Originally appeared in the article, "Yes, Caffeine Can Seriously Impact Your Gut Health—Here’s How," by Alondra Segoviano in Well + Good on June 1, 2022.
Whether you absolutely love the taste of your morning latte or you simply need a pick-me-up during the workday, we can all agree that caffeine offers energy-boosting benefits that keep us coming back for more.
Surprisingly enough, however, caffeine may also offer gut-boosting benefits that can help with gut motility—when food travels through the digestive tract through a series of muscular contractions called peristalsis—and in a handful of other ways. “Caffeine can potentially change the makeup of the gut microbiome by reducing the growth of harmful bacteria and promoting the growth of good bacteria,” says Ali Rezaie, MD, a California-based gastroenterologist and Author of The Microbiome Connection. “[Caffeine] can also regulate the movement of the gut and bowel movements which improve the gut microbiome.”
Like so many things in life, however, the relationship between caffeine and gut health is all about moderation—as well as one's specific microbiome and caffeine sensitivity. According to Dr. Rezaie, caffeine also has the potential to negatively impact your gut, which can lead to undesirable side effects.
For this reason, knowing how caffeine can impact your gut microbiome in both good and not so great ways is the key to avoiding digestive discomfort or (ahem) a very urgent trip to the bathroom. Keep reading to learn more about the different ways caffeine impacts your gut microbiome and how to reduce the negative effects, according to a gastroenterologist.
How caffeine can impact your gut microbiome
Before immediately opting for a venti cold brew or the latest wave of energy drinks, let’s first look at exactly how caffeine can impact your gut. “First, there's no question that caffeine can affect the gut because it’s a stimulant,” shares Dr. Rezaie. Up to 400 milligrams of caffeine consumption per day has been cited as safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but caffeine still gets processed very differently by each person. Here are the main ways in which caffeine may benefit and/or harm the gut microbiome, according to Dr. Rezaie.
1. Certain sources of caffeine can reduce your risk of chronic diseases
Natural sources of caffeine like coffee contain essential nutrients like phytochemicals, fibers, antioxidants, and minerals that can help with more than boosting your energy. According to Dr. Rezaie, caffeine from coffee may also reduce risk of certain chronic diseases. “Coffee has been shown to help with multiple diseases that are microbiome-related, like type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease,” shares Dr. Rezaie. In one study, researchers discovered that moderate coffee consumption (three to 45 milliliters a day) may reduce one's risk of certain chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular diseases, and some types of cancers.
2. Some sources of caffeine, particularly tea, could help improve gut health by diversifying bacteria in the gut microbiome
Tea often contains certain enzymes, carbohydrates, polyphenols, amino acids, and other nutrients that offer various health benefits. In fact, some teas have also been shown to help diversify the bacteria in the gut microbiome, which can improve overall gut health and regulation of the gut.
3. Alternatively, caffeine sources with high amounts of added sugar may reduce bacteria diversity in the gut
Certain caffeinated beverages, like syrupy coffee concoctions or energy drinks, can reduce the different types of bacteria that live in the gut. According to one study, energy drinks can contain large amounts of sugar (ranging from 21 to 34 grams of sugar per ounce) that may reduce the activity and diversity of bacteria in the gut. Having a low diversity of gut bacteria can make it harder for your gut to maintain normal function, so it may be best to explore caffeinated drinks that are lower in sugar and don’t exceed 400 milligrams of caffeine in one serving.
4. Caffeine will worsen some digestive disease symptoms
While consuming caffeine does offer some gut-boosting benefits, it may worsen some symptoms experienced from digestive diseases. “There are some diseases that can get worse with caffeine [consumption], like acid reflux, that can have a harmful effect,” Dr. Rezaie says. Caffeine may also worsen irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms like diarrhea and stomach pain due to caffeine speeding up gut motility.
To avoid that from happening (especially during a social outing), Dr. Rezaie suggests proceeding with caution before consuming caffeine to avoid worsening your symptoms. However, if you don’t experience negative side effects, then he says it’s okay to add an energizing cup of coffee or tea to your routine. “Even with patients who have gut motility issues, I never tell them to not consume caffeine so long as they can tolerate it since it’s a good way to help the motility of the gut naturally,” Dr. Rezaie adds. The key is paying attention to how your body reacts to it and adjusting accordingly.
Does the source of caffeine matter?
Caffeine source is something to consider, since natural forms of caffeine clearly may benefit the gut more than synthetic (or human-made) caffeine. However, the amount of caffeine as well as sugar one drink contains is a bigger detail to focus on. “Up to 300 to 400 milligrams of caffeine is generally regarded as safe, but this can become a problem for your gut health—amongst other parts of the body—if you have multiple servings of said amount in a day,” Dr. Rezaie says. As the data pointed out, consuming too much caffeine in a day can wreak havoc on the gut for some people.
Same goes for sugar: The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of sugar per day.
How to reap the benefits of drinking caffeine (and reduce the negative effects)
It’s safe to say caffeine can impact your gut in good and bad ways, but there are ways to minimize the harm. One way to do this is by first understanding how your body reacts to caffeine and identifying if you experience digestive discomfort or get a jittery feeling. In that case, it may be best to consider alternatives to caffeine.
If your body responds well to caffeine, then Dr. Rezaie suggests opting for good old espresso, coffee, or tea-based beverages as great ways to sip your caffeine throughout the day. You can also explore energy drinks, but he advises paying attention to how much caffeine and sugar one can contain to avoid overloading on both ingredients in a day.
Dr. Rezaie also emphasizes the importance of monitoring your overall caffeine intake in the day and staying at or below 400 milligrams of caffeine. So if you find yourself consistently reaching for four or five caffeinated drinks throughout the day, then it may be time to explore naturally energizing options to avoid harming your gut long-term.