Can a coffee a day keep liver disease away?

Researchers analyzed data on the coffee habits and liver health of 495,585 participants for a median period of 10.7 years.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read June 23, 2021
coffee healthy

The benefits were most evident among the group that drank ground coffee containing high quantities of kahweol and cafestol. Getty

Stopping to smell the coffee has never been a better idea, according to a study that says a healthy cup of joe, caffeinated or not, is tied to a reduced risk of developing and dying from chronic liver disease and other related conditions.

The research, published in the journal BMC Public Health, found that — compared to non-coffee drinkers — people who consume any type of coffee reduce their risk of developing chronic liver disease by 21 per cent, chronic or fatty liver disease by 20 per cent and death from chronic liver disease by a whopping 49 per cent. The health benefits, which top out at around three to four cups per day, were most evident among the group that drank ground coffee containing high quantities of kahweol and cafestol — two ingredients in coffee beans found to be effective at reducing the disease in animals.

“Coffee is widely accessible and the benefits we see from our study may mean it could offer a potential preventative treatment for chronic liver disease,” said Oliver Kennedy, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Universities of Southampton and Edinburgh, UK. “This would be especially valuable in countries with lower income and worse access to healthcare and where the burden of chronic liver disease is highest.”

To arrive at their results, researchers analyzed data on known coffee consumption from the UK Biobank — a large-scale health database containing the in-depth genetic and medical information of half a million people — and followed the liver health of 495,585 participants for a median period of 10.7 years. From this group, 384,818 (74 per cent) of people reported drinking ground or instant caffeinated or decaf coffee and 109,767 (22 per cent) did not consume any form of coffee.

Researchers identified 3,600 cases of chronic liver disease, including 301 deaths, during the course of the study, 5,439 cases of chronic liver disease or steatosis and 184 cases of hepatocellular carcinoma, a form of liver cancer. Compared to their abstaining peers, the livers of coffee drinkers enjoyed a reduced risk of experiencing any of these outcomes.

Roughly one in 10 Canadians — more than three million people — suffer from some form of liver disease, according to the Canadian Liver Foundation, although it is often difficult to diagnose because symptoms can be elusive until the disease reaches an advanced stage. All major forms of liver disease — including viral hepatitis, fatty liver disease and liver cancer — are on the rise and the death rate from liver disease has risen 30 per cent over the past eight years. Risk factors include alcohol consumption, diabetes, obesity, smoking and hepatitis B and C infections.

An estimated 3,100 Canadians were diagnosed with liver cancer in 2020, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, with roughly 1,450 expected to have succumbed to the disease. The five-year net survival rate for liver cancer is just 19 per cent. The likelihood of developing the disease, which is more common among men than women, increases with age. Cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis B or C infections and alcohol and tobacco use are a few of the more glaring risk factors.

While the authors the study are hopeful their findings can inform future avenues of research and treatment they acknowledge their work had a few shortcomings, notably that the caffeine consumption of participants was only recorded at the beginning of study and may not have accurately reflected consumption habits over the next 10 or so years. Also, because subjects were largely white and from a higher socio-economic background, the findings may not be as transferable to more diverse populations.

The team said it would be useful to replicate the findings across larger groups while implementing stricter controls over caffeine consumption to better understand any protective properties it imparts.

Dave Yasvinski is a writer


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