[This is quite fascinating. I hope the study results are accurate. Jan]
We could all use some good news right about now, and many of us love coffee, so let’s jump into some good news about drinking coffee (at least potential good news). Here’s the thumbnail version: new preliminary research may have uncovered why coffee is linked to an impressive array of health benefits, and it could have everything to do with our most delicious nectar’s role in flipping the light switch on certain genes — the process known as epigenetic change.
If you’re asking, “what health benefits?” here’s a quick review: coffee consumption boasts a research pedigree linking it to lower blood sugar, better liver health, sharper memory, protection against developing dementia, and perhaps even longer overall lifespan. Along with those correlational linkages, coffee has a cocktail of compounds (and our favorite legal drug, caffeine) that boost our mood and generally make us more tolerable from around 8 am to noon.
In the latest study (which, I stress, is preliminary and working its way through the peer-review process), researchers wanted to uncover why studies so often find coffee, and to some extent tea, linked to these and other health benefits. Most coffee and tea studies are observational, leaning heavily on correlation, not causation, so finding a cause for the health benefits would be quite something.
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The researchers focused their search on epigenetic changes, which is to say environmental influences on genes (in this case drinking coffee and tea), which in turn alter the genes’ expression.
“Epigenetics represents modifications to DNA that do not change the underlying DNA sequence, but instead, influence gene expression,” the researchers wrote in the study. “Epigenetics is suggested as a mechanism mediating the effects of dietary and lifestyle factors on disease onset.”
The study evaluated “epigenome-wide” association studies of coffee and tea consumption of nearly 15,800 people of European and African-American descent. To get to that number of people, they included results from 15 epigenetic studies, which collectively covered a lot of ground.
“The major strength of the present study is the large sample size and multi-ethnic contribution,” the researchers noted.
By controlling for other factors that could also exert an influence on peoples’ genes besides gulping down hot joe, the researchers homed in on epigenetic associations specific to drinking coffee and tea, and found a meaningful handful that are thought to decrease risk of certain diseases, most importantly liver disease and heart disease.
The process by which coffee compounds influence our genes is called DNA methylation, and the more we learn about this process, the more it appears key to controlling epigenetic switches for a growing list of diseases and disorders.
“Collectively, this study indicates that coffee consumption is associated with differential DNA methylation levels…and that coffee-associated epigenetic variations may explain the mechanism of action of coffee consumption in conferring disease risk,” wrote the researchers.
And this isn’t the first study to find these sorts of results. Earlier research found that coffee may even “repair” broken DNA strands and reinforce whole strands against breakage, also through methylation, which in turn may affect the expression of genes related to everything from Alzheimer’s to Type 2 diabetes to Parkinson’s disease.
Even though this is good news, these findings are still preliminary and based on observing correlations between factors — not spot-on causation, but getting a little closer.
And hey, while we don’t need another reason to enjoy our coffee and tea, especially in these strange days when they bring us even more comfort, it’s nice to know they could be giving our DNA a little extra love.