Coffee: Good or bad? Untangling the truth

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Is coffee good or bad for you? In recent years there have been reports that it may decrease the incidence of Parkinson's disease and the development of type 2 diabetes. However there is a dark side of coffee: caffeine. A fascinating study was reported in the 1972 Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The study was done at Loma Linda University in southern California,

A group of rats were placed in separate cages with a container of water and a container of alcohol from which they could drink freely. One group was fed what could be called a typical human teen age diet (TAD) and another group was fed a well balanced diet (WBD).

These diets were prepared in pellet form. The rats on the WBD drank very little alcohol while the ones on the TAD drank about five times as much as the ones on WBD. When spices were added to the TAD the alcohol consumption increased slightly. But when coffee was also added to the TAD the alcohol consumption rose to 13 times as much as for those on the WBD.

To give a better perspective, on a weight basis if a 154-pound man drank as much alcohol as the rats on the TAD with spices and coffee he would be drinking a little over a quart of 100-proof whiskey. I found this to be an intriguing and fascinating study.

Fast forward to Aug. 22, 2006. On that day the Farmington, N.M., a city of about 40,000, the City Council voted to ban smoking in the workplace. It was my privilege to be the chairman of the committee that worked to get that ban.

After the vote had been taken the reporter for the local newspaper who had been covering this issue asked me, "Dr. Casebolt, what are you going to do now?"

My reply reflected my interest in what I called the rat study so I told him I had something in mind.

When you have a study like the "rat study" which was the first of its kind one wonders if other scientists would reproduce or replicate it. In order to get the answer I have spent many hours on the computer searching the medical literature. Contacts were also made with researchers at schools such as John Hopkins University, Duke University and Wake Forest University, as well as alcohol rehab centers such the Betty Ford Center in southern California.

It was learned that since the 1972 study there had been two other studies done at other research centers with essentially the same findings-a poor diet plus caffeine induced rats to drink alcohol. Another study done in 2000 demonstrated that even when rats were fed a good diet but were given caffeine they drank alcohol.

Other researchers who have done animal studies have expressed concerns that caffeine could induce the use of drugs in humans. For example, in the journal Psychopharmacology in 1998 it was indicated that even though dependence on caffeine is not thought to cause the use of psychoactive drugs (drugs that work on the mind) in people there is increasing evidence that it alters the pattern of use of legal or illegal drugs such as nicotine in any form, alcohol, cocaine and amphetamine.

Then a different researcher had the following thought in the journal Neuroreport in 1991, "Because there is significant correlation between animals and humans it seems reasonable to think that the use of caffeine may cause compulsive use of cocaine.

In case anyone wonders how caffeine works in the brain it can be said that caffeine is a drug which like other stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamine releases a substance called dopamine in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens ... It is my understanding that all the drugs of addiction work there. Caffeine is probably the weakest one.

Roland Griffiths, Ph.D, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and who is probably one of the leading experts on caffeine in the U.S., and possibly the world, emailed me the following statement about a year ago, "studies suggest that caffeine can increase the reinforcing effects (that is the addicting effects) of several drugs such as nicotine and alcohol."

We have alluded to animal studies recognizing that some folks might say that they aren't all that important. In the last 100 years hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of animals have been used to check all kinds of medications and drugs and even surgical procedures to assess the safety and to make sure they worked before they were used on humans. The federal government has paid for many of those studies probably to the tune of many millions of dollars.

What that money has paid for will be the focus of next week's article.

Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine. He spent 4 years as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy, the last 2 1/2 years as a flight surgeon. He also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.

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