A study published this week, in the journal PLOS Biology, suggests that drinking coffee can help protect heart cells, according to Newsweek. The researchers found that caffeine helps a regulator protein bind to parts of DNA, in a process that aids the cells in recovering from damage.

In the study, the German researchers administered the equivalent of four cups of coffee to mice, for a period of ten days. They then induced heart attacks in the mice, and found that the cells of those who had consumed coffee were better able to repair the damage than those that did not.

The researchers also examined human cells and data from prior epidemiological studies. One of the study’s authors, professor Judith Haendeler, of the IUF-Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine, explained to Newsweek:

“These results should lead to better strategies for protecting heart muscle from damage, including consideration of coffee consumption or caffeine as an additional dietary factor in the elderly population. Furthermore, enhancing mitochondrial p27 could serve as a potential therapeutic strategy not only in cardiovascular diseases but also in improving healthspan.”

Caffeine helps the protein, called p27, to enter mitochondria, which are responsible for producing energy for cells. With the added energy boost, the cells recovered more efficiently from damage.

The p27 protein is not unique to mice – it serves the same purpose in other animals, leading scientists to suspect that caffeine could have the same benefit for humans.

“The old idea that you shouldn’t drink coffee if you have heart problems is clearly not the case anymore,” according to the study’s lead author, Joachim Altschmied of Heinrich Heine-University.

Coffee has been shown in recent years to offer considerable health benefits. The same team that published the study has also found that four or more cups of coffee a day can benefit the endothelial cells that line blood vessels. A review of over 100 studies, published last year in the journal Annual Review of Nutrition, linked caffeine and coffee to a reduced risk of both heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The new findings may help explain how this works, according to Haendeler. However, she warns against using caffeine as a substitute for other healthy lifestyle choices.

“Don’t take caffeine pills, stop eating a healthy diet and exercising and be a couch potato,” she warned.

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