Caffeine: the New Treatment of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?

Unless your physician has specifically banned caffeine, there is no reason to shy away from a cup or two—or according to the latest research four—of coffee or tea. Researchers from Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School and Duke University School of Medicine have revealed another possible health benefit of caffeine…this time as a treatment of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Research published in the September 2013 edition of Hepatology suggests that increased caffeine consumption may decrease fatty liver cells in individuals afflicted with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

caffeineWhen NAFLD Strikes

Your liver is responsible for turning food and drink into usable energy and for removing toxins and poisons from your blood. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease strikes when more than 5% to 10% of your liver succumbs to the buildup of extra fat in your liver cells. NAFLD is caused by obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, hasty weight loss and poor nutrition. When left unchecked NAFLD can cause the liver to swell, leading to scarring (cirrhosis), liver cancer and eventual liver failure. Aside from diet and exercise, there is no treatment for NAFLD.

Approximately one-third of Americans have NAFLD, which is especially prevalent among diabetics and the obese (70% in fact). There are often no noticeable symptoms, but keep an eye out for the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Spider-like blood vessels
  • Jaundice
  • Edema
  • Itching
  • Disorientation

Caffeine and Fatty Liver Disease

Using cell cultures and mice, Duke University researchers found that caffeine activates the break down of lipids (fatty acids) stored in liver cells. The fatty liver of mice fed a high-fat diet decreased when caffeine intake increased. This discovery indicates that four cups of coffee or tea a day can significantly help stall the progression of fatty liver disease in humans.

Paul Yen, M.D., associate professor and research fellow of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School’s Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders Program in Singapore expresses the researchers’ excitement as to the possibilities:

“This is the first detailed study of the mechanism for caffeine action on lipids in liver and the results are very interesting. Coffee and tea are so commonly consumed and the notion that they may be therapeutic, especially since they have a reputation for being “bad” for health, is especially enlightening.”

Health Benefits of Coffee and Tea

The health benefits of coffee and tea are substantial. Research suggests that caffeine may protect brain cells and reduce the risk of dementia. Coffee and tea have been proven to stimulate the gallbladder, thereby reducing the risk of gallstones, and caffeine also causes blood vessels to constrict, which reduces headache pain. Coffee and tea have been cited as preventative aids in heart disease, not to mention their high concentration of antioxidants.

This study certainly doesn’t negate the risks involved with excessive consumption of caffeinated beverages, but when consumed in moderation, coffee and tea impart many nutritive benefits. So, enjoy that cup of joe!