By Robert Preidt
Prior research had suggested that drinking coffee may help protect the organ, but the new study suggests caffeine might not be the active ingredient at work.
In this study, researchers led by Dr. Qian Xiao, of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, analyzed data from nearly 28,000 Americans, aged 20 and older, who provided information on their coffee consumption. They were also checked for blood levels of several enzymes associated with liver health.
The study was published online recently in the journal Hepatology.
People who drank three or more cups of coffee a day -- including those who drank only decaf coffee -- had lower levels of these enzymes, an indication of better liver health.
"Our findings link total and decaffeinated coffee intake to lower liver enzyme levels," Xiao said in a journal news release. "These data suggest that ingredients in coffee, other than caffeine, may promote liver health. Further studies are needed to identify these components."
The study only showed an association between coffee drinking and liver health, it could not prove cause-and-effect.
"There have been several studies which have intimated that drinking coffee may be protective to the liver and even prevent the development of liver cancer," noted one expert, Dr. David Bernstein, chief of the division of hepatology at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y.
But, "while these studies are interesting, the concept that coffee is protective to the liver is a difficult one to prove," he stressed.
"Perhaps the most important piece of information to be gleaned from this study is that the protective effects are unrelated to caffeine but in fact related to some intrinsic component of coffee itself," Bernstein added.
"With that information, it would be important for future studies to attempt to isolate the ingredient of coffee which gives this effect in the hopes that the protective factor could be manufactured and used in patients with liver disease," he said.