Can drinking coffee be good for your health?

The researchers sought to answer a pressing question for many coffee lovers: Is drinking coffee good or bad for your health?

Your morning coffee ritual might be more than just a personal preference—it could be encoded in your genes. Coffee drinking, particularly the consumption of caffeinated coffee, is not only a widespread habit but also a subject of genetic research.

Scientists are uncovering how our genes influence our coffee consumption and how this habit is linked to various health outcomes.

The Study of Coffee and Genes

Sandra Sanchez-Roige, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, is at the forefront of this research. Sanchez-Roige, along with a team of international researchers, compared coffee consumption data from 23andMe's database with an extensive set of records from the UK Biobank. Their findings, recently published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, delve into the genetic factors influencing coffee drinking habits.

Hayley H. A. Thorpe, Ph.D., the lead author of the study and a researcher at Western University in Ontario, Canada, explains that the team conducted a genome-wide association study (GWAS). They analyzed genetic data alongside self-reported coffee consumption to find connections between genes and health traits. “We used this data to identify regions on the genome associated with whether somebody is more or less likely to consume coffee,” says Thorpe. This approach helped them pinpoint specific genes and biological factors that influence coffee intake.

Surprising Genetic Influences

Abraham Palmer, Ph.D., a professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine, highlights the surprising genetic influence on coffee consumption. “Most people are surprised that there is a genetic influence on coffee consumption,” Palmer says. “We had good reason to suspect from earlier papers that there were genes that influence how much coffee someone consumes. And so, we weren't surprised to find that in both of the cohorts we examined, there was statistical evidence that this is a heritable trait.” Essentially, the gene variants inherited from your parents can determine your coffee-drinking habits.

Beyond understanding the genetic propensity for coffee consumption, the researchers sought to answer a pressing question for many coffee lovers: Is drinking coffee good or bad for your health? The answer, as the study reveals, is not straightforward.

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The researchers compared data from 130,153 U.S.-based 23andMe participants with 334,649 participants from the UK Biobank. They found consistent genetic links between coffee consumption and adverse health outcomes, such as obesity and substance use. However, when it came to psychiatric conditions, the results were mixed.

Thorpe explains, “Look at the genetics of anxiety, for instance, or bipolar and depression: In the 23andMe data set, they tend to be positively genetically correlated with coffee intake genetics. But then, in the UK Biobank, you see the opposite pattern, where they're negatively genetically correlated. This is not what we expected.”

The differences between the datasets were particularly pronounced in the context of psychiatric conditions. This discrepancy suggested that merging the two datasets might obscure important details and lead to inaccurate conclusions. “It’s common to combine similar datasets in this field to increase study power. This information paints a fairly clear picture that combining these two datasets was really not a wise idea. And we didn't end up doing that,” Thorpe noted.

The study also revealed that the way surveys are conducted can influence results. The 23andMe survey asked participants how many 5-ounce servings of caffeinated coffee they consumed daily. In contrast, the UK Biobank survey asked for the total number of coffee cups consumed daily, including decaffeinated coffee.

These differing survey methods, along with cultural differences in coffee consumption, contributed to the varied results. “We know that in the U.K., they have generally higher preference for instant coffee, whereas ground coffee is more preferred in the U.S.,” says Thorpe. Sanchez-Roige added that the American trend of sugary frappuccinos and other flavored coffee drinks further complicates comparisons.

Palmer emphasized that genetics plays a role in many aspects of our lives, including decisions like coffee consumption. “Genetics influences lots of things. For instance, it influences how tall you might be,” he says. “And those kinds of things probably would play out very similarly, whether you lived in the U.S. or the U.K. But coffee is a decision that people make.”

Sanchez-Roige points out that coffee is consumed in various forms and within different cultural contexts, which affects how genetic predispositions manifest. “A person with a given genotype might end up having quite a different phenotype living in the U.K. versus the U.S.,” she says. This interplay between genetics and environment adds layers of complexity to understanding coffee consumption habits.

The study underscores the need for more research to unravel the intricate relationships between genetics, environment, and behavior. The researchers believe that further investigations should not only focus on coffee and caffeine intake but also explore broader substance-use issues.

As research continues, scientists hope to better understand how these factors interplay to influence health outcomes related to coffee consumption.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.