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High cholesterol is responsible for many illnesses, not the least of which is a heightened risk of stroke. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation suggests that caffeine equivalent to 6-7 cups of coffee a day just might protect the brain from the damages caused by cholesterol.
High cholesterol levels increase the risk of stroke in a number of ways. Cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease, which is a risk factor for strokes. More directly, cholesterol deposits can narrow the carotid artery which carries blood to the brain, reducing the amount of oxygen and nutrients that your brain cells need. A third way that cholesterol can increase the risk of stroke is with deposits of plaque and cholesterol in the tiny capillaries of the brain itself.
The brain is protected from much of the damage it might otherwise take by the blood brain barrier, a sort of protective “net” that filters substances from the blood before they reach the brain. It was once believed that the blood brain barrier (BBB) was extremely efficient, but more recent research shows that the BBB is a rather leaky barrier that can be affected by many things. Cholesterol is one of those things that researchers believe damages the blood brain barrier, leaving it with holes through which plaque and other harmful substances can permeate the brain.
Researchers at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine decided to test a theory that caffeine might help protect the BBB from the damages caused by high cholesterol. Their subjects were a strain of New Zealand rabbits that are often used in medical research. The group of rabbits in the study were all fed a cholesterol-enriched diet. Half the group drank regular water. The other half of the group drank water that was laced with about the same amount of caffeine proportionally as is found in a cup of coffee – essentially, replacing their water intake with coffee.
At the end of the twelve week study, the researchers found that the rabbits who had been drinking caffeinated water showed significantly less BBB leakage than those who had been drinking plain water. Based on this, the researchers suggest that caffeine might have a place in treatments for cholesterol reduction, stroke management and Alzheimer’s disease treatment.
This research also lends credence to several recent studies that suggest those who drink coffee regularly throughout their lives are less likely to suffer from either stroke or Alzheimer’s disease. If the UND researchers are right, they may have discovered why coffee reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.