Scientists from the University of Nottingham have discovered that drinking a cup of coffee can stimulate ‘brown fat’, the body’s own fat-fighting defenses, which could be the key to tackling obesity and diabetes.
The pioneering study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is one of the first to be carried out in humans to find components which could have a direct effect on ‘brown fat’ functions, an important part of the human body which plays a key role in how quickly we can burn calories as energy. Brown adipose tissue (BAT), also known as brown fat, is one of two types of fat found in humans and other mammals. Initially only attributed to babies and hibernating mammals, it was discovered in recent years that adults can have brown fat too. Its main function is to generate body heat by burning calories (as opposed to white fat, which is a result of storing excess calories).
People with a lower body mass index (BMI) therefore have a higher amount of brown fat. Brown fat works in a different way to other fat in your body and produces heat by burning sugar and fat, often in response to cold. Increasing its activity improves blood sugar control as well as improving blood lipid levels and the extra calories burnt help with weight loss. However, until now, no one has found an acceptable way to stimulate its activity in humans. This is the first study in humans to show that something like a cup of coffee can have a direct effect on our brown fat functions.
The potential implications of our results are pretty big, as obesity is a major health concern for society and we also have a growing diabetes epidemic and brown fat could potentially be part of the solution in tackling them.” The team started with a series of stem cell studies to see if caffeine would stimulate brown fat. Once they had found the right dose, they then moved on to humans to see if the results were similar. The team used a thermal imaging technique, which they’d previously pioneered, to trace the body’s brown fat reserves. The non-invasive technique helps the team to locate brown fat and assess its capacity to produce heat. The results were positive and we now need to ascertain that caffeine as one of the ingredients in the coffee is acting as the stimulus or if there’s another component helping with the activation of brown fat.
Benefits of coffee drinking revealed by scientific research
Although coffee originates in Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula, it is one of the favorite drinks in the Western world and is widely consumed in Europe and America. Its main compound, caffeine, is a psychoactive drug with important effects on our nervous system and, in recent times, has been the subject of numerous scientific studies.
There is no doubt that coffee has lights and shadows, but as research progresses it appears that its benefits outweigh its harms. Coffee is not only a powerful stimulant (something that is good for some things, bad for others), it also has a vasodilator effect and seems to have a preventive effect on the onset of diseases such as diabetes or some types of cancer. These are the ten reasons why coffee is beneficial to health.
1. Keeps us alert
Caffeine is the most important component of coffee and the most consumed psychoactive in the world. Just after drinking coffee, caffeine acts on the brain, blocking a neurotransmitter, adenosine, which increases other substances such as dopamine or norepinephrine, which accelerate brain activity.
Many human studies show that coffee improves various aspects of brain function. This includes memory, mood, vigilance, energy levels, reaction times and overall cognitive function. In exchange for these benefits, coffee keeps us awake longer, which can lead to sleep disturbances. That’s why most experts recommend no more than four cups a day.
2. Helps us burn fat
Caffeine is present in most dietary supplements that are supposed to help us lose weight. It is one of the few natural substances that help to burn fat. The only bad news is that these positive effects of caffeine are diminishing in heavy drinkers.
3. Improve our physical performance
Many athletes drink several cups of coffee before competing, as caffeine increases adrenaline levels. This hormone prepares our body for exceptional physical exertion: it causes fat cells to break down body fat, releasing it as free fatty acids, which we use as fuel when we exercise.
4. Contains essential nutrients
We usually think of coffee as a simple mixture of water and caffeine, but the infusion has many other nutrients essential to our body. A cup of coffee contains riboflavin (vitamin B2), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), manganese, potassium, magnesium, and niacin.
Coffee is also the largest source of antioxidants in the Western diet, as it has more than most fruits and vegetables.
5. Reduces the risk of diabetes
Type 2 diabetes, the most common type 2 diabetes, can be prevented through healthy lifestyle habits: maintaining the right weight and exercising. But caffeine also seems to play a role in the equation. Studies have shown that people who drink coffee have a 23-50% lower risk of diabetes. There is research that raises this effect by up to 67%. Why this happens is not clear, but there is enough research to say that, whatever the case, coffee seems to prevent the onset of the disease.
6. Reduces the possibility of neurodegenerative diseases
To date, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s, the two major neurodegenerative diseases, and they are increasingly common due to the progressive aging of the population. In addition to healthy lifestyle habits, which seem to prevent the onset of both disorders, it seems that coffee consumption also influences their development.
Studies show that coffee drinkers may have 65% less chance of Alzheimer’s, and 32-60% (according to studies) of Parkinson’s disease. Caffeine seems to be the main culprit, as decaffeinated drinkers show no advantage.
7. Protects the liver from cirrhosis
The liver is our most voluminous viscera and the one that fulfills more functions in our organism. One of the most common diseases in this is cirrhosis, closely related to alcoholism, but also to hepatitis. Combining spirits with coffees will not spare you from suffering from the ailment if you do not drink moderately, but it seems that people who drink more than 4 cups of coffee a day have an 80% less chance of suffering from the ailment.
8. Fight depression
According to a Harvard University study, the risk of depression decreases when we increase coffee consumption, at least in women, which is what the study was done with. Women who drank four or more cups of coffee a day developed depression by 20% less. Again, caffeine is responsible for this reduction, since women who drank decaffeinated showed no improvement.
Moderate coffee consumption can also significantly reduce the likelihood of suicide. According to the group of researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health in Boston, those who drink coffee daily kill themselves up to 50% less than people who don’t drink it at all or who drink decaffeinated coffee. The proper amount is between two and four cups of coffee a day.
9. Reduces the risk of certain types of cancer
A group of researchers from the American Nutrition Society found that high coffee consumption reduces the risk of colon cancer. The study was conducted on more than half a million people and ruled out the benefits of decaffeinated coffee. Finally, a Swedish study released last year also linked high caffeine intake (five or more cups daily) to reduced breast cancer.
10. May reduce the risk of heart attack
Caffeine is known to increase blood pressure, but it does not increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, quite the opposite: it seems to prevent heart attacks.
One of the top academic authorities on the subject, Professor Peter Martin, who heads the Institute for Coffee Studies at Vanderbilt University, has criticized the “misleading association” between caffeine and heart disease: “Last June, a report was published that lists several of the studies carried out over the last decade that precisely link moderate consumption with a reduction in the risk of heart failure. These benefits would only disappear if more than four or five coffees were consumed per day.