Doctors and nutritionists share the truth.
That first cup of coffee in the morning can make getting up worth it. After all, a few sips of the magical caffeinated potion can stop you feeling like an extra Night of the Living Dead to a real, living person.
But is drinking coffee on an empty stomach a good idea when it comes to your gut health? We asked the experts what exactly happens when you enjoy a pre-breakfast pick-me-up.
Is drinking coffee on an empty stomach bad for you?
The good news is according to Dr. Jill Carnahan, MD, an expert in functional medicine and author of Unexpected, the short answer is no. She says there is little scientific evidence that drinking coffee on an empty stomach is harmful for most people.
In fact, Dr. Steven Gundry, MD, heart surgeon and founder of GundryMD, says that for most people, drinking coffee on an empty stomach is fine. And in fact, he highly recommends coffee in general, in part because of its high polyphenol content. “These essential plant proteins in coffee promote everything from longevity, protection against Alzheimer’s disease, normal weight, a healthy microbiome and remarkable relief from depression and anxiety,” he says.
However, due to coffee’s high acidity, it can irritate the stomach of patients suffering from gastritis or GERD. “If you have frequent heartburn or have been diagnosed with gastritis or an ulcer, it’s best not to drink coffee on an empty stomach,” she says.
How does coffee affect the intestines?
Dr. Carnahan explains that coffee, like cocoa, comes from beans and is high in polyphenols and antioxidants. “In fact, for many people, coffee is one of the main ways we get these polyphenols in our diet,” she explains.
Both coffee and dark chocolate contain nutrients for the microbiome that can be processed into a highly beneficial nutrient called SCFAs (short chain fatty acids). “SCFAs have been shown to help repair the cells that line the gut and create a nutrient-rich environment in the gut that has been linked to improving metabolic health, obesity, the risk of diabetes and heart disease,” she continues. “Increasing SCFAs by drinking coffee is quite beneficial for your gut microbiome.”
But coffee is acidic, which can be irritating to anyone with a sensitive gut or someone who already has digestive issues, says Abigail Hueber, RD, LDN at Above Health Nutrition. “Most notably, coffee can irritate heartburn because caffeine relaxes the sphincter muscle that helps keep acid in the stomach and not inappropriately back up the esophagus.”
Serena Poon, CN, CHC, CHN, celebrity chef and nutritionist, points out that research has shown that people who experience an adverse reaction to coffee will have it regardless of whether they drink the beverage with food or not.
Hueber adds that coffee also stimulates the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands, which triggers a stress response in the body and can worsen gut symptoms such as loose stools or even constipation. .
However, Poon explains, “This hormone naturally circulates at higher levels in the morning, so there’s a school of thought that drinking coffee in the morning further increases cortisol, but it really depends on the person.” She adds that long-term elevated cortisol starts to lead to inflammation and can wreak havoc on the body, but there’s no direct pathway to chronic inflammation from regular coffee consumption. “Research even points to the anti-inflammatory benefits of coffee. In addition, some studies have shown that some people (namely, regular coffee drinkers) did not experience a cortisol spike in response to coffee,” says Poon.
Tips to minimize any damage
“If you have negative reactions to coffee, such as heartburn, indigestion or nausea, or an increase in feelings of stress and anxiety, I would recommend experimenting with a change in habit,” says Poon.
Here are a few expert-recommended tips, because hey, who wants to give up their coffee?
Think twice before adding dairy
According to dr. Gundry, many people believe that black coffee irritates the stomach, so they put dairy products in the coffee to “soothe” the stomach. However, he points out that many of the benefits of coffee are negated by the addition of dairy products, such as low-fat milk, 2%, whole, half and half cream, and even butter.
Add a non-dairy milk
That said, for some people, a small amount of non-dairy milk can sometimes help alleviate any problems that arise from coffee consumption. “If you drink black coffee, you might consider adding a small amount of non-dairy milk. I’d go for unsweetened, non-dairy, preferably homemade milk,” says Poon.
Try adjusting your dosage
You can also consider reducing your consumption. “One cup of coffee a day and four cups of coffee a day will affect your system very differently,” notes Poon.
Consider switching to tea
If coffee is wreaking havoc on your gut, consider switching to green tea or matcha, “which still contains caffeine but may not be as hard on your system,” says Poon. “Plus, it’s packed with powerful antioxidants that support health.”
Think about what you add to your coffee
Drinking a cup of black coffee is not the same as a sweet latte. “Keep in mind that common additives to coffee, such as dairy and sugar, can also cause digestive issues, so it may be a good idea to get those habits up for review as well,” Poon suggests.
Use alkaline water
Rethink using tap water to make your coffee, Dr. Carnahan says. “A simple trick I recommend for patients with sensitive stomachs is to use alkaline water to brew your coffee to reduce the acidity of the final brew,” she says.
Long story short, coffee on an empty stomach can be irritating to people who already suffer from stomach problems, but there is no evidence that drinking coffee on an empty stomach is harmful to others. And even if black coffee tends to irritate your gut, a few simple tweaks (bring on that splash of almond milk!) can do wonders for you.