Adding This to Your Coffee Could Fight Inflammation, Study Says

  • Drinking coffee with milk can have anti-inflammatory benefits, according to new research.

  • Coffee, rich in polyphenols, already fights inflammation but may have a boosted effect when mixed with protein like milk.

  • Experts explain what this study means and how you can reap the anti-inflammatory benefits for yourself.

Many of us don’t feel ready to take on the day until we’ve had our caffeine fix, and it turns out your daily cup of joe could do more than give you an energy boost. A new study found that adding milk to your coffee could help fight inflammation.

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The study, published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, looked at cells to see what happens when polyphenols, compounds naturally occurring in some foods (like coffee) are paired with proteins. Given that coffee beans are naturally packed with polyphenols, and milk contains protein, researchers tested whether the molecules would bind to each other in coffee with milk.

The molecules did, in fact, bind together, and as a result, the exposed cells were twice as effective at fighting inflammation compared to polyphenols alone. Meaning that just by adding milk to your morning coffee, you could be helping your body fight inflammation twice as hard.

What are polyphenols and what do they have to do with inflammation?

Polyphenols are found in many plant foods and include flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans, and stilbenes, says Melissa Prest, D.C.N., R.D.N., national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board. “Polyphenols act as antioxidants helping to combat free radicals [unstable molecules] and help to protect against cellular damage commonly seen with inflammation.”

Polyphenols decrease oxidative stress, which typically causes inflammation, says Scott Zashin, M.D., board-certified internist and rheumatologist in Dallas, TX. “The food industry actually uses polyphenols in different foods to try to improve the quality, prevent deterioration or change of flavor.” Given the fact they’re antioxidants, the food industry uses them to maintain the integrity of the food they’re manufacturing, he adds. In other words, polyphenols are a natural preservative. According to Prest, they can be found in berries, herbs, spices, nuts, flaxseeds, olives, tea, red wine, whole grains, and certain vegetables.

What happens when polyphenols are paired with proteins, such as with coffee and milk?

In this study, researchers induced inflammation artificially and exposed this inflammation to cells, explains Dr. Zashin. “If you get an infection, your body will mobilize white cells to fight the infection and that causes inflammation in the process.” He further explains that the cells in the study that were exposed to the polyphenols and amino acids seemed to have a better response at decreasing inflammation compared to those with polyphenols alone or those with neither, a.k.a. the placebo group.

Therefore, “If you drink coffee (polyphenols) and milk (amino acids), it works as a more anti-inflammatory effect than the coffee alone,” says Dr. Zashin.

With lower inflammation in the body comes less of a risk of cell damage and tissue, which could in turn mean a decreased risk of developing degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, notes Prest.

What are some other natural ways to reduce inflammation?

In addition to eating a plant-forward diet that includes colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and more plant proteins; getting enough sleep, exercise, and managing stress can help to reduce inflammation, says Prest.

Along with eating more fruits and vegetables, consuming less added sugars can also help reduce inflammation in the body, says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified yoga teacher in New York City.

The bottom line

The most important thing to take away from this study is that having a diet rich in polyphenols can be anti-inflammatory, says Dr. Zashin. “In rheumatology, we often recommend a Mediterranean diet, which is a diet high in polyphenols, for patients with inflammatory conditions, whether it’s rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, so this is just the study supporting that recommendation.”

Dr. Zashin notes that this new research indicates that if you add foods rich in amino acids to your diet as well, such as milk, salmon, chicken, or other kinds of lean meat, you may get even more of an anti-inflammatory effect.

However, as Gans points out, these findings should not negate the overall benefit of consuming polyphenol-rich foods even without protein. And the study is not without its drawbacks, given that it was conducted on cells and not on humans. “Also to note, this study is an in-vitro study which is not the same as a study conducted on humans, and should be viewed as preliminary findings.”

Overall, researchers’ findings further demonstrate the importance of eating a diet that includes a variety of foods rich in polyphenols for boosting diet quality and health, says Prest.

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