Over 180 million Americans start their day with coffee to get going. Some people enjoy their coffee and apparently have no health issues with drinking it. There are however some potential negative effects of coffee, particularly at certain times and when it becomes so addictive that you find it difficult to go a day without it. In fact, excessive coffee consumption may be having some very negative effects on our health, particularly on our digestive system and stress levels.
- Coffee and Hydrochloric Acid
Drinking coffee on an empty stomach, such as first thing in the morning, stimulates hydrochloric acid production. This can be a problem because HCl should only be produced to digest meals. If your body has to make HCl more often in response to regular cups of coffee, it may have difficulty producing enough to deal with a large meal.
Protein digestion in particular is affected by a lack of hydrochloric acid in the stomach and protein based foods can pass into the small intestine before being properly broken down. Undigested protein is associated in a variety of health problems, from gas and bloating to IBS, diverticulitis and even colon cancer. Given this, it’s important to limit anything that interferes with its proper functioning.
- Ulcers, IBS and Acidity
Many of the compounds in coffee like caffeine and the various acids found in coffee beans can irritate your stomach and the lining of your small intestine. It’s known to be a problem for those suffering from ulcers, gastritis, IBS and Crohn’s disease and doctors generally advise patients with these conditions to avoid coffee completely. Can excessive coffee consumption contribute to these health issues to begin with?
Ulcers are caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacteria. However, the acidic effect coffee has on the stomach may contribute to providing the weakened stomach lining necessary for H. pylori to take hold initially. Drinking coffee can also irritate the lining of the small intestine, potentially leading to abdominal spasms, cramps and elimination problems, often alternating between constipation and diarrhea. This condition is known as irritable bowel syndrome and more and more people are being diagnosed with it in recent years.
- Heartburn Problems
Acid reflux and heartburn can be caused by coffee due to the way it relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter. This small muscle should remain tightly closed once you’ve eaten to prevent the contents of your stomach from coming back into the esophagus and burning its delicate lining with hydrochloric acid.
Caffeine is known to relax the esophageal sphincter so while soda and high caffeine energy drinks can also contribute to heartburn; coffee is particularly problematic for this. Even decaf regularly causes heartburn problems for some people and researchers think other compounds in coffee can also contribute to acid reflux problems.
- Coffee as a Laxative
Drinking coffee can stimulate peristalsis, the process in the digestive tract that makes us head for the bathroom. Some people use it deliberately as a laxative, but there’s a problem with this.
By stimulating peristalsis, coffee also appears to promote increased gastric emptying, whereby the stomach’s contents are quickly passed into the small intestines, often before the digesting food has been properly broken down. In this partially digested state, it makes it much more difficult for nutrients to be absorbed from your food. It also increases the chances of irritation and inflammation within the gastrointestinal tract.
- Mineral Absorption, Your Kidneys and Coffee
Heavy coffee drinkers may have difficulty getting enough minerals in their diet, even if they eat mineral rich foods or take supplements. This is due to the way coffee affects iron absorption in your stomach and particularly your kidneys’ ability to retain calcium, zinc, magnesium and other important minerals.
While all of these minerals are vital for good health, from a digestive standpoint, any interference with magnesium absorption is particularly worrying as it is necessary to maintain bowel regularity and so many of us are already deficient in it.
- Coffee, Stress and Tension
Drinking lots of coffee will promote the release of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These chemicals increase your body’s heart rate, blood pressure and tension levels – the old ‘fight or flight’ response. We often say we need to drink coffee to give us energy. But for many of us, has it gone further than just energy and turned into a kind of jittery tension that is always on and makes it difficult to relax? Maybe it pushes you to get through the paperwork, but longer-term the health implications of this kind of ongoing stress are significant.
Turning on the stress hormones with a cup of coffee when you’re eating also interferes with the digestive process. When you’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode, your body will divert its resources to being ready for a potential threat and digestion suffers as a result. Finally, the caffeine in coffee is known to interfere with GABA metabolism. Gamma-aminobutyric acid is a neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood and stress levels. It should also have a calming effect on the gastrointestinal tract.
Your mood and your digestive system are surprisingly interrelated. Unfortunately, when you drink a lot of coffee the high levels of caffeine in it can negatively affect both of them.