You reach for coffee to perk up in the morning and get over the mid-afternoon slump. Turns out there’s another good reason to make coffee part of your daily routine: liver health. “We have a lot of evidence that coffee is good for the liver,” says liver specialist Jamile Wakim-Fleming, MD.
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What’s the link between coffee and your liver? Dr. Wakim-Fleming explains what science says.
Coffee is one of the world’s most popular drinks. That’s led to lots of researchers exploring the health effects of a java habit. Overall, those studies spell good news for liver health.
“Coffee is especially helpful when it comes to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease,” says Dr. Wakim-Fleming.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease occurs when extra fat builds up in liver cells. It affects 1 in 4 people in the U.S., mostly in those who carry excess weight or have diabetes or high cholesterol. Over time, it can cause cirrhosis or scarring of the liver. That scarring can lead to liver cancer or liver failure.
But research shows that people who drink a lot of coffee have a lower risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Coffee appears to protect people who already have liver problems. There’s evidence that coffee is beneficial for people with hepatitis C, a virus that infects the liver and can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
In people who already have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, regular coffee drinking lowers the odds of developing cirrhosis. And among people who have cirrhosis, those who drink more coffee are less likely to die from the disease.
Sorry, you’ll need to reach for the high-octane stuff. Much of coffee’s beneficial effects on the liver come from the buzz. “You have to consume regular coffee — not decaf — daily to get the liver benefits,” Dr. Wakim-Fleming says. “There’s something inherent about caffeine that is helpful to the liver.”
There are other beneficial ingredients as well. “Coffee contains antioxidants and other compounds that all play a big role in decreasing liver inflammation,” she adds.
How much coffee should you drink? In this case, less is not more.
“We recommend at least three cups every day to help prevent liver problems,” Dr. Wakim-Fleming says. And if you have hepatitis or fatty liver disease, even more — as many as four, five or even six cups a day — might be helpful.
However, not everyone can handle that much coffee without bouncing off the walls (or worse). It can trigger headaches, difficulty initiating sleep, anxiety and jitters in some people. Dr. Wakim-Fleming only suggests going this route if you can tolerate it.
If you have an irregular heart rate or other heart problems, excessive coffee might be dangerous. Coffee might also cause problems if you have lung cancer. In such cases, steer clear until you talk to your doctor for advice.
If you can drink coffee without any problems, skip the cream and sugar. Since people with fatty liver disease often have problems like diabetes and obesity, it’s especially important not to add extra fat and sugar to your coffee. “Black coffee is best,” Dr. Wakim-Fleming says. If you just can’t stomach it black, swap sugar for artificial sweeteners. Add skim milk or plant-based milk instead of cream.
Drinking coffee is just one way to keep your liver healthy. Dr. Wakim-Fleming says it’s also important to get vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B viruses, which both damage the liver.
A healthy diet is also key. “The liver is the first organ to metabolize the foods we eat. Eating a lot of high-sugar, high saturated-fat foods can lead to fatty liver disease,” she says. And of course, heavy alcohol drinking can permanently damage the liver and lead to cirrhosis.
However, coffee isn’t a miracle worker. It won’t completely reverse liver disease or undo the damage caused by excessive alcohol use. But it can be one delicious and satisfying step toward a happier liver.