The Truth Behind Your Cup of Coffee: Can It Really Lower Risk of MS?

There are plenty of treats that we all know may not be the best for our health – a gooey pastry, for example, or that large glass of wine we’re craving– but there’s evidence to suggest your coffee habit may be indulged in without guilt. A number of studies have indicated coffee may have certain health benefits, from lowering risk of type-2 diabetes, to reducing your chances of developing skin and uterine cancers. Now it seems your early morning caffeine kick could even help protect your brain.

Past studies have shown drinking coffee may lower risk of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, suggesting caffeine may have neuroprotective properties. However, if and how coffee affects multiple sclerosis risk has remained unclear – until now, as researchers may have taken us a step closer to understanding the impact. A team of scientists analysed data from two studies comparing the risk of developing MS between coffee and non-coffee drinkers – and the results could be an indicator of exciting things to come. You may well have heard the buzz in the media, in fact, as the findings were recently presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 67th Annual Meeting (18–25 April 2015) in Washington, D.C., USA.

The first study, conducted in Sweden, compared coffee-drinking habits of 1,629 people with MS and 2,807 people who had not been affected by the disease. The study revealed that those who didn’t drink coffee were around one and a half times more likely to develop MS than those who drank at least six cups of coffee every day (six cups!). The second study, which took place in the US, included 584 people with MS and 581 who did not have it. The results of this study also showed non coffee-drinkers were around one and a half times more likely to develop MS than people who drank coffee (although this time just four or more cups daily) during the year before the appearance of MS symptoms.

After analysing the data, the researchers concluded the results of both studies were likely connected to the caffeine content of coffee. Studies in mice have already suggested caffeine may protect the brain by suppressing the expression of cytokines – substances secreted by immune cells that can trigger an inflammatory response in the body. So it’s feasible that caffeine could help to suppress the immune system in humans and stop it from attacking cells in the brain and spinal cord.

Although this seems like an amazing breakthrough (imagine if the key to managing MS was in your coffee cup all along!), the researchers are rightfully cautious. As Dr. Ellen Mowry, the assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who led the analyses of these studies has pointed out, we still don’t know if caffeine was directly responsible for the effects, or some other behaviour particular to coffee drinkers, for example. The goal now is to rule out other factors and to identify exactly how caffeine affects the immune system.

And there are a couple of other considerations that also highlight the need for additional research before we can draw any firm conclusions. For example, there’s no standard definition of “a cup of coffee”, which makes it difficult to know the exact caffeine levels involved; and caffeine isn’t only found in coffee – so any of the people who don’t drink coffee may have been gulping down cups of tea or other caffeinated beverages that might confound results.

Another important avenue for research is the impact of caffeine on people who already have MS – after all, if caffeine is a natural anti-inflammatory, there’s a possibility it could reduce relapse rates and even disability in people living with the autoimmune disease. But this still needs to be investigated.

So before you start knocking back espressos, a word of warning: yes, coffee is associated with a number of health benefits, but it’s also a powerful stimulant. Too much caffeine can cause insomnia, nervousness, irritability, restlessness, palpitations, muscle tremors, overactive bladder and digestive issues. In other words, if you already experience tremors, bladder or bowel problems, or have trouble sleeping (as many people with MS do), it’s probably best to steer clear, or at least limit your intake. As always, if you’re concerned in any way, your doctor will be able to offer advice based on your personal situation. For those who do enjoy regular coffee breaks, keep an eye out for follow up research, this is definitely one to watch.

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