A hot beverage and your favourite blanket can feel practically therapeutic when you’re tired, cold or feeling unwell. When done right, though, hot beverages can do far more for our health than we realise.
It’s widely known that coffee contains a stimulant called caffeine (and is the richest source of it), which helps us feel less tired and increases our energy level.
What you may not know, however, is caffeine’s true power over:
… Our Brain.
When caffeine enters the brain through the bloodstream, it attaches itself to certain receptors, and makes our neurons fire more rapidly. That explains its stimulating effects, where it improves brain functions such as memory, mood, vigilance, energy levels, reactions times and general cognition.
Caffeine boosts our metabolic rate (up to 11%), which is possibly why it can help with weight loss.
It releases fats from our fat cells into the blood, where they can be used as fuel. This, coupled with the fact that caffeine increases the production of our ‘fight or flight’ hormone called adrenalin, means that caffeine can dramatically improve our physical performance as well!
… Or Even Lifestyle Diseases.
Coffee has some B-vitamins, potassium and magnesium, and is loaded with antioxidants. It’s actually the western diet’s biggest source of plant nutrients (called ‘phytonutrients’), which are known to fight free radicals. They’re also linked to the reduced risk of all sorts of serious diseases caused by today’s lifestyle like heart disease, cancer and even premature ageing. Coffee has even been shown to reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes – possibly an effect of both caffeine and antioxidants.
The caffeine content in tea is much lower than in coffee. Depending on the plant and its quantity, a strong cup of coffee can provide 100 to 300mg of caffeine, while a cup of tea may have just 20-60mg.
Here’s a surprising little fact about tea, though: it has three other stimulants!
1] Theobromine, which reduces blood pressure
2] Theophylline, which makes breathing easier, by relaxing muscles in the airways
3] L-Theanine, which generates brain waves called ‘Alpha waves’ that make us feel relaxed without any sign of drowsiness. When combined with caffeine, L-Theanine may even improve attention and general cognition.1
Although these are found in very small quantities, they seem to work in conjunction with each other. That’s why the nature of a tea and a coffee “buzz” is quite different; tea is more calming, while coffee makes you more alert.
If you don’t have a preference, these stimulants make tea a good choice for a stressful day, while coffee would be better when you’re very sleepy but need to focus on something.
The different varieties of green tea would in all likelhood go on to offer additional benefits by virtue of the herbal infusions in the tea.
#3: Hot Chocolate
Not many people today know just how healthy the cocoa bean is, but if you were to trace its use back to ancient times, you’d see that Mayan and Aztec civilisations were well aware of and using cocoa primarily for its medicinal properties.
A study has found that cocoa has twice the antioxidant capacity of red wine, up to three times of green tea, and four to five times of black tea!2
These antioxidants come from flavonoids and some other phytonutrients.
Flavonoids found in cocoa are known to reduce the pressure on blood vessel walls, thereby preventing high blood pressure and hypertension. Also, free radical interaction with LDL (bad cholesterol) is believed to be an early event in heart diseases like atherosclerosis. Flavonoids can prevent this by neutralising the free radicals, via their antioxidant activity.3 Other than this, chocolate also has caffeine.
Here are a few notes on the healthy consumption of these beverages:
On Hot Chocolates:
Packaged hot chocolate mixes, tea or coffee mixes, or those found at coffee shops are all loaded with sugar. The problems associated with weight gain, sugar addiction and obesity would probably surpass the health benefits of these hot beverages. Less sugar or artificial sweeteners and low-calorie drinks may be better alternatives.
Some people are quite sensitive to caffeine. The unnerving feeling of being overwhelmed by caffeine may cause restlessness, anxiety, digestive problems, heart arrhythmia and trouble sleeping. Pregnant women and people on certain medications are to limit coffee intake, too. In those cases it’s probably best to avoid caffeine altogether or have decaffeinated options with only 0-7 mg of caffeine.4
For caffeine-tolerant healthy people, about 400 mg of caffeine a day, which would translate to 4 cups of coffee (assuming 100 mg caffeine per cup), appears to be safe. However, don’t forget to take into account the many other sources of caffeine in our diet, including soft drinks, some protein shakes, energy drinks, and certain medications.
Caffeine has created a fair amount of controversy when it comes to its effects on the body. Let’s take a look at some of the statements that have been made about caffeine, and see how accurate they are.
1] Statement: “Caffeine causes dehydration”
Fact: While caffeine is a diuretic (i.e. it causes water loss), the loss of water that’s caused by drinking moderate amounts of tea and coffee is mild, and can thus be easily replaced by water from food.
2] Statement: “Caffeine increases blood pressure”
Fact: This is true, but the effect is small (3-4 mm/Hg) and usually goes away if you have it regularly. However, the effect may persist in some people – keep that in mind if you already have high blood pressure.
3] Statement: “Caffeine causes constipation”
Fact: This isn’t true; in fact, caffeine can stimulate the muscles in your digestive system to contract, causing a bowel movement.
4] Statement: “Caffeine causes acidity”
Caffeine does increase acid secretion in the stomach, but this also depends on an individual’s tolerance to caffeine. It’s best to avoid caffeine if you’re facing issues with your stomach.5, 6
5] Statement: “Caffeine causes heat in the body”
Fact: There doesn’t seem to be any evidence suggesting that caffeine causes heat in the body.
Interestingly, though, there’s a study that suggests that hot beverages, in general, may leave you cooler than you were before drinking them! That’s because the heat reaches ‘temperature sensors’ in our food-pipe and stomach. These turn up our sweat-flow, cooling us down because of the sweat’s evaporation. In these cases, the heat in the body is – naturally – only temporary.7
6] Statement: “Caffeine worsens menstrual cramps”
Fact: Some individuals believe that their menstrual cramps get worse after consuming caffeine, which may or may not be true – there isn’t any evidence either proving or disproving it.
However, studies do show that when consumed with a paracetamol for menstrual cramp pain, caffeine can enhance its pain-killing effects and act like a painkiller itself.8
To sum up – while each of these soothingly hot beverages can be healthy to consume, moderation matters, as always. For now, though – cradle a warm mug and enjoy its evidence-based effects.
1. Haskell CF, et al. Biological psychology 2008, 77(2): 113-122.
2. Lee KW, et al. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2003, 51(25): 7292-7295.
3. Hutfless SM, et al. 2006.
4. McCusker RR, et al. J Anal Toxicol 2006, 30(8): 611-613.
5. Boekema PJ, et al. Scand J Gastroenterol Suppl 1999, 230: 35-39.
6. Boekema PJ, et al. Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol 1999, 11(11): 1271-1276.
7. Bain AR, et al. Acta Physiol (Oxf) 2012, 206(2): 98-108.
8. Ali Z, et al. Curr Med Res Opin 2007, 23(4): 841-851.