Coffee consumption and gallstones

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This blog post aims to provide an overview of the topic relating to coffee consumption and gallstones, however further detail can be found by visiting Coffee and Health.

Current scientific evidence links coffee consumption with a reduced risk of developing gallbladder disease, or symptomatic gallstones.  It is thought that coffee may play a preventive role in their development.

Coffee may have different effects depending on the stage of gallbladder disease. Coffee and caffeine appear to trigger contraction of the gallbladder. It can therefore be seen that increased gallbladder contraction may prevent small crystals becoming large gallstones in early disease, but if large gallstones are present, gallbladder contraction may cause pain.

From gallstones to gallbladder disease
The gallbladder is a small organ situated underneath the liver. This organ stores bile, a fluid which is released into the small intestine during digestion, where it emulsifies fats and assists digestion.

Gallstones form in the gallbladder with over 80% composed of solid cholesterol, the rest is solid bilirubin (the main pigment found in bile). Gallstones are usually diagnosed using ultrasound, but other procedures may also be used.

The incidence of gallstones increases with age. They are also twice as likely to occur in women as in men and in the obese and although weight loss can decrease the risk of gallstones, rapid weight loss increases the risk.

About 80 percent of people who have gallstones have no symptoms. However, in the minority of cases, gallstones trigger severe abdominal pain. In these instances, gallstones can cause the gallbladder to become inflamed leading to gallbladder disease.

Coffee consumption linked to a lower risk of gallbladder disease
Overall results show that coffee consumption could play a preventive role in gallbladder disease. The combined data from three large studies show a statistically significant inverse association for coffee and gallbladder disease. This association is also dose-responsive, i.e. the risk of developing symptomatic gallstones falls as coffee consumption rises.

In the Health Professional Follow-up Study individuals drinking 2-3 cups of coffee a day had a 40% lower risk of symptomatic gallstones and those drinking more than 4 cups of coffee a day had a 45% lower risk, compared with those drinking no coffee.

In the Nurses’ Health Study women who drank one cup of coffee a day had a 9% lower risk of gallbladder disease compared with those who drank no coffee, those drinking 2-3 cups a day had a 22% lower risk and those drinking more than 4 cups a day had a 28% lower risk.

Both studies found no effect of decaffeinated coffee, indicating that the effects seen were largely due to caffeine.

A role for caffeine
The majority of published research shows that caffeinated coffee reduces the risk of symptomatic gallbladder disease. This would suggest that caffeine is the active component responsible for the preventive role of coffee in the development of the disease.

Other components, however, could also play a part. A small trial in the US found that coffee consumption raised plasma cholecystokinin levels and triggered gallbladder contractions, whether it was caffeinated or decaffeinated. This suggests a role for components in coffee other than caffeine.

In conclusion, the majority of the studies point to a beneficial effect of coffee in gallbladder disease. There is some evidence suggesting that coffee exerts its effect via caffeine, which stimulates gallbladder contractions. Further studies are however needed to clarify the exact effects of coffee on gallbladder function.

For more information on coffee and gallstones, and to view information sources, click here.

This information is intended for Healthcare professional audiences.
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