When we think about inflammation, it’s usually not in a positive way. There’s good reason for that: Chronic, long-term inflammation is the root cause of health ailments both minor (acne) and major (cancer, cognitive decline, and persistent gut issues). One of the simplest ways to keep inflammation in check is to think before we eat—or drink.
Coffee, that first and most essential drink of the day for many of us, may play a part in just how much inflammation your body has. As with many of our favorite vices (chocolate and alcohol, looking at you), there are both pros and cons to caffeine. One study conducted by researchers at Stanford University and published in the journal Nature Medicine found that the more caffeine that people older than 85 consumed, the more protected they were against chronic inflammation. However, caffeine can also increase catecholamines, neurotransmitters involved in the body’s fight-or-flight stress response, and, if prolonged, could lead to inflammation.
So is coffee helpful for inflammation or not? In a word, both. Here, three doctors and inflammation experts explain why caffeine can cause inflammation in some people while working to lower it in others. Keep reading for what you need to know.
The buzz on your body and caffeine
To understand how your body reacts to caffeine, first think about any underlying health issues you may have. Anxiety, for example, can cause the heart to beat faster, and that prolonged stress on the heart could lead to chronic inflammation, specifically in the form of cardiovascular disease. “Caffeine can stimulate catecholamines, and if you are someone who suffers from anxiety and palpitations or irregular heart rhythms, stimulating catecholamines can exacerbate your symptoms,” Eudene Harry, MD, the medical director for Oasis Wellness and Rejuvenation Center in Orlando, explains. “Otherwise, most individuals who do not have these conditions, based on many studies done to this point, can tolerate moderate caffeine consumption.”
Outside of underlying conditions, consider how quickly your body metabolizes it. “If someone is a slow metabolizer [which is determined by genetics], they may experience an inflammatory reaction or a spike in the stress hormone, cortisol,” says Will Cole, DC, a leading functional medicine expert and the author of The Inflammation Spectrum. “This can be an issue especially with adrenal fatigue [severe, chronic stress, the adrenal glands] and other hormone problems. Some people have an initial spike in cortisol from caffeine but gain tolerance over time, while others don’t adapt to caffeine.”
Why the caffeine source matters
While, chemically, Dr. Cole says that caffeine acts the same regardless of how you consume it (coffee, soda, tea, you get it), there may be hidden pros and cons in your drink. “The source can have other problems or benefits associated with it that can further perpetuate inflammation or help soothe it,” he says. For example, green tea has powerful catechins like EGCG that have been shown to help drive down inflammation. But regular soda that contains added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup can increase inflammation.
Coffee, though, is one caffeine source that’s been shown to provide benefits from moderate, regular consumption to those without underlying health issues. One paper published in BMJ that reviewed 201 various studies links regular coffee drinking to lower incidents of cancers and neurological, metabolic, and liver conditions, all of which are manifestations of chronic inflammation. Dr. Cole says the quality of the coffee matters, too. Pesticides, storage facility cleanliness, and fungi infections all can lead to coffee bean pollution, which can cause inflammation. So if you can afford to, buy organic to minimize exposure to those factors.
To drink or not to drink?
Here’s what the three doctors want everyone to keep in mind: For many people, moderate caffeine consumption from coffee and tea is likely going to provide more benefits than harm. But if you find yourself feeling anxious or your heart beating quickly after enjoying something with caffeine, that’s a sign that you likely want to minimize your intake. “Bio-individuality makes it impossible to make a blanket statement that all people should or shouldn’t avoid caffeine,” Dr. Cole says. If you’re unsure of how caffeine is affecting you, talk to your doctor.
Here’s what a registered dietitian thinks of drinking coffee every day:
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