Healthy Drinks

Does After Dinner Coffee Help or Hurt Your Gut’s Ability To Digest a Meal?

Photo: Stocksy/Julie Rideout
Many cultures have post-dinner rituals that involve sipping a tea or nightcap that is believed to promote digestion. Some picks that have become popular on a global scale include Spanish sherry, Italian Fernet, and North African and Central Asian herbal teas like spearmint and fennel. While America doesn’t have a classic “digestif” ritual, many opt for a hot cup of coffee to close out our meal (even better if it’s paired with a bit of dark chocolate). But is there any evidence to show that sipping some after-dinner coffee can offer real-deal digestive benefits? We asked Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC to share his thoughts on this cozy evening ritual.

“When it comes to drinking coffee after a meal, the context really matters,” says Cole. “We have to look at who is drinking it, how much they are drinking, and what types of coffee they are consuming.”

While coffee may seem like a controversial beverage in terms of health benefits based on the day’s headlines, Cole says there are a lot of reasons to keep sipping America’s favorite beverage. Cole says that we can think of high-quality coffee as a nutritious whole food that offers more than just a hefty dose of caffeine. You’ll also be enjoying polyphenols, minerals, and antioxidants that are protective against chronic disease and even seasonal allergies. Plus, drinking coffee can aid in supporting healthy digestion, as Cole says that drinking coffee can improve GI motility and help keep you regular.

That being said, coffee affects all of us differently, as Cole notes that some digestive systems can only handle small amounts of caffeine or none at all, especially considering that between 60-70 million Americans are affected by some type of digestive disease, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Additionally, Cole says that some people don’t have the ability to metabolize coffee as well as others, which can put stress on the body and cause anxiety, heart palpitations, and a decreased ability to remain focused. And when coffee is seemingly around every corner at neighborhood shops and office break rooms, it’s all too easy to over-consume.

After-dinner coffee: What the expert advises

Even if you are one of those people who can sip coffee all day long without experiencing java-fueled jitters, Cole says he typically advises patients to stop consuming caffeine after 3 pm and those who are sensitive to caffeine may want to consider curbing consumption as early as noon. "While coffee can increase digestion and gut motility, the caffeine is probably not worth it," Cole says. A lack of sleep can, after all, wreak havoc on your gut (and overall) health.

The good news is, you can still keep up your evening ritual with a cup of decaf (Cole particularly loves Swiss Water Process decaf coffee) to enjoy the digestive benefits without risking sleep quality later that night.

Research shows that even if you are able to fall asleep after drinking a caffeinated beverage in the evenings, your total sleep duration, efficiency, and restfulness upon waking may be affected, according to the Sleep Foundation. A 2013 study from Sleep Disorders & Research Center in Detroit found even consuming a 16-ounce cup of coffee six hours before bedtime can reduce sleep time by an hour. Though your nightly cup of coffee could have digestive benefits, the potential impact on sleep quality isn’t worth the risk, especially when nearly one third of Americans report sleeping less than seven hours a night on average.

If you’re open to trying out a new beverage, Cole loves to drink ginger tea in the evenings for a soothing ritual that also boasts digestive benefits. You’ll still enjoy the anti-inflammatory effects of this antioxidant-rich herb to promote overall health and wellness, plus ginger also makes an excellent pairing with dark chocolate to round out your nightly meal.

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