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Coffee seems to be uniquely beneficial for people who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD. But its benefits seem to be limited to former smokers and people who never smoked at all.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly abbreviated COPD, is a condition of chronic narrowing of the air passages in the lungs.

This disease category includes asthma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema.

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Because many people do not seek medical help until their symptoms are advanced, the disease is probably under-reported, but experts estimate that about 5% of European adults, 10% of North American adults, and over 20% of people in South Africa and heavily industrialized regions of East Asia have some degree of the disease.

What Are the Symptoms of COPD?

COPD manifests itself as wheezing, shortness of breath, and phlegm that just won't go away. The inability to really catch one's breath becomes profoundly debilitating, and simple infections of the lungs and upper respiratory system become life-threatening. Anything that can add even a little breathing capacity, a little lung power makes life easier, and a surprising source of lung power for non-smokers and former smokers who have COPD turns out to be coffee.

What Is the Evidence That Coffee Makes the Symptoms of COPD Better?

Back in the 1980's, researchers identified 15,792 men and women in North Carolina, Mississippi, Minnesota, and Maryland who agreed to have measurements of their forced vital capacity (how much they could breathe in) and forced expiratory volume (how much they could breathe out). The study excluded anyone who already had a diagnosis of asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema, anyone who was on an extreme diet (consuming less than 500 or more than 3500 calories a day), and anyone whose lung capacity tests suggested that there was already some kind of lung problem.

There were so few people of Asian or Hispanic heritage volunteering for the study that the researchers felt that data would not be reliable, so in the end the researchers only followed 10,568 men and women who were white or African-American. Both smokers and non-smokers were included in the study. And because the researchers ran so many tests, the data were not analyzed for nearly 20 years. But this is what the analysis eventually revealed:

  • Never-smokers who never drank any coffee, on average, could breathe in 2.90 liters of air and breathe out 3.76 liters of air in 1 second. Never-smokers who drank 4 or more cups of coffee a day, on average, could breathe in 2.94 liters of air and breathe out 3.82 liters of air in 1 second.
  • Former smokers tended to be better breathing shape than never-smokers. Former smokers who never drank any coffee, on average, could breathe in 3.17 liters of air in 1 second and breathe out 4.21 liters of air in 1 second. Former smokers who drank 4 or more cups a day could, on average, breathe in 3.28 liters of air in 1 second and breathe out 4.35 liters of air in one second
  • But people who were still smoking fared more poorly. For current smokers who reported drinking no coffee at all, the figures were 2.84 and 3.85. For current smokers who reported drinking 4 cups of coffee a day or more, the figures were 3.83 and 3.86.

What these numbers mean is that if you didn't smoke, or you used to smoke, drinking coffee could help you breathe about half a cup of more air with every breath. But if you smoke now, coffee didn't improve your breathing capacity at all. (There were across-the-board improvements in lung capacity at 1, 2, and 3 cups a day for non-smokers and current smokers, but no such improvements for former smokers.) What does all this mean?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Maclay JD, Rabinovich RA, MacNee W. Update in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 2008. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. Apr 1 2009. 179(7):533-41.
  • Nettleton JA, Follis JL, Schabath MB. Coffee intake, smoking, and pulmonary function in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study.Am J Epidemiol. 2009 Jun 15. 169(12):1445-53. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwp068. Epub 2009 Apr 16.
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  • Photo courtesy of Roman Pavlyuk by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/boroda/793258148/