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. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that coffee can impact sleep—even when consumed six hours before getting into bed. That's not exactly great news when you're trying to get back to "normal." But coffee also has some properties that can get you up and running. Scientific studies have shown that caffeine is linked to helping with both immune health and preventing inflammation. And unless you're brewing decaf, coffee is definitely full of caffeine.
- Jenny Beth Kroplin, RD, LDN, CLC, registered dietitian based in Nashville, TN
So what's the verdict? To settle the caffeine-or-cough syrup dilemma for good, I consulted Nashville-based dietitian Jenny Beth Kroplin, RD. 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 when you're sick
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," says 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.
How to make a coffee replacement to drink until you feel better:
...And the argument for drinking coffee 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. There is one major, major caveat to all this advice: If you're taking medication.
Medications to avoid mixing with coffee
If you're cooped up in bed, it's very likely that you're either taking an over-the-counter medicine or something prescribed to you by a doctor. In both cases, it's important to know that some medications are not meant to be combined with coffee. Here's a run-down of the ones to be especially mindful of because they should not be combined with coffee, according to experts at MayoClinic:
Ephedrine and coffee are both stimulants and taking both can increase blood pressure. Ephedrine is commonly found in decongestants, so if you're taking one, be sure to read the label before brewing your morning cup.
Theophylline isn't technically a stimulant, but there are some qualities about it that are similar to caffeine. Chemically, the two are structured very similarly. That's why you want to avoid having them both at the same time. Otherwise, you're putting yourself at risk for experiencing a racing heart—not fun when you're already feeling pretty horrible.
This herb is commonly found in medications because it's immune-supporting as well as helpful in relieving pain. But according to MayoClinic, it can also make caffeine more concentrated. The end result could once again be a racing heart and increased blood pressure.
Still unsure about whether or not you should have someone hit up Starbucks for you? Always remember that there are other comforting drinks you can savor too. Tea with honey (what one RD recommends to anyone who is under the weather) just might be the replacement you need to feel better. Or, hey, maybe you're desperate for some joy, and for you that comes in the form of java and nothing else will do. That's fine too—just remember to check your medications. Soon, you'll be back up and running. Just think how happy your local barista will be to see you.
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