Coffee, a beverage enjoyed by so many all over the world, has some legitimate health benefits. It contains antioxidants and may be the main source of polyphenolic compounds in many diets, and it’s been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. It can also improve mental focus (which is probably why you drink it!) and athletic performance.
If you’re a coffee lover, chances are you’re not interested in parting with this morning ritual. But if you have a delicate stomach, it you might find yourself in a love-hate relationship with this popular brew.
Why coffee can cause stomach and gut irritation.
Even among healthy people, coffee can sometimes aggravate heartburn, acid reflux, and stomach pain. That’s because coffee beans contain natural acids that increase in concentration with roasting and brewing. While your stomach should be able to handle acidity, too much acid can become a problem, especially if it leaks into the esophagus.
Coffee can also loosen the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) muscles that separate the stomach from the esophagus. If that happens, stomach juices that contain hydrochloric acid can splash up into the esophagus and trigger the classic acid reflux and heartburn symptoms, along with chest pain, coughing, or even sore throat. Coffee can also trigger diarrhea, as caffeine stimulates the digestive tract muscles to contract and spasm, pushing the contents of the large intestine out.
For people with gut conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis, coffee’s acidity may be particularly problematic, causing flare ups and unpleasant symptoms such as cramping and diarrhea.
How to make coffee more gut-friendly.
Of course, all of the information I listed above begs the question: Do you need to avoid coffee if it’s causing stomach and digestive discomfort? The answer: It may depend on your particular situation. While anyone might benefit from scaling back a bit on coffee if their intake is excessive, many experts recommend avoiding coffee altogether if you have one of the GI conditions I just mentioned (IBS, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis).
For most generally healthy people, though, there are simple ways to make your morning coffee much more gut-friendly, thereby minimizing these uncomfortable issues. Here, I’m sharing my eight favorite tips that may help you enjoy your favorite drink without the side effects.
1. Look for low-acid options.
Coffee beans contain natural acids, and more acids develop from the chemical reactions that happen when the beans are heated during roasting and brewing. Beans grown in lower altitudes like Brazilian, Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Guatemalan, Sumatran, and Indonesian coffees tend to be naturally lower in acid. Read the label and look for beans specifically marked “low acid.” Coffee beans may also be processed with steam or solvents to reduce acidity, so look for products that are naturally low in acid instead of chemically processed.
Surprisingly, the longer the beans are roasted, the less acidic they are. A compound that develops in coffee with roasting, N-methylpyridium (NMP), blocks the production of hydrochloric acid from stomach cells. That makes dark roasted coffee, like a French or Italian roast, less acidic and possibly a better choice if you have heartburn or reflux. However, dark roasts have a stronger flavor and contain other compounds that may cause sour stomach. Try several to find one that suits your gut better.
Fun fact: You can also lower the acidity of your coffee if you brew it with alkaline water.
2. Try half-decaf coffee.
Coffee contains several ingredients that may cause digestive irritation, and caffeine happens to be one of them, as it increases the production of stomach acid. While this is important for optimal digestion and to maintain a sterile environment that protects against pathogens, acid is a problem for people with loose LES muscles. Try decaf coffee and see if you can tolerate it, keeping in mind that decaf coffee still contains traces of caffeine. If that’s unappealing (or unrealistic!), try a blend of regular and decaf coffee. Lighter roast coffee beans will contain more caffeine per the same volume of dark roast, so using a dark roast (or mixing the beans) may help alleviate your stomach woes as well. Just keep in mind: Some people continue to have gut irritation even with decaf coffee, so you still shouldn’t go overboard.
3. Try cold brewing.
Cold-brewed coffee may be 65 percent less acidic than regular hot brewed coffee. Cold brewing extracts less acid and bitter compounds from the beans, which can make coffee easier to tolerate. Cold brewing doesn’t mean you must drink your coffee cold. You can reheat cold-brewed coffee in a small pot or microwave.
To make cold-brewed coffee: mix low-acid, coarsely ground coffee beans with cold or room-temperature water in a glass jar. Cover and shake well. Let it steep in the fridge for at least 12 hours and up to 48 hours. Shake it few times during this period to make sure it’s combined. Because the water is cold, this method requires more time to extract the flavors from the beans. When done steeping, filter the coffee using a cheesecloth, paper filter, or a fine sieve. It will be concentrated coffee, so you may want to mix it with additional hot water, milk, or dairy-free alternative. For convenience, make a large batch of cold-brewed coffee and store it in the fridge for 2 weeks.
4. Add eggshells to your coffee grounds.
Bases neutralize acids, and eggshells, which are made of calcium carbonate, are basic (or alkaline). Eggshells added to ground coffee will absorb and neutralize the acids and other bitter compounds that may irritate your stomach. Break an egg, wash the shell thoroughly, and break it into smaller pieces, but not too small. Mix it with ground coffee in your coffee maker or French press. As a rule, add one eggshell for four cups of coffee.
5. Skip the sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Sugar feeds bad gut microbes. If you have dysbiosis, or too many bad bugs and not enough good ones, sugary coffee drinks can tip the balance towards more dysbiosis. And artificial sweeteners aren’t any better. Sugar alcohols like xylitol, erythritol, mannitol, and others that end with “-ol” can’t be digested and are instead fermented by gut bacteria. As a result, they produce gases that distend the intestines and draw water in, causing stomach pain, cramping, bloating, or diarrhea. Sucralose, another artificial sweetener, disrupts the natural pH balance in the intestine, potentially contributing to yeast overgrowth.
Start training yourself to enjoy coffee with less or no sugar. If this sounds like too much of an undertaking, aim for less than what you’re using now and see how low you can go over time. It’s also important to look at the big picture: If you only drink one cup of coffee a day and only add one teaspoon of sugar, it may be ok; but if you drink coffee multiple times per day with multiple teaspoons of sugar in each cup, or if you often purchase sweetened coffee drinks, make a conscious decision to cut back.
6. Use dairy-alternatives.
Sometimes it’s the dairy, not the coffee, that’s the problem. So, if you suspect you have lactose intolerance, switch to lactose-free milk or plant-based milk. A small amount of half-and-half (1 to 2 tablespoons) is also considered lactose-free. If you have a dairy allergy, avoid dairy altogether and try dairy alternatives like coconut, almond, cashew, hemp, flax, or rice milks. People with a dairy allergy also tend to have problems with soy, so I typically don’t recommend soy as an alternative.
If you go the dairy-free route, keep in mind that these alternatives may contain gums that help keep the liquid emulsified so it doesn’t separate. Gums are natural food fiber components, but they can be fermented by gut bacteria and cause issues like stomach pain, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, or constipation in certain people. Elmhurst offers a variety of nut milks that are free of both and sweeteners.
7. Add hydrolyzed collagen.
Hydrolyzed collagen, or collagen peptides, contain amino acids like glutamine and glycine that help boost the immune system, repair the gut lining, and aid in detoxification. This powder is designed to dissolve in hot or cold fluids. Inside your body, they are easier to absorb than intact proteins. I usually recommend one heaping tablespoon of unflavored collagen peptides for each 8 ounces of coffee. If coffee triggers digestive issues, collagen may not relieve them, but if you can tolerate coffee, it’s a great way to incorporate this healing nutrients into your diet.
8. Try chicory instead of coffee.
Of course, some people just can’t tolerate coffee. So, if the above tricks don’t work for you, consider switching over to chicory—a plant that belongs to the same family as dandelions. The chicory root is harvested, dried, roasted, and ground. The powder can then be used to make a beverage that tastes close to coffee.
Chicory root contains inulin, a prebiotic fiber that helps feed bacteria in your gut. If you have a healthy balanced microbiome, the fiber in chicory will “fertilize” your gut and promote bacterial diversity, which is something to strive for. However, if you have bloating, burping, stomach pain, gas, diarrhea, or constipation, chicory may make your symptoms worse as it may feed the wrong bugs. If that’s the case, consider working with a digestive health dietitian who can help you figure out your best food and beverage options.