Fit full of beans?

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
What's this I see before me, a cup of coffee or a cure for cirrhosis, asks Phil Hammond

Is coffee good or bad for you? The media can't seem to make up their mind and regularly swing between wonder stories and health scares. I once read "Coffee boosts female sex drive" and "Coffee bad for the heart" in the same paper. The studies, of course, could have been related, but when you read the small print you saw that one related to the libido of rats (who apparently have caffeine receptors in their arousal centre) and the other to drinking decaffeinated coffee, which has always struck me as a pointless exercise.

Recently, we've been treated to "Coffee good for cirrhosis" thanks to a large study on humans. Amazingly, drinking one cup of coffee a day was found to reduce the risk of alcoholic cirrhosis by 30 per cent; one to three cups by 40 per cent; and four or more cups by 80 per cent. This protective effect could just be a coincidence, since proving cause and effect is notoriously difficult. Just because 90 per cent of people involved in car accidents are wearing socks doesn't mean that socks cause car accidents.

As things stand, coffee is probably worth a punt if you drink too much, but your best chance of avoiding liver cirrhosis is to cut down on your alcohol and keep your weight in check. Coffee is probably best avoided in large amounts if you're pregnant or have high blood pressure. And it's not great for insomnia.

But for the rest of us, there's some evidence that drinking four cups of coffee a day reduces our chances of getting colon cancer and Parkinson's disease. Once again, the studies don't prove cause and effect, but I'm convinced enough of the evidence to take my daily caffeine hit (and I'm not receiving a kickback from the coffee industry).

That said, I prefer to take my coffee orally. Prince Charles, a keen advocate of complimentary treatments, is known for plugging the Gerson diet, which involves eating large amounts of vegetables and fruit (good idea) and having coffee enemas on a daily basis (not so clever). The Gerson Institute runs its main clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, because the US forbids doctors to practise it. Treatment costs $4,900 a week, including weekly injections of liver extract and vitamin B12 and usually lasts for around three weeks. Some spend pound;20,000 a year on it.

Gerson therapy certainly makes the therapist rich, and as for coffee enemas, they're a great way of getting kicked out of Starbucks. Me, I'll just have a large espresso

Dr Phil Hammond is a GP and chair of governors at a primary school in Somerset

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