COFFEE : Dash to work or dash to the loo?
by Sophie Greenwood
In the UK alone we drink around 95 million cups of coffee every day
Whether your choice of weapon is a frothy cappuccino, a flat white or a straight up black, if like me you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) then you’ll know that the post cup of your favourite roast simply isn’t worth the tummy ache (1). I asked Dietitian, Emily Leeming a few of my most burning questions to get some more insight into just how our daily caffeine kicks are having an effect on our guts.
WHY IS IT THAT SOME OF US CAN TOLERATE COFFEE MORE THAN OTHERS?
Emily explains that unfortunately this is still unknown and could be down to our individual genetic dispositions and that we all have a totally unique microbiome(2). ‘What we do know though is that caffeine can increase our stress hormones, which for some people can lead to anxiety-induced gut symptoms.’ So if I suffer from IBS will this make my bodies response to stress worse? ‘For those who suffer from IBS there are two main ways that coffee might affect you. Caffeine can act as a stimulant by increasing gut motility which can make everything pass through more quickly and loosely. This can especially be a problem for those prone to diarrhoea. Others may also find that for them that caffeine can increase feelings of anxiety which on top of this can act as an extra trigger for their IBS symptoms. This can be really individual, some people with IBS may find that they can drink coffee no problem, but others can be really affected by it.’
The health impacts of coffee, have been investigated many times. Largely due to us all drinking so much of it! A recent meta-analysis which looks at a group of different research on the same topic, examined all previous recorded summaries of coffee and health research, to get a complete picture of the state of knowledge on the subject. Most found that coffee was linked to a lower risk of disease or death (3). That said, most of the research is observational. Emily continues, ‘We know that coffee is rich in polyphenols which are a family of antioxidants which have been suggested to have a prebiotic-like effect, possibly acting by feeding our beneficial gut microbiota, and could be having a positive effect on our health in this way. It’s good to be attune to your own bodily reactions though and learn what’s best for you to enjoy your day.’
SO DOES THE TYPE OF COFFEE YOU DRINK OR WHAT YOU PUT IN IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
‘If you think your gut is really suffering as a direct result of your coffee intake, I would suggest trying different options to see what suits you best. Half-strength or decaf coffee for example. Or swapping out for a complete alternative. A lot of people really enjoy discovering new herbal teas which are low in caffeine and can be equally tasty without causing any upset’.
Despite suffering from IBS, I still love finding little coffee shops when I’m out and about. I know that I’m sensitive to dairy too but the good news is that most now have dairy-free options like coconut, oat and almond milk. These certainly help beat the bloat for me. If you think this may be the case for you too, Emily recommends asking your doctor to refer you to a Dietitian who can test you for lactose intolerance, so that you don’t needlessly reduce or cut out dairy without needing to. She also recommends avoiding switching to take your coffee black if you experience gut-related symptoms as ‘adding milk to coffee slows down the absorption of caffeine as well as diluting the strength of your coffee.’
Coffee is rich in polyphenols which are a family of antioxidants which have been suggested to have a prebiotic-like effect
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my morning routine and what morning rituals are important to me. I love my morning coffee but also realise there are certainly better ways for me to manage my IBS. With this, I asked Emily how many cups and at what time of day do you think we should stop drinking our favourite blend?
‘Those with IBS who find that their symptoms are triggered by caffeine may like to swap onto caffeine free alternatives, or even a weaker strength of coffee. For most people without IBS or without an impact on their IBS symptoms the evidence suggests that up to 3-4 cups a day is safe and likely could be beneficial. If you’re worried about your caffeine intake, in the morning try to eat something or drink some water to rehydrate first thing instead of reaching straight for the coffee machine to break your habit. Always cut down slowly by ½ a cup a day to avoid withdrawal symptoms, don’t make it any harder for yourself! Listen to your body, we are all unique and can respond differently. With everything, drink coffee in moderation, but intuitively you will likely know your limits. If you’re struggling to sleep at night, try finishing your last cup before midday and see if that helps, as caffeine can stay in your system for up to 6 hours. It’s worth keeping a journal of how you feel, not only just with coffee – this is especially useful if you’re suffering with gut health issues as it’s very easy to forget what you eat from one day to the next and how your digestive system reacted.’
If like me, you don’t want to give up your daily cup of favourite roasted beans then I would consider generally becoming more aware of how your body feels. I’m going to really make a conscious effort to savour my morning coffee now and stop flying out the house quite so quickly and feeling like I have to finish it, even if it is half cold!
1. The Independent - Brits now drinking 95 million cups of coffee per day Centre for Economic and Business Research2018
2. Yang A, Palmer AA, de Wit H. Genetics of caffeine consumption and responses to caffeine. Psychopharmacology. 2010;211(3):245-57
3. Poole R, Kennedy OJ, Roderick P, Fallowfield JA, Hayes PC, Parkes J. Coffee consumption and health: umbrella review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes. BMJ. 2017;359.
Communications Consultant and Writer Sophie Greenwood, is on a mission to help impart the best communication around the subject of Gut Health through her work with Gutsy. A topic she has been interested in for years as she herself has IBS and has worked with a plethora of experts within the health and wellness industry with differing views, Sophie believes that whatever the issue may be, it can be bettered by the right intake of food. Founder of Belle et Bien Comms, she continually strives to add value to Gutsy by using unique creativity and a holistic approach to her work so that Gutsy can communicate the very best advice to achieve the strongest results.
Written by © Sophie Greenwood. All rights reserved.
Photography by Annie Spratt