Tuesday, June 8, 1999 Published at 19:54 GMT 20:54 UK
Coffee may prevent gallstones
A cup of coffee may protect you from gallstones
Regular drinkers of coffee may be safeguarding themselves against agonising gallstones,US research has found.
Coffee, and the caffeine it contains, has been blamed for many health problems, including stress-related heart disease.
But doctors at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, discovered that men drinking four or more cups of caffeinated coffee a day had the lowest risk of developing gallstones.
No effect for tea-drinkers
Those who favourite drink was tea, decaffeinated coffee or low-calorie soft drinks with caffeine such a colas did not have the reduced risk.
Gallstones are caused when liquid stored in the gallbladder hardens - these can obstruct the bile duct, a narrow tube which leads from the gallbladder to the intestine.
Bile, a liquid which helps the body digest fat, can be trapped and cause inflammation, and if blocked over a period of time, the patient can suffer from persistent pain, fever and jaundice.
To prevent severe, and even fatal damage, the gallbladder often has to be removed, these days using modern keyhole techniques.
However, other treatments include pills which help "dissolve" the blockages, doctors are working on other ways to break down the stones without surgery, including injecting powerful chemicals directly into the stone, and breaking it down with shockwaves delivered from outside the body.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), followed, over a decade, more than 46,000 men aged between 40 and 75 without previous gallstone problems.
Men who drank two to three cups of coffee per day had a 40 per cent lower risk of developing gallstone disease than men who did not.
Men who drank four or more had a 45 per cent lower risk.
£2 billion cost
The report's authors claimed that gallstones cost the US economy $2 billion every year through hospitalisations.
They wrote: "Further studies are needed to evaluate the apparent benefits of coffee consumption for preventing gallstone disease and to assess the potential therapeutic effects of coffee."
Professor Monty Lowosky, from St James' Hospital in Leeds, said that while treatments to prevent gallstones exisited, any possible alternatives should be investigated.
He said: "Coffee is a very complicated material. If often follows that research finds out that something is happening, then goes on to find out why it is happening.
"You could increase the effect by finding out exactly which part of the coffee is causing the effect."
Professor Anthony Axon of the Centre for Digestive Diseases in Leeds said a drug-free method of preventing gallstones would be a step forward.
He said: "It would be interesting to know exactly what was the cause - if they could find a way of preventing them it would be a very good thing.
"It's a common condition that causes a lot of problems."
Recent studies seem to suggest that coffee, or at least its caffeine ingredient, is as much villain as hero.
Research suggests that its role in increasing the levels of the body's natural stress hormones raises the risk of high blood pressure, and subsequently, heart disease.
Other research last year even claimed that women who drank large amounts of coffee during pregnancy were increasing the chances of their baby suffering a cot death.
Although the gallstones study was conducted entirely amongst men, women are actually most at risk of developing gallstones.
Other risk factors include obesity, sudden weight loss, and diabetes.