Could coffee help prevent depression? Harvard researchers believe coffee may act as a mild antidepressant

teaDespite a number of sources telling us that coffee is bad for our physical health, Harvard University researchers are telling us that from a mental health point of view, these little roasted beans could actually have a positive effect. Research from the American university published in July 2013 was based on the theory that caffeine is the major ingredient that affects mental health, and compared the results of studies that compared those who drank caffeinated beverages daily with those who did not. The results showed that the suicide risk was lower amongst those who drank caffeinated drinks: people who enjoyed between two and four cups of caffeinated coffee each day had half the risk of suicide of those who stuck to non-caffeinated drinks or decaffeinated coffee.

Caffeine has long been recognized as a drug that increases mental function, improving alertness and decreasing levels of fatigue. Research from American Dr Andrew Baum proved what we all know to be true: those of us who drink a range of coffee pods and are deprived of our fix get irritable. Even when study subjects thought they were drinking caffeinated coffee (it was, in fact, decaffeinated) this side effect still occurred.

But how does this work? One suggested answer is the fact that caffeine has been shown to increase the body’s production of serotonin: a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that controls aggression, anger and mood. The reason we become irritable without caffeine – or if we’ve drunk too much coffee and experience a “come down” – is because of the drop in serotonin levels in the body. This is suggested by a number of sources as a reason why caffeinated drinks are so popular: not only does it increase mental alertness, but it boosts our mood too. It appears, from a number of studies, that people subconsciously recognize the ideal level of caffeine that their body needs, regulating the amount they drink accordingly. Too little and they feel lethargic and grumpy, too much and they are likely to feel jittery and anxious.

retreats-1The serotonin theory means that the effects of caffeine – despite its legality – can be compared with the effects of illegal substances such as MDMA and Ecstasy. The highs that users experience when taking drugs such as these are mostly due to the subsequent increase in serotonin levels… but coffee is far cheaper, far safer and far less likely to get you arrested.

While the Harvard study provides the suggestion that the link between coffee and improved mental health is true, the connection between the two has been hypothesized for some time. There are links between caffeine intake and increased anxiety, as described in the 2002 report “Effects of caffeine on human behavior”, published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal, and the same report suggests that mental function is better in those who drink coffee. “Neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine”, a 2005 report by Anthony P. Winston, Elizabeth Hardwick and Neema Jaberi also talks of the link between caffeine and sleep and eating disorders, suggesting that doctors should ask about caffeine intake when diagnosing psychiatric disorders.

Despite the findings of the Harvard report, the authors of the study stressed that those who suffer with depression should not increase their caffeine intake in an attempt to combat it. According to the results of the study, there is not a great deal of benefit to be had by increasing caffeine intake above two or three cups of coffee each day – and, as previously mentioned, most coffee drinkers will have learned subconsciously to recognize the amount of caffeine that their body needs. Too low an amount will lead to negative moods, too high and anxiety levels, insomnia and headaches could be on the cards. In conclusion, while coffee could well help to prevent depression, it is important to understand that it also has other, potentially negative, effects on the body when the levels are increased.