As I’ve often pointed out, the best way to deal with a devastating disease like cancer is to never get it in the first place. And if you adopt lifestyle habits that limit your cancer risk, you may head off cancer before it starts.
One potential preventive step you can take is to help yourself to a drink that, researchers say, is the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet.
This natural beverage has also been linked to longer life and a host of health benefits. Keep reading. . .
The drink is a simple cup of black coffee.
Combats prostate cancer
What does coffee do to cancer? Let’s start with a study in Italy that looked at elements of the Italian lifestyle that help make Italians some of the healthiest people in the world. The study, which tracked 7,000 men for four years, found that Italian men who drink three or four cups of coffee a day significantly reduce their risk of prostate cancer.1
“By analyzing their coffee consumption habits,” says researcher George Pounis, “and comparing them with prostate cancer cases occurring over time, we saw a net reduction of risk, 53%, in those who drank more than three cups a day.”
Just for the record, reducing prostate cancer risk by half is quite an achievement.
In the lab, the Italian scientists examined coffee extracts for their effect on prostate cancer cells. Their tests found that caffeinated coffee – but not decaf – caused cancer cells to reproduce at a slower rate and blocked their ability to metastasize and spread to other sites in the body.
This led the researchers to believe that the caffeine in coffee is an important element in its power against cancer.
The scientists also stress that even without considering the caffeine content, not all coffee contains the same substances. The Italians make their coffee without filtering it, which makes it different from the coffee that Americans consume. It means their brew contains a substantial amount of solids that we throw away.
“We should keep in mind that the study is conducted on a central Italy population,” says researcher Licia Iacoviello. “They prepare coffee in a rigorously Italian way: high pressure, very high water temperature and with no filters. This method, different from those followed in other areas of the world, could lead to a higher concentration of bio-active substances. It will be very interesting, now, to explore this aspect. Coffee is an integral part of Italian lifestyle, which, we must remember, is not made just by individual foods, but also by the specific way they are prepared.”
Cuts back on colorectal cancer, too
Meanwhile, a study in Israel that involved researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), found that it’s not just Italian coffee drinkers who enjoy a reduced risk of cancer compared to coffee abstainers.2
This study compared the beverage and dietary habits of more than 5,000 Israelis with colorectal cancer to the foods and beverages consumed by a comparable group of people who did not have cancer.
The conclusion of the study: “We found that drinking coffee is associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer, and the more coffee consumed, the lower the risk,” says researcher Stephen Gruber, who directs the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.
In this research, one or two cups of coffee a day dropped the cancer risk by slightly more than one-fourth. And drinking 2.5 cups a day or more of coffee daily shrank the colorectal cancer risk by about half. Additional good news is that the lower cancer risk was found for both caffeinated and decaf coffee drinkers.
“We were somewhat surprised to see that caffeine did not seem to matter,” Gruber says. “This indicates that caffeine alone is not responsible for coffee’s protective properties.”
This is probably a good time to say that coffee is a complex beverage that contains a great many different compounds. Hard to say which among them – or what combination – accounts for the health benefits.
The USC scientists point out that the polyphenols in coffee (natural, plant substances that help our bodies stay healthier), as well as caffeine, are antioxidants that can limit the spread of colon cells that threaten to form tumors. And when coffee beans are roasted, the roasting process produces other substances called melanoidins that help the digestive tract function more effectively – emptying out faster and eliminating toxins.
Coffee also contains substances called diterpenes that may prevent cancer by enhancing the body’s defense against oxidative damage.
And while the Italian researchers believe that Italian coffee is particularly effective against cancer, the American researchers believe that any kind of coffee you prefer should be helpful.
“The levels of beneficial compounds per serving of coffee vary depending on the bean, roast and brewing method,” says researcher Stephanie Schmit. “The good news is that our data presents a decreased risk of colorectal cancer regardless of what flavor or form of coffee you prefer.”
Medicinal value for cancer patients
Along with lowering the risk of cancer, research now shows that coffee may boost your odds of surviving cancer if you develop a form of the disease.
When researchers at Harvard and other institutions took a look at how drinking coffee might affect the chances of dying from colon cancer, they found that people – in this case Americans – who developed colon cancer and who drank two or three cups of regular coffee a day ran a significantly lower risk of having their cancer come back or kill them than folks who never drank coffee.3
In this study, the people who drank at least four cups of caffeinated coffee a day had their cancer recurrence risk almost cut in half.
The analysis involved a thousand patients who had undergone surgery and chemotherapy for stage III colon cancer. The four-cup-a-day coffee drinkers enjoyed a 42 percent reduced chance of the cancer regrowing and a one-third lower risk of dying during the six months of the study.
Many benefits besides cancer prevention
Even aside from its relationship to cancer risk, a wide range of studies is showing health benefits for coffee. For instance, another analysis at USC that tracked the health of more than 180,000 Americans discovered that, during the twenty years of the study, drinking a cup of coffee every day reduced the risk of dying (from any cause) by 12 percent. For folks who downed two to three cups daily, the chance of death was 18 percent lower compared to people who don’t drink coffee.4
Many of these benefits probably derive from coffee’s antioxidant ingredients which dwarf the antioxidant content of the overly-processed foods so many Americans eat in large quantities.
As a matter of fact, according to scientists at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, coffee is the top source of antioxidants consumed by most Americans in their daily diets.5
“Americans get more of their antioxidants from coffee than any other dietary source. Nothing else comes close,” says researcher Joe Vinson.
Half of all Americans drink at least a cup of coffee a day. And when the Scranton researchers analyzed our consumption of about 100 different foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, oil, spices and beverages, they found that coffee’s natural chemicals provide more antioxidants to the average American who consumes coffee than do those of any other food item.
Of course, I think it’s foolish to eat too many processed foods. Important nutrients have usually been removed from these foods, they are too rich in sugar and unhealthy types of fat, they’re usually loaded with chemical food additives, and they are even likely to absorb health-threatening chemicals from their packaging materials.
But whatever you choose to eat, if you like coffee, there’s are good reasons to brew yourself a cup or two daily. I would just add that you should drink it in moderation. I know people who drink coffee throughout the day, cup after cup. That’s probably too much. Up to about four cups a day seems to be optimal for the benefits described here.
Personally, I drink only modest amounts of caffeine because I get too wired, and the effect lasts for a long time. A cup at 8 AM can have me awake and sleepless at 2 AM that night. If you’re having trouble sleeping, you should try cutting back on caffeine (sleeping poorly increases not only your cancer risk but your Alzheimer’s risk as well).