Well, here’s news worth celebrating with a big glass of Irish coffee. The more coffee you drink, U.S. researchers announced last week, the less likely you are to suffer alcohol-related liver damage. In a world sloshing in bad news, the assertion had the effect of a morning-after double espresso on anxious imbibers everywhere. Roppongi, home to more bars and coffee joints per square meter than probably anyplace else in the world, should just change its slogan right now from High Touch Town to Happy Health Capital.
As for the Irish, they must be thrilled to know that one of their signature national beverages — sweetened, whiskey-based coffee with cream — is not only delectable, but an indulgence and its antidote all rolled into one. (As a marketing concept, it definitely outdoes the old boast that Irish coffee is the only beverage to contain all four essential food groups: alcohol, caffeine, fat and sugar. That is just flippant.
For once, this was news with no downside. Drinking as little as one cup of coffee a day was associated with a 20 percent drop in the risk of alcoholic cirrhosis, according to the researchers in Oakland, Calif. who conducted the study. Better yet, they said, the protective effect was dose-dependent: Drinking four cups a day cut the risk 80 percent. (No word on whether five cups rendered people magically immune.) The doctors say they don’t really know why, but drinkers worried about their livers doubtless don’t care. They had just heard cardiologist Dr. Arthur L. Klatsky, the lead author of the study, say something very rare for a doctor: “Not everything enjoyable is bad for you.”
The good doctor was referring, of course, not to alcohol, which remains extremely bad for you when drunk to excess. (Drinkers will be the first to remind you of the widely touted health benefits of alcohol consumed in moderation.) He was referring to coffee, which has now been given a tremendous image boost. Last week’s news puts a whole new spin on T.S. Eliot’s famous line: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
Heavy drinkers with a fondness for coffee might have been doing just that, unbeknownst to themselves. According to the study’s findings, which were published in the June 13 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, there have always been some heavy drinkers who inexplicably did not develop cirrhosis, or alcohol-induced scarring of the liver. Now it is being suggested that coffee consumption might have been a factor. So, while doctors are also being very careful to say that the study’s results do not constitute “a recommendation to drink coffee” as a panacea for alcohol-related ills, even drinkers who can’t stand coffee will obviously start having second thoughts.
When the American author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote all the way back in 1891, “The morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it which the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce,” he was on the right track.
That evening cup of tea, apparently, won’t do a thing to stave off the ill effects of the cheering influence of the afternoon. The Californian study surveyed 125,000 people on their daily consumption of alcohol, coffee and tea and found no correlation between tea drinking and the protective effect associated with coffee. Researchers could not explain this but felt justified in concluding that something in coffee other than caffeine was helping the liver stay healthy.
Coffee has not always had the best press, being associated with down-and-out haunts and down-at-heel characters quite as often as with well-appointed parlors and upscale cafes from Vienna to Tokyo. “Nighthawks,” a 1942 painting of a near-deserted city coffee joint by the American artist Edward Hopper, captures the beverage’s sadder, seedier associations well. As a Newsweek critic described the iconic work in a celebrated passage: “(Hopper) paints the astonishingly complicated loneliness of the limbo hours in a coffee shop, like a glass-hulled boat trapped in the black ice of the city, lit by a slice of yellow light like stale lemon pie, and full of the sadness of a gray fedora, a red dress and a clean coffee urn.”
For all its noir romanticism, however, that image has been receding in recent years, as the good news began to trickle out about coffee’s benefits. Other recent studies have indicated that the drink can also have positive effects on the heart and help ward off cancer, diabetes, gallstones and Parkinson’s disease. It has also been suggested, though not yet proven, that coffee-drinking is linked to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. Given the numbers of people potentially affected, that makes last week’s announcement pretty much just the icing on the cake.
Or should we say the cream on the Irish coffee. Cheers!
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