Just the Thought of Coffee Can Arouse Your Brain

By | April 18, 2019

You know that feeling of energy and productivity you get after finishing your morning’s first cup of coffee? It turns out you can get that without even drinking a drop, just by thinking about coffee.

The provocative finding not only highlights the power of thought but also suggests you may be able to get a boost just from thinking about your favorite brew — a habit that may benefit those who drink coffee too close to bedtime. To be clear, organic black coffee can be quite healthy, but for those looking to abstain (such as during pregnancy), your alertness needn’t suffer — just think about pouring yourself a cup.

Thinking About Coffee Arouses Your Brain

In a study involving people from both Western and Eastern cultures, researchers from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management exposed participants to coffee- and tea-related cues in a series of studies.1 Lead author Sam Maglio said in a news release:2

“People often encounter coffee-related cues, or think about coffee, without actually ingesting it … We wanted to see if there was an association between coffee and arousal such that if we simply exposed people to coffee-related cues, their physiological arousal would increase, as it would if they had actually drank coffee.”

While a lot is known about the physiological effects of coffee and caffeine on the body, the researchers explained, less is known about its psychological effects. However, it appears that many people’s brains may be primed toward arousal at the very thought of coffee, especially in Western cultures, where coffee dominates over tea.

After being exposed to coffee-related cues, such as images of coffee, the study participants perceived time as shorter and thought in more concrete, precise terms, which is suggestive of a more alert state of mind.

“People who experience physiological arousal – again, in this case as the result of priming and not drinking coffee itself — see the world in more specific, detailed terms. This has a number of implications for how people process information and make judgments and decisions,” Maglio said.3

The effects were stronger among Westerners than those in Eastern cultures, perhaps because the West maintains a stronger association between coffee and alertness. “In North America we have this image of a prototypical executive rushing off to an important meeting with a triple espresso in their hand,” Maglio continued. “There’s this connection between drinking caffeine and arousal that may not exist in other cultures.”4

Smelling Coffee Increases Alertness Too

Many people love to wake up to the scent of coffee, and it seems this, too, may be one way to jump-start your day — and your brain. Researchers had university students take GMAT algebra tests in a computer lab with an ambient coffee-like scent or no scent. Those in the coffee-scented room performed better on analytical reasoning tasks.5

The researchers also did a follow-up survey asking whether participants believed they would perform better in a room scented with coffee or flowers or no scent at all. Most believed the coffee-scented room would boost their performance, and this expectation, the researchers concluded, was partly responsible for the improved performance shown during testing.

“Our results thus demonstrate that a coffee-like scent (which actually contains no caffeine) can elicit a placebo effect,” the study noted.6 The findings lend even more support to the notion that keeping a bag of coffee beans on hand for a quick whiff could you give you a mental boost in a pinch — no coffee drinking required.

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The Case for Drinking Coffee

Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world, and it’s intriguing that the love for coffee runs so deep that it may exert effects via scent or suggestion. However, the case can be made that drinking coffee is a good habit to get into, as it’s been linked to decreased mortality from a number of diseases, including heart disease, neurological diseases, Type 2 diabetes and several types of cancer, including endometrial and liver.7

There are more than 800 volatile compounds in coffee, although caffeine and chlorogenic acids are the most common. While it was long suggested that coffee consumption could be harmful, it’s now generally believed that moderate amounts of coffee (three to four cups) have few health risks and much evidence of health benefits.8

In one review of 112 meta-analyses about coffee, this popular beverage was linked to a probable decreased risk of colorectal, colon, endometrial and prostate cancers, cardiovascular disease and mortality and Parkinson’s disease, with researchers noting, “Given the spectrum of conditions studied and the robustness of many of the results, these findings indicate that coffee can be part of a healthful diet.”9

As far as your brain is concerned, drinking coffee is known to boost alertness, well-being and concentration, along with improving mood and reducing depression. While it can potentially disrupt your sleep, particularly if you drink it at night, and may increase anxiety in certain people, coffee is linked to a host of brain benefits, including:10

  • Prevention of cognitive decline
  • Reduced risk of stroke
  • Lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Coffee May Be Even Better if You’re Over 45

The benefits of drinking coffee may only get better with age — a major positive, since for many the love for coffee is lifelong. In fact, a 10-year study presented at the European Society of Cardiology congress in Barcelona showed that people who drank four cups of coffee per day had a 64% decrease in their risk of dying from any cause.

Among those aged 45 and over, however, every two cups of daily coffee lowered the risk of dying during the study period by 30%; no such association was seen in younger adults.11

In another study, this one in individuals aged 60 years and older, drinking two or more cups of coffee a day was associated with a lower risk of impaired agility in women and in those with obesity. Consuming two or more cups of coffee a day was also associated with a lower risk of impaired mobility in women.12

Coffee may also have a protective effect as you age, including in the case of silent brain infarction (SBI), which are often found in brain scans in healthy elderly people and may be associated with dementia and cognitive decline. Compared with those who didn’t drink coffee, people who drank three or more cups of coffee a day during middle age had a lower incidence of SBI.

“Our report demonstrated that SBI was observed less frequently in middle aged Japanese who consumed 3 cups or more of coffee per day. To avoid senile dementia and/or symptomatic infarction in older age, the middle-aged individuals might have to drink more than 3 cups of coffee every day,” researchers wrote in the Journal of Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases.13

Drinking two to four cups of caffeinated coffee daily has even been associated with a 50% reduced suicide risk among adults, compared to drinking one cup or less of caffeinated coffee, or decaf.14

Protect Your Heart With Coffee?

There are many heart-healthy actions you can take, from eating right to exercising — but is drinking coffee among them? It turns out that even your heart can benefit from a cup of joe.

Research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2017 found, for instance, that compared to non-coffee drinkers, coffee drinkers had a 7 percent lower risk of heart failure and an 8 percent lower risk of stroke for each additional cup of coffee consumed per week.15

Drinking more than three cups of coffee a day may also lower your risk of developing atherosclerosis, also known as clogged arteries, a condition that seriously increases your heart disease risk, by 63%, particularly in people who have never smoked.

“Based on our results and prior studies, consumption of coffee could exert a potential beneficial effect against coronary calcification and cardiovascular disease risk, particularly in nonsmokers,” researchers wrote in the Journal of the American Heart Association. “It is possible that deleterious effects of smoking overwhelm the benefits of coffee intake on early cardiovascular disease injury, so this impact of coffee may occur only in people who have never smoked.”16

Coffee Contains Antioxidants

When you think of antioxidants, you may think mostly about fruits and vegetables, but coffee is another excellent source. Further, because coffee is so widely consumed, it’s considered to be a major contributor to dietary antioxidants. With each sip, you’re gaining these beneficial compounds that can scavenge free radicals and more, as researchers explained in Molecules:17

“Brewed coffee is a complex food matrix with numerous phytochemical components that have antioxidant activity capable of scavenging free radicals, donating hydrogen and electrons, providing reducing activity and also acting as metal ion pro-oxidant chelators.

More recent studies have shown that coffee components can trigger tissue antioxidant gene expression and protect against gastrointestinal oxidative stress.”

While many of the benefits of coffee, including its cognitive ones, are often attributed to caffeine, research has shown similar benefits, including increased alertness, leading researchers to speculate that there may be other properties in coffee responsible for its psychoactive effects.18

What’s the Healthiest Type of Coffee?

If you’re not a coffee drinker, there’s no reason to feel compelled to start. There are still many other dietary additions you can make to naturally ward off disease and improve your health. However, if you enjoy coffee, there’s good reason to savor a cup — or a few — each day, though there are some caveats to consider.

Coffee, which is a heavily pesticide-sprayed crop, should always be organic, as well as shade-grown. Coffee is a shade-loving plant, but growers often strip forests to make growing and harvesting easier. This destroys the ecological habitat of many natural pest deterrents, such as birds and lizards, while the pests flourish, resulting in additional pesticide use in nonshade-grown varieties.

Drink your coffee black, skipping the added sugar and milk or cream, as the antioxidant capacity of coffee may be significantly decreased by the addition of milk.19 If you want to add something to your coffee, try coconut oil or medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, which may help you burn fat and improve mitochondrial function.

Start with a small amount, such as 1 teaspoon of MCT oil, working your way up to 1 or 2 tablespoons, to avoid gastrointestinal side effects. You can also blend in a pat of raw grass fed butter. This recipe is a favorite among those following a ketogenic diet.

Finally, while most people can safely consume coffee, if you’re pregnant you should avoid it due to the caffeine. Coffee consumption during pregnancy has been linked to low birth weight babies,20 heart problems21 and behavioral disorders in later life,22 so this is one population who can benefit instead by just thinking about, or smelling, this popular brew.

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