Diet and Nutrition

Coffee is Good for Breast Cancer and You

Coffee has actual health benefits, and may even protect against breast cancer recurrence, a recent study out of Sweden has found. No, this message is not sponsored by Starbucks, which will no doubt benefit as well.

Health Benefits

Coffee comes from a bean, or a whole plant source, which means it’s “chock-full of antioxidants and other healthy plant chemicals,” says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., Director of the Practitioners Alliance Network and author of the soon-to-be released book The Complete Guide to Beating Sugar Addiction (Fair Winds Press, May 14). “Overall, it is a healthy food when used in moderation.”

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute analyzed 13 years of health data from more than 400,000 people, Dr. Teitelbaum says, and found that people who drank three to four cups of coffee a day reduced their risk of early death by 12-13 percent compared to folks who didn’t drink coffee.

Other benefits of coffee, from Dr. Teitelbaum and Consumer Reports:

  • Helps you live longer
  • Contains many good-for-you chemicals
  • May cut your risk for type 2 diabetes
  • Linked to a lower risk of depression
  • Improves memory
  • Decreases cancer risk
  • Decreases the risk and severity of liver disease
  • Lowers risk for Parkinson’s Disease
  • Prevents gout

Coffee beans on tree

Breast Cancer study

In terms of breast cancer, the new study from Sweden confirms that coffee inhibits the growth of tumors and reduces the risk of recurrence in women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and treated with the drug Tamoxifen. This study was a follow-up to a smaller one from two years ago and looked at 1,090 Swedish women with primary invasive breast cancer.

Information about the patients’ lifestyle and clinical data was combined with studies on breast cancer cells. As Lund University’s press release in ScienceDaily – says, “The researchers have demonstrated both in breast cancer patients and at cell level that coffee appears to reinforce the effect of treatment with Tamoxifen, but emphasize the importance of taking prescribed medication.”

“The researchers say their findings demonstrate the various anticancer properties of caffeine and caffeic acid against both ER positive and ER negative breast cancers,” says Jennifer Fitzgibbon, Registered Oncology Dietician at Stony Brook University Cancer Center. “In particular, they suggest that coffee may sensitize tumor cells to Tamoxifen and therefore reduce breast cancer growth. It’s possible, the researchers say, that the substances in coffee switch off signaling pathways that cancer cells need to grow.”

The take away is that if you like coffee and are also taking Tamoxifen, there’s no reason to stop drinking coffee. Just two cups a day is enough to make a difference.

Fitzgibbon does note some limitations to the study. She says the women may have under or over estimated their coffee consumption, especially if they were asked to remember it over a long period of time. The accuracy of coffee consumption is also questionable, she says, as the study didn’t provide a standard definition for the size of a cup of coffee.

As always, it’s best to take everything with a grain of salt. Correlation doesn’t mean causation, says Dr. Adam Brufsky, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Medicine, Associate Chief, Division of Hematology Oncology, Associate Director for Clinical Investigation at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. “There are studies like this that say the exact opposite,” he says. This blog talks about some of these studies and inconsistent results.

Caffeine Amounts and Risks

Consumer Reports says that coffee is a top source of acrylamide, a chemical whose link to cancer is being investigated. Also, coffee’s health benefits may be cancelled out if you add sugar and cream.

The amount of coffee intake is important. As CNN reports, “Most research defines a ‘cup’ of coffee at 5 to 8 ounces, about 100 mg of caffeine, and black or maybe with a bit of cream or sugar. It is not one of those 24-ounce monsters topped with caramel and whipped cream.”

Safe caffeine levels vary. It goes without saying that children should avoid coffee altogether. Adolescents should limit themselves to no more than 100 mg of caffeine a day, cautions Fitzgibbon. Heavy caffeine use can cause disagreeable side effects in adults, she says, and if you’re highly sensitive to its effects or take certain medications, it should be avoided.

To put this in perspective, Fitzgibbon says a 12-ounce cup of coffee brewed at home contains about 100-160 mg of caffeine. “Use a coffee maker with coffee pods, and you’re likely to get between 75-150 mg per cup,” she says. “Instant coffee contains between 135-148 mg per cup. Purchase that cup at a coffeehouse, and you’ll get between 178-260 mg in a 12-ounce serving.”

If you’re drinking four or more cups of coffee a day and/or more than 500-600 mg a day, that’s too much caffeine. You’ll likely experience side effects such as insomnia, irritability, and a fast heartbeat.

Consumer Reports also says that pregnant women should keep their caffeine intake to less than 200 mg. People with anxiety disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, or heart disease should watch their caffeine consumption or opt for decaf. If you have acid reflux, coffee is probably not a good idea.

So the next time you visit Starbucks, you might want to think twice about that Venti Iced Caramel Macchiato and get something smaller and simpler instead.



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Lisa A. Goldstein

Lisa A. Goldstein

Lisa A. Goldstein is a freelance journalist with a Master’s in Journalism from UC Berkeley. She has two kids, a love of books and sweets, and wishes her metabolism is what it used to be.