“But first, coffee” used to be a way of life for me. On an average day, I’d drink anywhere between two and four cups to carry myself through the morning. But a couple of years ago, I started to notice the caffeine buzz that I once loved felt more like an adrenaline shot coursing through my veins. My heart would leap every time a work notification went off or someone stopped by my desk to chat. And, by the time lunch rolled around, it usually felt like I’d run a marathon.
A couple trips to the cardiologist later, I found out that I have a mild heart arrhythmia (a.k.a. an irregular heartbeat), which basically means my heart tends to race pretty easily, so now I see my cardiologist every six months to make sure everything’s ticking properly.
It also means I no longer drink coffee (I’m a devoted tea drinker now)—a change that’s tremendously helped me avoid triggering my arrhythmia.
Drawing Connections Between Coffee Habits and Heart Health
I’m far from the only person to notice their heart health holds some power over their coffee cravings. In a recent study, researchers from the University of South Australia found “causal genetic evidence” that cardiovascular health (e.g. blood pressure and heart rate) influences how much coffee you drink.
Using data from the UK Biobank (a large-scale biomedical database containing genetic and health information from about half a million people in the UK), researchers looked at the self-reported coffee consumption habits (measured as cups per day and caffeinated or decaffeinated) of nearly 400,000 people and compared that to their genetic samples, blood pressure and heart rate readings, and other cardiovascular symptoms such as hypertension or arrhythmia based on hospital diagnoses, primary care records, and self-report.
The results, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that those with high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat, or angina (a.k.a. chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart) were all more likely to be non-habitual or decaf coffee drinkers. And, using a research method called Mendelian randomization—which uses measured variations in genes to see possible cause-and-effect relationships between risk factors and health outcomes—the study authors concluded that their findings “provide causal genetic evidence for cardiovascular system-driven influences” on coffee cravings.
In other words, people tend to naturally adjust their coffee habits—whether consciously or unconsciously—based on their heart health, according to the study.
“Whether we drink a lot of coffee, a little, or avoid caffeine altogether, this study shows that genetics are guiding our decisions to protect our cardio health,” Elina Hyppönen, lead researcher and director of UniSA’s Australian Center for Precision Health, said in a press release. “If your body is telling you not to drink that extra cup of coffee, there’s likely a reason why. Listen to your body, it’s more in tune with your health than you may think.”
But Isn’t Coffee Good for Your Health?
The short answer: It depends where you look, who you ask, and what aspect of health you’re talking about.
At its core, coffee contains antioxidants and thousands of other substances that can help reduce inflammation and protect against illness. “Coffee and caffeine intake have been shown to have some health benefits, including possibly lowering the risk for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia, gout, alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, as well as a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes,” says Arrash Fard, MD, a cardiovascular disease expert at Adventist Health Simi Valley.
At the same time, though, “some studies link caffeine use to increased and decreased risk of certain cancers,” continues Dr. Fard.
As for heart health, a recent analysis of three large clinical trials, published in the journal Circulation, found that the more coffee people drink (up to three cups per day), the lower their risk of heart failure. In a press release, senior study author, David Kao, MD, called the results “surprising,” given that “coffee and caffeine are often considered by the general population to be ‘bad’ for the heart” because of their association with heart palpitations and high blood pressure.
Despite his team’s findings, Dr. Kao noted that there’s “not yet enough clear evidence to recommend increasing coffee consumption” to lower the risk of heart conditions “with the same strength and certainty as stopping smoking, losing weight, or exercising.”
Case in point: The same researchers from the University of Australia that looked at how heart health influences coffee habits, have also found evidence suggesting a link between long-term heavy coffee use (defined as six or more cups per day) and an increased amount of lipids (a.k.a. fats) in your blood, which can raise your risk of cardiovascular issues.
Plus, very few studies on the health effects of coffee take into account all the sugar, milk, and other add-ons that many of us enjoy with our morning brew. So, even if coffee itself does have protective effects on the heart (or other aspects of your health, for that matter), those benefits could be negated, depending on what else you’re putting in your cup.
Finding Coffee Habits That Work for You
What we do know with certainty is that caffeine can affect people very differently. That’s why Michelle Routhenstein, a certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES) and registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN) who specializes in preventive cardiology, says she always assesses a client’s sensitivity to caffeine when she begins working with them, regardless of whether they have a known heart condition, high blood pressure, or other risk factor.
“Some people are shocked to realize that their blood pressure is 20 points higher up to three hours post-coffee consumption,” she explains. “It’s important that we look at each individual’s reaction to caffeine and [make adjustments] if it isn’t a good fit for them.” (Find out how One Drop’s blood pressure insights can help you find similar connections in your health.)
Bottom line: “How caffeine affects the body can be an individual issue and needs to be addressed that way,” says One Drop health coach, Lisa Graham, a registered nurse (RN) and CDCES. “Some people are very sensitive in regards to their caffeine intake” and may notice jittery, heart-racing sensations after a few cups, “while others may have no symptoms at all.”
Your best bet is to talk to your doctor about your coffee habits to see what’s right for your individual body. Until then, here are some expert-approved guidelines to follow:
- Stick to one or two cups per day, with as few added ingredients as possible. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that three to five cups (at eight ounces each) of coffee per day “can be incorporated into healthy eating patterns.” However, other experts say they typically don’t recommend more than one or two cups of coffee per day for the average person, considering “caffeine is a known stimulant that can rev and stress the heart,” not to mention many people load up their cups with extra sugar and cream, explains Routhenstein. Again, if you’re not sure whether your personal coffee consumption is harming your health, talk to your doctor about it.
- Opt for filtered instead of French-pressed coffee. “If you enjoy coffee and have high cholesterol levels, you may want to consider swapping French-pressed for filtered coffee since the former may elevate cholesterol levels,” explains Routhenstein. Preparing coffee without a filter allows diterpenes—an oily substance in coffee beans that, despite having anti-carcinogenic properties, can also raise cholesterol—to find their way into your cup and, over time, negatively affect your health. That doesn’t necessarily mean French-pressed coffee is off-limits, but it’s worth moderating if you’re already concerned about your cholesterol levels, says Routhenstein.
- Or, consider switching to tea. “Caffeine found in tea, especially green tea, doesn’t always have the same effect as caffeine found in other sources [such as coffee] because it contains L-theanine, which has a relaxing effect,” says Routhenstein. For a caffeine-free option, she suggests hibiscus tea, which has been shown to lower blood pressure and promote better blood vessel health. Just keep in mind that some decaf drinks technically still contain a small amount of caffeine, notes Graham, so you don’t want to overdo it.
- Practice mindfulness. Whether you do so through traditional meditation or even mindful movement, mindfulness can help you improve your awareness of your body and its cues (such as feelings of anxiety or a headache after drinking coffee), says Routhenstein. “Our body has the ability to tell us many things; the issue is that not everybody is in tune with, understands, or listens to their body’s signals,” she explains. “Some people are in the fast hussle of life and rely on caffeine for energy, and if they don’t take a moment to connect the two, it can definitely be a neglected part of the puzzle.”
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations at One Drop.