‘I’m an RD, and Here’s Why Coffee Is Irritating Your Stomach—Plus How To Prevent It Without Going Cold Turkey’

Photo: Stocksy/ Sarah Crowley
As much as we absolutely adore our daily latte habit (triple shot of espresso, extra creamy), our stomachs can say otherwise. Especially after sipping on coffee continuously throughout the day, it’s not uncommon to experience a few rather uncomfortable side effects aside from a zap of energy—namely, stomach pain, rumbles, and even indigestion.

That being said, nutrition experts agree that this doesn't mean we need to give up coffee altogether—the drink is beaming with gut health benefits, too, after all. It's all about educating yourself so you know what your stomach can and cannot handle (here's looking at you, third espresso shot).

So, to find out sneaky signs indicating that coffee is irritating your stomach—and what you can do to alleviate your discomfort—we spoke with a registered dietitian who spilled the beans. And don’t panic: There are plenty of ways to mitigate stomach issues that don't involve going cold turkey. Phew!

Signs coffee is irritating your stomach

According to Marisa Silver, MS, RDN of Vivrant Nutrition, there are a few common signs that indicate that coffee is irritating your stomach, including: heartburn, indigestion, upper stomach or chest burning pain, loose stools, and a flare-up of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms after you drink. If you happen to experience these symptoms, it’s more than likely a result of two components found in the drink: caffeine and/or acid.

1. Sensitivity to caffeine

Ever chugged a cup of coffee and felt the sudden urge to go number two? Well, this is a common symptom caused by the caffeine found in coffee. “Caffeine stimulates contractions in the intestine, and in large doses, caffeine can lead to [bathroom] urgency and loose stools,” Silver says. But that’s not all. Caffeine can also trigger other side effects like acid reflux, according to the RD. “It may stimulate the production of acid in the stomach, leading to stomach upset, and can cause the relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, which can trigger GERD symptoms,” Silver adds.

2. Irritation from the acid

In addition to the caffeine, acids in coffee can also trigger irritation. “Acids in coffee—chlorogenic acid and N-alkanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamide—can lead to the production of more stomach acid and cause stomach upset,” says Silver, which, unfortunately, is also present in decaffeinated coffee. And because coffee is naturally bitter, she says this can then stimulate the stomach to produce even more acid. And, yes, this may lead increased irritation. Sigh.

How to reduce stomach irritation from coffee

The good news is that there are ways to mitigate this unwanted reaction for those of us who are not quite ready to give up on our one true love (coffee, of course).

1. Cut the caffeine content in half

For starters, Silver recommends cutting back on caffeine. “Do this by ordering half decaf, half regular, or switch to decaf entirely,” she says. Decaf coffee—though it contains acids that can also cause irritation—obviously has much less caffeine, which means that at least both common coffee irritants aren’t present at once.

2. Add a pinch of baking soda

Another hack Silver recommends is sprinkling a tiny pinch of baking soda in your cup of coffee, which she says can “help neutralize the acid.” Unsweetened almond milk can also do the trick. “Almond milk is alkaline, which is unlike other nut milks and cow’s milk,” which means that it will help raise the pH levels of the coffee and make it less irritating on the gut.

3. Sip your coffee with food

Silver also recommends avoiding drinking coffee on an empty stomach in order to mitigate the impact of the caffeine and acid. “Listen to your body, because everyone's sensitivity to caffeine and acid is different. If you notice drinking coffee on an empty stomach gives you indigestion, wait until you eat to drink your coffee and see how you feel,” she says.

4. Reach for cold brew or dark roast coffees

To further help reduce the amount of stomach irritation you experience, Silver recommends switching up your coffee order keeping a few factors in mind—like the temperature of the coffee, the kind of roast, caffeine content, and the type of coffee grounds used to brew a cup of joe. According to her, cold brew contains less acid than hot coffee. Meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, the darker the roast, the less acidic and caffeinated it tends to be. That’s because dark roasts are made using more heat, and a longer roast time, which helps break down the acids. (Find our guide to low-acid coffees here.)

5. Switch up your brewing style

Lastly, Silver notes that the smaller the coffee grounds, the more acidic coffee might be; think espresso or Turkish coffee. “The smaller the coffee grounds, the more surface area they have, which means more acid can be extracted from them, ending up in the brewed coffee,” she says. This is why coffees made with larger grounds, like cold brew or those made using a Chemex, will likely be less acidic.

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