Coffee Drinking and Depression – What Does the Research Say?

If you struggle with depression, it pays to get serious about your physical health. Fanatical, even. Regular vigorous exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep hygiene, limited (ideally zero) alcohol intake are all excellent habits to develop.

What about coffee? And caffeine in general?

About half of us drink coffee everyday. (The percentage varies by country and culture, with Europe and the Americas near the top.) I’m in that half, so naturally I’ve wondered if and how it affects depression.

Fortunately for us coffee lovers, most research leans toward the view that moderate coffee consumption can be beneficial for depression. There are some areas of concern, mentioned below, but overall there’s no reason to worry about the morning coffee habit.

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Disclaimer: I’m not a medical doctor, trained therapist or nutritionist, just a longtime depression sufferer with an inquisitive mind. Please do not treat anything on Smash Depression as medical advice. Be skeptical of anything you read online, and get a second (or third or fourth) opinion.

Positive Studies on Coffee and Depression

A study published in 2011 in Archives of Internal Medicine tracked 50,000 women (mostly nurses) over several decades. Among the findings:

Women in the study who drank two to three cups of caffeinated coffee a day were 15 percent less likely to develop depression over a 10-year period compared to those who drank one cup of coffee or less per week.

The researchers cautioned, however, that the new study only shows an association between coffee consumption and depression risk, and cannot prove that drinking coffee reduces risk of depression in women.

A similar study published in 2013 in World Journal of Biological Psychiatry analyzed longterm data from 200,000 subjects found:

an association between drinking a few cups of coffee a day and a lowered — in fact, halved — risk of suicide in both men and women.

“Unlike previous investigations, we were able to assess association of consumption of caffeinated and non-caffeinated beverages, and we identify caffeine as the most likely candidate of any putative protective effect of coffee,” lead researcher Michel Lucas, a research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, said in a press statement.

The study reveals coffee’s ability to protect the brain as a mild antidepressant. The caffeine in coffee not only stimulates the nervous system, but also enhances the production of certain neurotransmitters in the brain that include serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline.

A recent meta-analysis conducted by Chinese researchers published in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry reached similar conclusions.

The researchers found a linear relationship between coffee consumption and depression risk, with a dose-response relationship of 8% reduced risk for each cup consumed per day.

Additionally, they observed a nonlinear relationship between caffeine intake and depression risk, in which “the risk of depression decreased faster and the association became significant when the caffeine consumption was above 68 mg/day and below 509 mg/day.”

Although researchers are not certain about the mechanisms driving the link between depression and coffee or caffeine consumption, several potential explanations have emerged. Previous findings have implicated inflammation and oxidative stress in the pathophysiology of depression, and one possibility is that the various chemicals present in coffee in significant amounts — including chlorogenic acid, nicotinic acid, trigonelline, quinolinic acid, tannic acid, pyrogallic acid — have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that impact depression.

Yet another recent meta-analysis published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research likewise found:

that consumption of coffee was associated with lower risk of depression. The dose–response analysis identified a J-shaped association between coffee consumption and the risk of depression, with a decreased risk for consumption of up to about 600 mL/day. […]

Results from this meta-analysis showed that coffee consumption act as an independent protective factor for depression and similar effects may be shared by tea.

This study’s “Discussion” section notes that “the mechanisms underlying the favorable association between coffee and tea consumption and depression are largely unknown” but offers some informed speculation.

The general trend of these studies: moderate daily coffee drinking can be beneficial, though researchers don’t know exactly why.

Concerns Over Coffee Drinking

There are a few legitimate concerns over coffee drinking for those prone to depression.

First, these studies all looked at moderate coffee consumption, roughly around 2 to 3 cups per day. Several studies cited an upper limit beyond which more coffee drinking ceased to have a positive effect. The second article linked above mentioned that “a previous Finnish study found a correlation between drinking eight or nine cups every day and a higher risk of committing suicide.” So don’t overdo it.

Second, coffee drinking can heighten anxiety. Many people suffer from both depression and anxiety. If you’re in both groups and caffeine makes you nervous, agitated or irritable, be careful.

Third, caffeine can impede your ability to fall asleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is enormously important to fighting depression. Treat sleep as sacred. For the sake of proper sleep hygiene, avoid caffeine for 6 hours before going to bed. If you go to bed at 10:00 pm, absolutely no coffee or caffeinated tea after 4:00 pm.

Four, coffee may contribute to dehydration (though some recent reports dismiss that as a myth). Dehydration can contribute to bad moods, headaches and fatigue. To be safe, make sure to balance your coffee drinking with plain old water.

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3 comments… add one
  • Robin Barratt March 30, 2016, 3:46 pm

    I enjoyed this post. I have both anxiety and depression, but still get some benefit from drinking a moderate amount of coffee. I should add that it just happens to work for me, don’t try this without consulting a doctor!

  • Jill June 22, 2016, 9:15 pm

    Thank you for this article! I do suffer from both depression and occasional anxiety, but will never give up my coffee. I have no doubt that coffee does help with depression, and according to some research, it may be the antioxidants in the coffee along with the caffeine that helps. I have tried tea, energy drinks, Vivarin pills, and 5 hour energy, etc. and nothing works like coffee. For those who suffer from anxiety like me, I take lemon balm supplement in either capsule or tea form, and that really helps take the edge off. There are a few studies available to verify that.

    Thanks again for this article. I research everything I can about coffee, because I’m still amazed by its ability to lift my spirits.

    • Margo November 18, 2016, 8:59 am

      Jill: I totally agree with you when you say “I’m still amazed by its ability to lift my spirits.” As I sip my second cup today I’m starting to feel like a different person. Glad to find an article and comment that validates that. I’m concerned about the effects it has on sleep so I’m trying to find the right balance. All the best!

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