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Coffee may protect against MS and 5 other ways it's saving your life

For decades, researchers have studied coffee, trying to find something bad about our favorite morning wake-up beverage. The tide has turned.
/ Source: TODAY

For decades, researchers have studied coffee, trying to find something bad about our favorite morning wake-up beverage. But the tide has turned and now barely a month goes by without a study touting the health benefits of the bean.

Coffee, a medical elixir?
Coffee, a medical elixir?Trish Hamilton /

The latest bit of good news: Coffee may be associated with a lower risk of developing multiple sclerosis, according to a study presented Thursday at the American Academy of Neurology’s Annual Meeting.

To look at the impact of coffee consumption, researchers compared 1,629 Swedish patients with MS to 2,807 healthy controls, as well as 584 California patients to 581 healthy controls. In the Swedish group, consuming at least 6 cups of coffee a day lowered the risk of MS by 33 percent. In the American group, consuming four or more cups of coffee a day also lowered the risk by 33 percent.

The researchers suspect that it is caffeine that is protecting brain cells, in part by suppressing inflammation.

That’s not the only thing that coffee can do for the brain, says Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It also appears to both help prevent Parkinson’s disease and help quiet the tremors in people who already have it.

Coffee also gets thumbs up from the influential advisory panel for the new dietary recommendations for Americans, with up to 400 mg of caffeine daily — about 3 to 5 cups of coffee — considered to be safe for adults.

Some other amazing health benefits from coffee:

1. It protects the liver from a disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis, as well as possibly counteracting the harmful effects of drinking alcohol, according to a 2014 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

A separate 2014 study from researchers at the National Cancer Institute found people who reported drinking three cups of coffee a day were less likely to have abnormal enzymes in the liver, indicating improved liver function. The researchers tracked 27,793 men and women, age 20 or older.

“That doesn’t mean you should drink a lot of alcohol and then have coffee to protect your liver,” Bonci says.

2. It increases the amount of sex hormone binding globulin, which in turn lowers the risk of diabetes. There are scores of studies on coffee and diabetes and the results are consistent: Coffee drinkers have lower diabetes risk. “And this isn’t a caffeine effect,” Bonci says. “But rather an effect of the antioxidants and polyphenols, which are plant nutrients, some of which are unique to coffee."

3. Moderate consumption may lower the risk of heart failure, according to a review of five studies. The key is moderate: about two cups a day.

4. It possibly protects against certain kinds of cancer. “There have been studies looking at coffee lowering the risk of various cancers,” Bonci says. “That’s hard to tease out. But there does seem to be evidence that people who drink coffee have a lower risk of liver and prostate cancer."

5. It helps athletic performance. Caffeine boosts endurance so you can exercise harder and longer, studies show. To get a rough idea of an effective "dose" for you, take your weight in pounds, divide it in half and multiply by three, says TODAY nutrition and health editor Madelyn Fernstrom. If you weigh 200 pounds, that would be 100 x 3 = 300 mg, about the amount in a large coffee.

People tend to think that coffee’s effects are related to caffeine, Bonci says. But in many cases, it’s other constituents in the bean that are protective.

“It’s a plant, a bean,” she adds. “Like many other plants, it contains nutrients. And you don’t get rid of them when you roast it.”

However, as remarkable as coffee is, drinking too much during pregnancy may be harmful, so if you're expecting, check with your doctor about how much is OK for you.

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