It is often said that coffee should not be drunk on an empty stomach for health reasons. But is it actually unhealthy to drink coffee first thing in the morning when you wake up?
Nutritionist Anthony DiMarino from the Cleveland Clinic (USA) explains to what extent drinking coffee on an empty stomach can lead to health problems and what to look out for if in doubt. The good news first: For most people, drinking coffee on an empty stomach is not a problem, but there are exceptions.
Coffee and reflux
For example, DiMarino addresses gastroesophageal reflux disease, in which stomach contents can flow back into the esophagus and cause severe heartburn. There could definitely be a connection with coffee consumption, even if the study results so far are quite ambivalent.
For example, while one study concluded that it is not coffee that increases the risk of reflux, but other factors such as obesity and chronic health problems, another study found increased reflux symptoms after consuming caffeinated coffee.
“Coffee and caffeine can increase the production of stomach acid, and coffee also relaxes the valve, allowing excess acid to pass into the esophagus. Both reactions can lead to more severe and frequent reflux symptoms,” says DiMarino.
However, adding a little low-fat or fat-free milk or a milk alternative to your coffee can help provide relief. Although fatty milk sometimes worsens reflux symptoms, “low-fat dairy products can act as a buffer between stomach acid and the stomach lining, which prevents heartburn,” explains the expert.
Stomach ulcers from coffee
For a long time it was assumed that coffee could also cause stomach ulcers and drinking it on an empty stomach was considered particularly risky. According to DiMarino, this suspected connection cannot be proven.
The main cause of stomach ulcers is infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterium that attacks the protective stomach lining, allowing stomach acid to damage the tissue.
Stomach ulcers can also be caused by excessive intake of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin, but coffee does not seem to play a role, the expert emphasizes.
A study examined the effects of coffee consumption on the risk of stomach ulcers in more than 8,000 people in Japan and found no significant connection, even among people who drank three or more cups per day.
But even if coffee doesn’t cause stomach ulcers, it can increase stomach acid production and therefore worsen symptoms in people who already have a stomach ulcer.
More consequences of coffee on an empty stomach
Drinking coffee on an empty stomach can also have some other undesirable side effects, according to DiMarino, because the empty stomach means the caffeine is absorbed quickly and can have a stronger effect.
This can increase blood pressure and make you feel like your heart is beating too fast or skipping beats (palpitations), the expert reports. The increased effects of caffeine can also make you anxious, nervous and irritable.
Such side effects can sometimes be noticed as early as ten minutes after consuming coffee, although it usually takes up to an hour for the caffeine to take full effect.
However, it can help those affected to eat something before their morning coffee. Because “food in the stomach slows down the absorption of caffeine into the bloodstream,” explains DiMarino. (fp)