Do you rely on coffee to wake you up in the morning, only to be struck down by pain and discomfort by Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) flare-ups?
You’re not alone—more and more people are turning to coffee for its energizing effects, only to discover that their sensitive digestive system can’t handle it. This article explains how drinking coffee can trigger Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms, along with a few tips for managing them!
What's coffee and why do we drink it in the morning?
Coffee traces its roots back to the 15th century in Ethiopia, where it was discovered by an Ethiopian goatherd who observed his goats getting excited after eating berries from a coffee tree. From there, coffee spread to the Middle East and eventually around the world.
Today, it’s estimated that two billion cups of coffee are consumed every day worldwide. It’s so popular that it has even been called “the most widely-consumed psychoactive drug in the world”!
Coffee contains caffeine, which is known to increase alertness and concentration, as well as other natural compounds that can help boost your energy levels. Coffee is brewed from roasted coffee beans, the beverage is complex and contains over one thousand different compounds, including antioxidants, oils, and even some mold (mycotoxins).
How does coffee affect the body?
Caffeine, the main active ingredient in coffee, is a central nervous system stimulant that can have both positive and negative effects. On one hand, it gives an energy boost and mental focus by increasing alertness and reducing fatigue while improving concentration. On the other, it can lead to unpleasant symptoms such as irritability, heart palpitations, and jitters as well as stomach pain. So it also affects our digestive system and cardiovascular activities.
Is coffee bad for IBS and can I drink coffee if I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
For people with IBS, coffee can be especially problematic because it impacts the digestive system in a couple of different ways.
1. Coffee affects gut motility
Studies have shown that coffee may increase the transit time of food through the intestines; this means that food can pass through faster than usual and results in a laxative effect—not ideal if you’re prone to diarrhea-predominant IBS.
2. Coffee increases your stress response
Caffeine can also increase your heart rate and your stress response. This causes a ripple effect since stress is known to worsen IBS symptoms, and caffeine may contribute to an IBS stress-symptom cycle.
3. Coffee increases stomach acidity
Coffee is also known to increase the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which can lead to an uncomfortable burning sensation in your chest (heartburn). This can be especially problematic for those with acid reflux disease, IBS-D, and IBS-M as it could worsen their symptoms.
4. Coffee irritates the stomach and gut lining
The oils, acids, and other compounds such as salicylates found in coffee can also irritate the lining of the stomach and intestines, leading to stomach pain, abdominal pain, cramping, and bloating.
5. Caffeine and bowel urgency
Caffeine is known to relax the muscles of the anal sphincter, which can cause a sudden urge to have a bowel movement in people with IBS because it's the final gate that lets stool out. Another study revealed that caffeinated coffee prompted a greater contractile response in the muscles of the large intestine than decaffeinated coffee. This is why many people with IBS find that drinking coffee increases their urgency to use the bathroom.
6. Coffee is a diuretic
Diuretic means increasing urine production—a common trigger for Irritable Bowel Syndrome like bloating and cramping.
7. Additives & compounds in coffee that cause IBS symptoms
In addition to caffeine, many coffees contain additives like sugar or cream, which can also trigger IBS symptoms like gas, bloating, and constipation. You can also reduce the amount of sugar and cream you add to your coffee; artificial sweeteners can be particularly harsh on those with IBS, so it’s best to opt for a naturally sweetened alternative.
All of this suggests that drinking coffee for those with IBS may not be the best choice; however, it is possible to drink coffee in a way that minimizes the risk of triggering IBS symptoms. So while there’s no definitive answer as to whether or not coffee is bad for IBS, it’s clear that drinking too much can lead to an increase in symptoms.
How can you drink coffee without triggering IBS symptoms?
If you still want to enjoy your morning cup of coffee, there are a few things you can do to improve IBS symptom control while drinking and enjoying coffee stimulates.
Coffee and low FODMAP diet*
The FODMAP content depends on the type of coffee and how it's prepared, for example:
- Instant coffee: Some instant coffees contain chicory root, which is high in FODMAPs.
- Ground coffee: 100% ground coffee is generally low FODMAP.
* The low FODMAP diet is an elimination diet that has been scientifically proven to improve IBS symptoms.
Choice of coffee beans: Decaf for IBS
First and foremost, try reducing your caffeine intake by switching to decaffeinated coffee—this will give you the same flavor as regular coffee, but without the stimulating effects.
You can also consider drinking herbal teas in place of coffee for some mornings—they contain no caffeine and can be very soothing to your digestive system.
Coffee preparation method to reduce IBS symptoms
How the coffee is prepared and processed may impact the components of a certain cup, thus affecting how extreme IBS symptoms are. However, drinking too much coffee can lead to an excessive intake of caffeine, which can have a negative effect on our digestive system
If you choose to include coffee in your daily routine, try to keep your daily caffeine consumption at or below 400 mg. Coffee undeniably contains a generous amount of caffeine, but it isn't the only source of caffeine as most teas as well as chocolate are caffeinated.
Here are some general guidelines:
- Coffee: 100-150 mg
- Espresso: 64 mg
- Cold brew coffee: 100-150 mg
- Decaf coffee: 2-5 mg
- Black tea: 40-50 mg
- Green tea: 25-29 mg
- Dark chocolate: 23 mg
Drink your hot brewed coffee without other triggers
It's also important to be mindful of what you add to your coffee. Adding milk, dairy-based creamers, added sugar, and sweeteners can all increase the risk to trigger symptoms. Instead, try opting for a low-FODMAP alternative like lactose-free milk or milk alternatives such as almond milk or macadamia milk. And a natural sweetener such as maple syrup (note that honey is in high FODMAPs).
When you love your morning cup of coffee, be mindful of how you drink it
IBS sufferers can enjoy their coffee without digestive discomfort. It is important to remember that everyone is different, some people tolerate coffee better than others and what works for one person may not work for another.
If you are having trouble managing your IBS symptoms, reduce caffeine intake. Try to keep your coffee intake to one cup a day during the morning and opt for decaf in the afternoon. This way, you can enjoy the taste of coffee without having to worry about triggering IBS symptoms later in the day. If your symptoms continue, stop drinking coffee and find a soothing morning alternative such as ginger tea. You can read more on managing your digestive flare-ups in this post.