Whether you didn’t have time or you’re just not the type of person who regularly eats breakfast, it’s common to drink coffee on an empty stomach ― which you’ve probably heard is bad for your gut. But is it really?
The good news is that drinking coffee on an empty stomach is not inherently bad for you, and your stomach can usually adapt to protect itself. But it may cause some discomfort, in which case you’ll likely want to change up your routine.
“There are a lot of benefits associated with coffee consumption when it comes to the gastrointestinal tract,” said Louisville, Kentucky-based gastroenterologist Dr. Sunana Sohi. “The drink gets vilified because of the caffeine it has and because it’s sugared up a lot now but, medicinally, it has been used for centuries.”
That being said, Sohi explained that coffee plays around with stomach acid levels in multiple ways. As a result, some folks may deal with issues — namely dyspepsia, which is basically indigestion — that could be easily solved by avoiding caffeine or, perhaps, indulging in a cup alongside some food.
Specifically, coffee itself is an acidic drink. In addition to that, explained Boston-based gastroenterologist Dr. Supriya Rao, “caffeine stimulates the production of the hormone gastrin, which is responsible for our gastric acid production.” Although the latter compound helps kick off the process of digestion, it also adds acidity to the stomach.
Finally, phenols, which are compounds found in coffee, also contribute to the gut’s level of acidity.
But, what exactly happens when the stomach is hit with a flow of acid?
Acidity In The Stomach
“Coffee has a pH level of about 5 while our gastric acid boasts a pH of about 2, making the latter more acidic,” Rao noted. As a result, our stomachs should be able to handle the acid that drinking coffee causes.
However, it’s all patient-dependent, Sohi explained. “Anything you eat causes the production of gastric acid, but coffee [produces] more of it,” she said. “So if you feel bloated or are dealing with upper abdominal pain and nausea after drinking coffee on an empty stomach, you know you are having some issues with it.”
Rao echoed those sentiments. “It’s not necessarily that too much acidity is a problem, because the stomach can handle it and there is actually a lot of mucus in it that protects it,” she said. “It’s more about your esophagus not being able to withstand that kind of acid damage. Nothing dangerous is going to happen to you ― it’s not like coffee causes ulcers ― but you may just feel uncomfortable.”
That theory has been proven true by a few studies, including one published in the Library of Medicine. Specifically, according to the survey, coffee may contribute to the relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, “allowing food to escape into the esophagus and cause heartburn.”
To put it simply: Drinking coffee on an empty stomach increases the production of gastric acid. Higher levels of the fluid don’t cause any problems for many people but may lead to discomfort in some others. If you happen to belong to the latter group of individuals but can’t part ways with the caffeinated beverage, try enjoying it with some food alongside it.
“Food gives you a bit of a buffer in terms of the acid,” Rao said, explaining that having food with coffee will offset the acidity levels by absorbing some of the fluid.
Rao also clarified that having a cup of java with milk or, perhaps, indulging in a cappuccino over a straight-up black coffee, may help offset the pH levels.
“Some people can tolerate it on an empty stomach fine but if it upsets yours, taking it with food can help,” Sohi agreed.
Do Different Beans Cause Different Reactions?
Decaffeinated coffee inherently contains less caffeine and, since the stimulant has been proven to contribute to higher levels of gastric acid production, it follows that a cup of decaf coffee may lead to lower amounts of the gastrointestinal fluid.
Rao said that choosing a dark bean over a light one might help out your stomach, as the former boasts less acidity than the latter. “The process of roasting darker beans is long, so they lose a lot of the acid,” she explained.
Interestingly enough, cold brew is also a lower-acid option, at least according to researchers at Thomas Jefferson University, who published their results through the American Chemical Society.
“Cold brew coffees across all three roast temperatures were slightly less acidic than their hot brew counterparts,” reads the study. “As roasting temperature increased, the total titratable acidity (TA) of all coffees decreased. With an increase in roasting temperature, an increase in the TA differences between cold and hot brew coffees was also observed to increase slightly, indicating that roasting influences extraction processes.”
Finally, opting for an entirely different caffeinated drink ― tea, perhaps ― may prove to be your best option if you’re dealing with dyspepsia after drinking coffee on an empty stomach.
“Green tea and black tea also have a lot of benefits,” Sohi said. “They have less caffeine but they’re also less acidic so if your stomach is bothering you, consider them instead.”