Caffeine: Health perks and pitfalls
Do you need a daily dose of caffeine for your health’s sake?
Caffeine is everywhere. You sip it in your morning coffee, slurp it from your afternoon tea and nibble it when you eat a bit of chocolate after dinner.
You already know caffeine can help you stay alert and awake.
But apart from perking you up, some caffeine sources have been linked to major health benefits, including:
- Protection from basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer
- Lower risks for oral cancer and endometrial cancer
- Reduced risk for Parkinson’s disease in men
- Less weight gain over time and protection from diabetes
So, do you need a daily dose of caffeine for your health’s sake?
More research is needed
While some research has linked caffeine sources to some big benefits, our experts say the jury is still out.
“There’s some evidence that coffee or tea may be beneficial for weight management and lowering your disease risk, but whether that’s because of caffeine is not clear,” says Wenli Liu, M.D., associate professor in Internal Medicine at MD Anderson.
It’s possible, says Liu, that the antioxidants and other compounds in coffee and tea could explain the drinks’ health benefits.
The takeaway: Most studies linking coffee or tea to major health benefits aren’t conclusive and caffeine’s role is uncertain.
Caffeine can cause problems
“We know for certain that caffeine in high amounts can cause heart palpitations and arrhythmias,” Liu says. It also can worsen stomach ulcers.
Plus, if you drink caffeine in the form of soda or energy drinks, you could take in too many sugar calories, which could lead to weight gain. And being overweight or obese increases your risk for cancer and other diseases.
Don’t add caffeine to your diet for a health boost
Liu doesn’t recommend drinking caffeinated beverages just to boost your health.
“If you already drink coffee and haven’t had any issues, then no problem,” she says. “But I wouldn’t tell someone to add coffee to their diet.”
Ditto for caffeine pills. “I only recommend supplements when someone is deficient in a necessary vitamin or nutrient, and that’s never the case with caffeine,” Liu says.
Watch your caffeine intake
Already drink coffee or tea? Don’t overdo it, says Sally Scroggs, dietitian and clinical program manager in MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center.
“How much someone can safely consume depends on the person,” Scroggs says. “If you’re not jittery and your heart isn’t racing, you probably don’t have to worry.”
On the other hand, a speedy heart rate or trouble sleeping may be red flags, Scroggs says. “You can certainly overdo it,” she adds.
Caffeine isn’t magic
In short: caffeine may provide a number of health benefits, but more research is needed to know for sure.
And if you drink coffee or tea regularly without any side effects, there’s probably no reason to stop, Scroggs says.
“But caffeine is not magic,” she warns. So for now, don’t treat caffeine as a health food.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 877-632-6789.