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Coffee Lowers Women's Risk of Gallbladder Problems

But researchers say it's not OK to drink more java

MONDAY, Dec. 2, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Women who drink four cups of regular coffee daily have a lower risk of getting gallstone disease than non-coffee drinkers.

That's the conclusion of a new study in the December issue of Gastroenterology.

Although the lowered risk associated with frequent coffee drinking was significant, the study's lead author hastens to add that he's not promoting coffee drinking as a way to maintain gallbladder health.

"We're not advocating that people in general start drinking coffee," says Dr. Michael F. Leitzmann, an investigator at the National Cancer Institute who conducted the research while at Harvard Medical School.

The investigation, part of the Harvard Nurses' Health study launched in 1976, followed more than 80,000 women for 20 years, tracking their coffee consumption and whether they had surgery to remove their gallbladder. In all, 7,811 women had gallbladder surgery during the follow-up period.

The rate of gallbladder surgery was about 25 percent less for those who consistently drank four or more cups a day, compared to those who drank no coffee. When the research team took into account risk factors for gallstone disease, such as obesity, coffee's beneficial effects were not modified.

In previous research, Leitzmann also found an association between coffee drinking and lowered risk of gallstone disease in men.

Statistically, women are at higher risk than men for gallstone disease, according to the American College of Gastroenterology, the professional organization for physician specialists who treat disorders of the gastrointestinal tract. Up to 20 percent of American women and 10 percent of American men get gallstones by age 60, the college estimates.

Women who have had multiple pregnancies and those who are overweight have a higher risk than other women.

The gallbladder is a pouch located beside the liver. It stores bile, a green-yellow fluid produced by the liver. After you eat, the gallbladder releases bile into the small intestine. There, the bile helps digest fats.

Some of the fatty components of bile, such as cholesterol, can build up and not dissolve, perhaps leading to problems, including gallstones. Sometimes, gallstones are "silent" and require no treatment.

However, if jaundice, inflammation of the gallbladder and severe abdominal pain occur, surgery or medical treatment can relieve the symptoms. About 800,000 surgeries for gallbladder removal are done each year in the United States, Leitzmann says.

Exactly how the coffee helps prevent gallstone disease isn't known, Leitzmann adds.

"The main mechanism is probably that the caffeine actually stimulates the gallbladder contractions," he says. "We don't have evidence for that," but previous research has shown that may be the case. The contractions, in turn, cause the gallbladder to empty more completely, keeping it healthier.

Another gallbladder expert calls the new research "an excellent study." However, he has a caveat.

"It's not a message to drink more coffee," says Dr. Ronald S. Siegel, a gastroenterologist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

"If a person comes in to see me and drinks four cups a day and has no adverse effects, great," he says. "If they drink two, I wouldn't tell them to drink four [based on this study]."

As to how the coffee lowers risk, Siegel adds, "The caffeine may affect contractibility [of the gallbladder], but I doubt it's just one mechanism. And there is no evidence that coffee will make gallbladder problems better."

Likewise, Leitzmann says he is not encouraging women or men to boost their coffee intake to ward off gallbladder disease just because he found a link between moderate daily coffee consumption and lowered gallstone disease risk.

Those who want to reduce their risk of gallstone disease should pay attention to their weight, Leitzmann says. Being overweight or obese have been linked to increased risk of gallstone disease.

What To Do

For more information on gallbladder disease, see the American College of Gastroenterology or the National Institutes of Health.

SOURCES: Michael F. Leitzmann, M.D., investigator, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Md.; Ronald S. Siegel, M.D., gastroenterologist, Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, Calif., and assistant clinical professor, medicine, division of gastroenterology, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles; December 2002 Gastroenterology
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