Coffee May Slow Liver Damage from Alcohol Abuse

A study shows coffee may help offset liver damage caused by alcohol abuse. Alcoholics who drank more coffee were far less likely to develop cirrhosis. But researchers warn that coffee does not erase all risks of heavy drinking.

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Here's something to consider over your coffee this morning. New research suggests that coffee might help protect alcoholics from getting cirrhosis of the liver.

NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports on the study, which was funded partially by the brewing industry and from Kaiser Permanente, a large HMO.

PATRICIA NEIGHMOND reporting:

Researchers looked at questionnaires filled out by Kaiser Permanente patients between the years 1978 and '85. They looked at how many got cirrhosis of the liver, which is a chronic scarring of the liver that causes the organ to shrink and become ineffective in processing nutrients and filtering out toxins.

Cardiologist Arthur Klatsky headed the research, which included over 125,000 patients - men and women - from various ethnic and racial backgrounds. Among those considered heavy drinkers, people who drank three or more alcoholic beverages a day, Klatsky found the more coffee people also reported drinking, the less likely they were to develop cirrhosis of the liver.

Dr. ARTHUR KLATSKY (Senior Consultant in Cardiology for The Permanente Medical Group, Inc. in Oakland, California): The relative risk at four or more cups per day was 0.2. They only were 0.2: one-fifth as likely to be hospitalized or die of cirrhosis if they reported four cups of coffee.

NEIGHMOND: A dramatic and surprising 80 percent reduction in cirrhosis risk, says Klatsky, of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research. In fact, Klatsky estimates that for every cup of coffee, patients decreased their risk of cirrhosis by about 20 percent.

Dr. KLATSKY: What this does not mean is that heavy drinkers should drink a lot of coffee and forget about the dangers of heavy drinking, because there are lots of other dangers of heavy drinking. And the only way that a person who drinks enough to get cirrhosis would benefit himself or herself is to cut down or quit drinking alcohol.

NEIGHMOND: Heavy alcohol drinking can also cause heart damage and dementia, but Klatsky admits his findings are very interesting and lead to the obvious question: exactly what ingredient in coffee might protect liver cells from alcohol poisoning? Klatsky doesn't think its caffeine, the most obvious ingredient in coffee. In the study, people who drank caffeinated tea did not benefit like those who drank coffee.

So exactly what in coffee might be protective is a complex question, says Klatsky, because there are literally hundreds of ingredients.

Kaiser epidemiologist Gary Friedman also worked on the study. Freidman's hopeful the findings might help solve this mystery.

Dr. GARY FRIEDMAN (Researcher, Division of Research, Kaiser Permanente) I think it could stimulate physiological or biochemical research to look more carefully at caffeine and other components of coffee and their effect on liver metabolism and the health of liver cells.

NEIGHMOND: Friedman says such research could help scientists understand why only a minority of alcoholics get liver cirrhosis.

Dr. FRIEDMAN: It's a finding that will help determine the causes of cirrhosis. The reasons why some alcoholics get cirrhosis and some don't are not fully understood. This finding may help stimulate research that will increase our understanding of the causes of cirrhosis.

NEIGHMOND: And figuring out what's potentially protective in coffee could be an important clue into why certain people are more vulnerable.

The study was published in The Archives of Internal Medicine.

Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.

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