Is It Bad To Drink Coffee On An Empty Stomach?

Experts discuss whether having caffeine first thing in the morning without food is actually harmful to your health.

Maybe you start your day by rolling out of bed and shuffling straight to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Or perhaps you practice intermittent fasting, so you’re in the habit of having black coffee before you eat anything else.

But is it bad to drink your morning brew before you have something in your stomach? While many people drink coffee before breakfast with no issues whatsoever, others have reported increased gastrointestinal upset or jitteriness if they don’t eat something first.

“While coffee intake and the body’s response varies from person to person, some people may be especially sensitive to caffeine, perhaps more so on an empty stomach,” registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey — author of “Unapologetic Eating” — told HuffPost.

Research that specifically addresses the effects of coffee on an empty stomach is limited. And a strong link between coffee consumption and digestion issues, in general, has not been established.

Those sensitive to coffee and caffeine may notice it irritates their stomach more if they don't eat something first. 
Those sensitive to coffee and caffeine may notice it irritates their stomach more if they don't eat something first. 

That said, it’s important to listen to how your body responds to coffee on an empty stomach, as we all tolerate what we eat and drink differently. If you feel fine after, then there’s no need to stop. But if you experience discomfort, you may want to adjust your habits.

“When it comes to nutrition, there is really no one-size-fits-all approach,” said Stefani Sassos, registered dietitian for the Good Housekeeping Institute. “No one knows your body better than you do. Tolerance to coffee, and really any other beverages or foods, is very individual.”

We talked to experts about the potential downsides of drinking coffee on an empty stomach and what to do if it’s triggering unpleasant symptoms for you.

If You Have Digestive Problems

Coffee stimulates the production of acid in the stomach, which can be irritating to some, including those who deal with heartburn and reflux. For certain people, the discomfort may be more noticeable on an empty stomach. If that’s the case for you, registered dietitian Maya Feller of Maya Feller Nutrition recommends pairing your cup of joe with foods that calm stomach acidity.

“These include ripe bananas, oatmeal, eggs, non-citrus fruits, and whole-grain toast,” she said. “Be mindful of added sugars and synthetic creamers when enjoying your coffee, as they are known triggers for reflux and heartburn in some individuals.”

Coffee also increases contractions of the muscles in your colon, which is why it helps some people poop. While many regard that as a benefit, for some with preexisting gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or those prone to diarrhea, it could make their symptoms worse. Caffeine, a stimulant, is thought to play some role in the laxative effect of coffee. But other compounds in the beverage are likely responsible, too. That’s why even the decaffeinated variety can increase gut motility. (And having milk or cream with your coffee could be upsetting your stomach if you have a dairy sensitivity.)

Even decaf can have a laxative effect in some people because of certain compounds found in coffee. 
Even decaf can have a laxative effect in some people because of certain compounds found in coffee. 

Know that eating also stimulates your digestive tract, though. So having a meal or snack with your coffee may not eliminate the urge to run to the bathroom, as one gastroenterologist told Health.com. However, you may want to avoid having coffee with whatever foods tend to trigger your GI symptoms.

Again, the key is to pay attention to how you feel. If you routinely experience discomfort when drinking coffee on an empty stomach and eating something with it doesn’t help, then you might consider cutting back on it.

“Oftentimes, the dose or quantity matters when it comes to foods or beverages and gastrointestinal tolerance,” Sassos said. “You may tolerate one cup of coffee just fine, but three cups causes severe discomfort. Listen to your body and adjust accordingly.”

If You Deal With Jitters Or Anxiety

Caffeine’s stimulant effects can mimic or heighten common anxiety symptoms such as nervousness, restlessness, trouble sleeping and rapid heart rate — particularly when consumed in larger doses. People with anxiety disorders may experience jitteriness from smaller amounts of caffeine than those not prone to anxiety. Up to 400 milligrams per day is thought to be safe for most healthy adults, but anxious individuals might get the jitters from 200 mg. (For reference, one 8-ounce cup of coffee brewed at home contains about 100 milligrams of caffeine.) So would eating something with your first cup of joe reduce those jitters?

According to Marilyn Cornelis — a caffeine researcher and associate professor in the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University — some scientific research suggests that consuming pure caffeine (i.e. not via coffee) with food “increases the time in which caffeine reaches peak levels in the blood and also decreases the peak concentration.”

“Theoretically, the latter would decrease any effects of caffeine, but this may vary by an individual’s sensitivity to caffeine,” she said, noting that the caffeine dose in such experiments is generally larger than the amount found in a single cup of coffee.

People with anxiety may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine. 
People with anxiety may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine. 

If you feel extra edgy after your cup of joe, see if having a meal or snack with your morning beverage makes a difference. The dip in blood sugar you experience when you haven’t eaten in a while can also contribute to feelings of anxiousness.

You might also think about decreasing your caffeine intake. “People susceptible to caffeine-induced anxiety may therefore benefit with eating something first, but why not reach for decaf instead or at least reduce the amount of coffee consumed?” Cornelis said.

But It’s Possible Your Symptoms Have Nothing To Do With Coffee

Yes, it’s important to take note of any discomfort you feel after drinking coffee with or without food — or anything else you consume, for that matter. But as Rumsey pointed out, sometimes it’s not what we eat that’s responsible for our symptoms.

“Get curious about what you’re feeling — it may have to do with the food, the coffee or something else entirely,” she said. “Hint: It often has nothing to do with the food and more to do with something else going on in your life — like stress, sleep or anxiety. Experimenting with different foods and noting your enjoyment levels and how you feel during and after eating them can help you learn more about what works best for you.”