The truth is, there are pros and cons to drinking coffee when you're sick. In some ways, it can hinder your body's ability to bounce back. But coffee also has some properties that can get you up and running, so there are a few different factors to weigh when you're debating whether you should pass on your favorite AM habit.
To settle the caffeine-or-cough syrup dilemma for good, I consulted Nashville-based dietitian Jenny Beth Kroplin, RD, LDN, CLC. Trust me when I say you'll want to keep her thoughts in mind next time you feel the sniffles coming on.
The case for skipping coffee during an illness
Let's start with the bad news. Unfortunately, caffeine can be dehydrating—and, as you've probably heard, the golden rule of getting over a bug is hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. "While you're sick, it's very important to stay on top of hydration to help the body thin mucus [and] replace fluids lost," explains Kroplin.
Plus, a caffeine hit can interrupt your sleep, which also makes it a risky beverage choice when you're sick. You probably know that getting enough rest is major for overall health, but it's especially crucial when you're not feeling well—research shows that your immune system is at its best when you're getting enough zzz's, and coffee can potentially mess with your shut-eye.
...And an argument for caffeinating as usual
But it's not all buzzkill (literally). Coffee actually has some merits when it comes to feeling better. "Coffee is a rich source of disease-fighting polyphenolic antioxidants," says Kroplin."Research suggests the antioxidant activity from coffee, specifically from ferulic and caffeic acids, has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral effects," she says. "This can all be helpful to the body in healing from an illness."
Plus, the polyphenols in coffee may be helpful in reducing inflammation. "When we can reduce inflammation in the body, [this] can help set the stage for healing and wellness," says Kroplin.
But the most obvious benefit of coffee when you're sick is—you guessed it—an energy boost. One study found that coffee helped reduce the general "malaise" associated with colds. 46 people with colds were given either caffeinated coffee, decaffeinated coffee, or fruit juice. The study participants who had caffeinated coffee reported increased alertness and performance that was the same as a group of non-sick subjects. (The sick participants who had decaf coffee also saw improvement). "The caffeine from coffee can actually help offset that sluggish feeling and boost your mood," says Kroplin. And that's especially beneficial if you just can't take a sick day from work.
Bottom line? If you're a regular coffee drinker, there's no need to skip your usual java—and deal with all the additional symptoms that would bring—just because you're sick. "If a warm, comforting cup of joe sounds good, have one," says Kroplin.
She does recommend sticking to less than two cups per day, and if you're really concerned, try switching to half-caf or decaf. To avoid disrupting your sleep, try not to have it late in the afternoon, and make sure you're hydrating throughout the day with other drinks, too—Kroplin recommends jumpstarting your morning with a big glass of water pre-coffee, and you can also sip on herbal teas or broth.
"In moderation, coupled with other hydrating beverages like water, coffee stands to actually help the body heal both physically and emotionally," says Kroplin. Because sometimes, a hot cup of comfort is just what the doctor ordered.
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