Can Caffeine Prevent Depression?
Can the daily cup o' Joe help to ward of depression? Well, this is the suggestion published in the Archives of Internal Medicine by Harvard Medical School researchers. As with all such research the authors prefer a fence-sitting approach by stating it's far too early to rush out and brew more coffee. Even so, their declared caution is offset by the claim that those who drink four or more cups of coffee (caffeinated) a day cut their risk of depression by 20 percent.
We're used to trends in food and drink. What was once good for you now isn't and vice versa. In some ways caffeine is a little like alcohol in the sense that it has psycho-active properties. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant while caffeine is a stimulant. I think most people regard alcohol as the more dangerous of the two, but both have a long historical track record in terms of their use. Similarly, the research into alcohol and caffeine tends to point in broadly the same direction. That is, in moderate use, the effects can be beneficial but over a certain point these benefits give way to concerns. Still, the focus of this Sharepost is caffeine, so let's concentrate on that.
Anyone with an anxiety disorder is almost invariably persuaded to steer clear of caffeine. It's stimulant effects are regarded as counter-productive. Anyone who is already highly aroused doesn't need more in the way of stimulation, or so the theory goes. It's convenient to think in terms of these simple 'do versus don't' categories and for the most part they serve us pretty well. If however we want to muddy the water a little it appears things may not be so simple. Caffeine has been around for centuries and its use and effects are not simply those of helping people to stay awake. In a normal waking day, we shouldn't need help to stay awake and as for taste, well lets face it this is definitely acquired.
Various studies over the effects of caffeine have been undertaken over the years. They tell us that, at worst, the average consumer of caffeine has a mildly addictive dependence evidenced by headaches and moods if the person can't get their fix. You may even know the feeling yourself? Are you someone that can't function in the morning until you've had a coffee? As to the benefits, well these vary. Caffeine activates the release of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters so subjective qualities appear to be increased motivation, concentration, confidence and social skills. These are precisely some of the qualities that people with a mild social anxiety might benefit from.
Depression takes us down a different path. In the Harvard study, the health of 50,000 US female nurses was tracked over a decade. During the time frame, around 2,600 developed depression. The essential difference, it appears, is the fact that more of these women drank no caffeine or were low-caffeine users. The researchers point out that even after controlling for additional factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, involvement in church or other community groups, those who drank more caffeine tended to be less overweight, less likely to have high blood pressure or diabetes, and of course less depressed. One of the known pharmacological effects of caffeine is that it blocks adenosine, which has a similar effect to increasing dopamine now considered to be an important factor in depression. Incidentally, reports from a Finnish study of 2,000 plus men, are broadly similar in their findings.
Is this a classic chicken-and-egg situation? Might it be that caffeine really does protect the brain in some fashion from depression or might it be that people prone to low moods choose not to consume caffeine because of everything they've read and heard about its properties? Depressed people frequently have disturbed sleep patterns so whilst caffeine may be used in the day to attempt alertness, it's probably not the thing to choose in the run up to bedtime.
So, the jury is out. Are you a caffeine user? Does it boost your confidence, your motivation and social skills, or does it make you feel uncomfortable and edgy?