Coffee Could Lower Risk for MS—But Only if Your Drink Excessive Amounts of the Stuff

New research suggests consuming at least four cups of coffee a day significantly reduces risk for multiple sclerosis. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Many health experts warn people to watch their coffee intake, since too much of the stuff is well known to produce unpleasant side effects such as heart palpitations, jitteriness, anxiety and sleep problems. But recent research also shows that the beverage—even when consumed excessively—does have a number of health benefits. So, feel free to grab another cup.

A new study finds drinking generous amounts of coffee—more than four cups a day—may reduce a person's risk for multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune condition in which the body's immune system attacks the protective layers around nerves of the brain and spine. The findings, more proof that your daily Americano has neuroprotective benefits, were published March 3 online in the Journal of Neurology & Psychiatry. The study found drinking lots of coffee reduces risk for MS by as much as 31 percent.

For the observational study, researchers looked at data from two population studies conducted in Sweden and the U.S. The study out of Sweden involved 1,620 people with MS and 2,788 controls, while the one conducted in the U.S. was based upon 1,159 people with MS and 1,172 controls.

Both study cohorts answered questions about their coffee intake, such as the age at which they began drinking coffee and if the amount they consumed increased or decreased as they grew older. After adjusting for factors such as age, gender, weight and lifestyle habits such as smoking, the researchers found that high coffee consumption reduces risk for MS between 26 and 31 percent.

In general, lower risk for MS was associated with high coffee consumption compared with non–coffee drinkers. The Swedish researchers observed the highest level of neuroprotective benefit in people who consumed more than six cups a day, while the U.S. study suggested similar effects in members of the cohort who consumed at least four cups.

The researchers believe it's worthwhile to conduct further investigations to explore whether compounds that exist in coffee could provide treatment for people with MS—specifically if the health benefits stem from the caffeine or certain molecules in coffee itself. Additional studies would also need to examine if, and potentially how, coffee interrupts MS disease activity.

This study backs up findings of similar studies conducted on animals in the past. One mouse study showed that caffeine reduces the impact of neuroinflammation and demyelination (damage to the protective sheath of nerves that is the hallmark of MS).

Caffeine has been tied to plenty of positive health effects besides lowered MS risk. For example, it has been shown to suppress the body's production of inflammatory cytokines, a protein that plays a signaling role in immune response. Other studies suggest that caffeine intake can reduce risk for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. And a recent study found drinking coffee is associated with reduced overall mortality by as much as 15 percent.

An editorial accompanying the most recent MS study suggests the findings aren't that surprising, because a number of research projects in the past have shown coffee has significant neuroprotective benefits. For example, it is correlated with lowered risk for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease (both neurodegenerative disorders). One study conducted on rabbits found caffeine could play a role in preventing Alzheimer's disease by protecting against blood-brain barrier leakage.

"While the effects of coffee have been of interest for many years, its potential role in the prevention of [MS] has been relatively unexplored," write the authors of the editorial. "The intriguing findings indicate that the role of coffee in the development of MS clearly warrants further investigation, as do the mechanisms that underlie the relationship."