Coffee Has Powers We're Only Beginning To Understand

We always knew that coffee had more than caffeine going for it.

Like so many people out there, I am a morning coffee person. And no matter how reluctant I am to greet the day, I always know that the coffee I just brewed will get me out the door feeling much more alive and prepared to act decent toward my fellow human beings. I'd long assumed that it was merely the caffeine in the coffee that perks me up, but NBC News reports that researchers in Portugal have found the positive effects we get from our morning brew are more unique to coffee than we previously knew.

Coffee is more than just caffeine

The research, published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, found that there were measurable differences in the experiences of subjects who drank a water-and-caffeine solution versus those who drank coffee. Of the 83 study participants, 47 were given coffee and 36 were given caffeine diluted in hot water. Each person underwent an MRI scan prior to drinking their beverage and a second scan 30 minutes after consuming a cup.

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Brain activity in both groups showed a decrease in activity in the part of the brain that puts people in their resting state, meaning that the caffeine performed the same energy-increasing function in all participants, regardless of what they drank. However, those who drank coffee had increased brain activity in other parts of the brain as well, including ones that deal with focus, attention, and short-term memory‚ÄĒbenefits not shared by those who drank the water-based solution.

"The pleasure that is given to an individual that likes coffee in the morning, that actually is part of almost a ritual that really is also important for that individual to feel that 'I'm ready for the day,'" said Nuno Sousa, professor at the University of Minho's School of Medicine in Portugal and one of the study's authors.

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That would explain why the entire process of doling out the grounds and turning on the coffee maker perks me up a little, even prior to taking my first sip. It could also explain why, on days when I opt for something more utilitarian, like a canned energy drink straight from the fridge, I feel slightly more sluggish.

Sousa told NBC News that those who don't drink coffee regularly may not experience the same anticipatory effects. Other researchers noted that there are compounds in coffee that might have their own unique effects on brain activity, aiding functions such as memory.

The study didn't examine those who drink decaf, so it's unclear if that variety has any of the benefits outlined above. Additionally, most of the study participants were women, which means there could be differences in the way people respond to coffee as it relates to their sex. Finally, it should be noted that caffeine has other physical effects on the body to consider; it can restrict blood flow, which could influence or mask the effect that caffeine and/or coffee has on brain activity. In any case, it seems clear that our go-to morning ritual is cemented in our daily lives by forces we weren't even aware of.

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