Patients who undergo surgery to remove a part of their colon may be able to handle solid foods faster, while their bowel movements also return to normal quicker, if they drink coffee instead of water.

Prior research has also indicated that drinking coffee can have beneficial effects on a person's health. One study from earlier this year found that drinking this beverage in moderation can protect against heart failure, while another study from 2011 suggested that the more coffee a woman drinks, the lower her risk of depression is.

The current finding, published in British Journal of Surgery, came from a study by a team of experts at University Hospital Heidelberg, Germany.

"Post-operative bowel obstruction is a common problem after abdominal surgery and the aim of this study was to test our theory that coffee would help to alleviate this," explained author Dr. Sascha Müller, based at Kantonsspital St Gallen, Switzerland.

The researchers analyzed 80 patients (56% were men) with an average age of 61. They were randomly divided into two groups where they either had to drink 100 mls of coffee or water 3 times a day.

Although one subject had to be removed from the study because of a change in his/her operation, the rest of the individuals examined in both groups had comparable characteristics. Out of those observed:
  • 61% had open surgery and the rest had laparoscopic surgery
  • 56% had colonic cancer
  • 28% had diverticular disease (an issue with the wall of the colon)
  • 13% had inflammatory bowel disease
  • 4% had other conditions
The time spent in the hospital as well as ill health were just about the same in both groups.

Results showed that:
  • the first bowel movement took place 60 hours after the operation in the coffee group, and 74 hours in the water group
  • those who drank coffee had no problem eating solid food in about 49 hours, compared to about 56 hours for those who drank water
  • the coffee group was also able to pass gas 41 hours after the procedure, compared to over 46 hours for the water drinkers
"This randomized trial showed that the time to first bowel movement after surgery was much shorter in the coffee drinkers than the water drinkers" explained Dr. Müller.

Ten percent of the subjects did not want to consume strong coffee after their operation, but they drank it for the purpose of the study and did not see any negative side effects.

Dr. Müller concluded:

"It is not clear how coffee stimulates the intestine and caffeine appears to have been ruled out by previous studies, which found that decaffeinated coffee, which was not used in this study, also has beneficial effects.

Whatever the mechanism, it is clear that postoperative coffee consumption is a cheap and safe way to activate bowel motility after elective colonic surgery."

Written by Sarah Glynn