New research from Oakland, California, says coffee may protect the livers of heavy alcohol drinkers. Dr. Arthur Klatsky led a team that reviewed data from more than 100,000 members of one of the nation's largest health care systems. "The more coffee people reported drinking," he reports, "the less likely they were to be hospitalized or die [as a result] of liver cirrhosis."
The protection was strongest in people who got cirrhosis from heavy drinking rather than from other causes like hepatitis and who drank one to three cups of coffee daily. Smaller amounts of coffee didn't provide any protection.
The researchers weren't able to identify what it is about coffee that protects the liver. Klatsky says they considered the most obvious chemical in coffee, caffeine. "We found absolutely no relation of tea drinking to risk of cirrhosis, and tea has some caffeine. That's a point against it being caffeine, but not an overwhelmingly convincing point. So, it might be caffeine but we think it's likely not to be caffeine."
Despite their findings, Klatsky says alcoholics shouldn't think that having three or four cups of coffee a day makes it alright to drink. "Liver cirrhosis is only one of many problems associated with heavy drinking," he points out. "The problems are both medical and social, and coffee drinking is not likely to be involved with any of the non-liver ones. And the only thing that a person who drinks a sufficient amount of alcohol to get liver disease really ought to do is to cut down or cut it out."
He also says moderate coffee drinkers can be reassured they're not doing themselves harm by drinking lots of coffee.