al. “Coffee, Caffeine, and Risk of Depression Among Women.” Archives of Internal Medicine. 26 September 2011. American Medical Association. 14 November 2011. <http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/171/17/1571>.
2 Petros Skapinakis, Glyn Lewis, Venetsanos Mavreas. “Temporal Relations Between Unexplained Fatigue and Depression: Longitudinal Data From an International Study in Primary Care.” Psychosomatic Medicine 66:330-335 (2004) <http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/content/66/3/330.full>
3 Kawachi, I.; Willett, W.C.; Colditz, G.A.; et al. “A prospective study of coffee drinking and suicide in women.” Pub Med. 11 March 1996. National Center for Biotechnology Information. 14 November 2011. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8604958?dopt=AbstractPlus>.
4 Bruce MS, Lader M. “Caffeine abstention in the management of anxiety disorders.” Psychol Med. 1989 Feb;19(1):211-4. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=2727208>