Your morning coffee boasts big benefits for your brain.
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In addition to improving alertness, concentration and mood, coffee may also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, says Nina Riggins MD, PhD, director of the Headache and Traumatic Brain Injury Center at University of California San Diego and member of the American Neurological Association.
What's more, moderate coffee drinking may lower your risk of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, according to an April 2017 review in Archives of Medical Science.
And all these benefits can be yours as long as you drink your java the right way. Yep, there's a right and wrong way to do it. And the latter can be a health hazard for your brain.
Here, Dr. Riggins discusses common coffee mistakes that may be minimizing your cognitive abilities, plus what to do instead to keep your brain in brilliant shape.
1. Drinking Too Much
While in moderation coffee may have protective properties for brain health, in excess it could cause more harm than good.
Case in point: A June 2021 Nutritional Neuroscience study found that drinking more than six cups of coffee a day was associated with smaller total brain volumes and a 53 percent increased risk of dementia.
Fix it: For healthy adults, 400 milligrams of caffeine a day is considered generally safe, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is about four cups of home-brewed coffee. So stick to that amount or less (and don't forget to take into account the caffeine you may be getting from other sources, such as caffeinated tea, energy drinks and chocolate).
2. Drinking It Too Late in the Day
You might look to energy-boosting caffeine to help you manage the midday slump, but that late-day cup of joe may make you too jittery to wind down come bedtime.
That's because caffeine — which is a stimulant — remains in your bloodstream long after you've taken your last sip.
Caffeine's half-life is approximately five hours, Dr. Riggins says. That means it can take up to twice the time — 10 hours — to totally clear from your system. Which is why drinking coffee later in the day can be problematic for sleep.
And over time, sleepless nights may even increase the buildup of beta-amyloid, a protein in the brain linked to impaired cognition and Alzheimer's disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Fix it: Dr. Riggins recommends avoiding caffeine use for at least six hours before bedtime.
3. Spooning in a Lot of Sugar
If you take your coffee sweet, you might not be doing your brain any favors.
Indeed, a July 2019 study in Clinical Interventions in Aging found that excessive sugar consumption in older adults is associated with poor cognitive function. And for anyone, chronically high blood sugar can shrink the brain, affect its functional connectivity and lead to small-vessel disease, per Harvard Medical School.
Fix it: Sack the sugar. Or at least limit the amount you spoon into your coffee cup.
For reference, people assigned male at birth should get no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day, while those assigned female at birth should stick to 6 teaspoons or less, according to the American Heart Association. (Added sugar shows up in many processed and packaged foods, so it's easy to get too much, even if you're not adding teaspoons to your mug.)
4. Quitting Cold Turkey
Trying to curb your caffeine habit? It might be best to wean your way off gradually.
When you're a regular coffee drinker, you can experience withdrawal symptoms if you quit cold turkey. "Once dialysis removes caffeine from the system, a person can develop a caffeine withdrawal headache," Dr. Riggins says.
Plus, a rapid reduction of caffeine can also result in difficulty concentrating, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Fix it: To avoid the pounding head pain and brain fog, cut down your caffeine intake little by little. Try alternating between regular and decaf coffee, then slowly switch to more decaf, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Is This an Emergency?
- Nutritional Neuroscience: “High coffee consumption, brain volume and risk of dementia and stroke”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Caffeine: How to Hack It and How to Quit It”
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency"
- National Institutes of Health: "Sleep deprivation increases Alzheimer’s protein"
- Clinical Interventions in Aging: “Habitual sugar intake and cognitive impairment among multi-ethnic Malaysian older adults
- American Heart Association: “How much sugar is too much?”
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Spilling the Beans: How Much Caffeine is Too Much?”
- Archives of Medical Science: "Can coffee consumption lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease? A literature review"
- Harvard Medical School: "Sugar and the Brain"