For so many of us, coffee is an integral part of our daily ritual and often the first thing we put to our lips in the morning. But some research suggests drinking a cup of java on an empty stomach (defined as two hours before or after you eat, per the National Institutes of Health) isn't the best idea.
If you brew a pot the moment your eyes open in the a.m., reach for a pour-over when the late afternoon slump hits or power through intermittent fasting on nothing but rocket fuel — we're talking to you.
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Here's the latest on how it can affect your health, plus clever tips to mitigate side effects.
Is It OK to Drink Coffee on an Empty Stomach?
Drinking coffee on an empty stomach isn't the best idea because it can lead to some of the following negative effects.
1. Your Blood Sugar Could Spike
A small June 2020 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found drinking black coffee on an empty stomach first thing in the morning impaired people's blood sugar control.
The ability to regulate blood sugar levels reduces your risk of metabolic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. People who ate breakfast beforehand did not experience a surge in blood glucose.
2. It Might Trigger Acid Reflux
"Coffee increases your risk of heartburn because it can stimulate acidity in the stomach," says Marvin Singh, MD, director of integrative gastroenterology at the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute at UC Irvine and founder of Precisione Clinic.
Coffee is naturally acidic, with a pH between 4.85 and 5.13. Anything under 7 is considered acidic, according to an October 2018 study in Nature. This is how coffee can cause acid reflux.
"Although digestive enzymes and gastric juices are released no matter what you consume, food or drink that is acidic in nature — like coffee — can be a gastric irritant, leading to increased acidity in the stomach," Dr. Singh says.
A little digestion 101: When you take a bite of bagel or gulp of water, a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter opens to allow the food or drink to flow from your esophagus into your stomach. Once it enters your stomach, the valve closes again.
But according to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, coffee relaxes that lower esophageal sphincter, causing the valve to not shut completely and allowing stomach acid to seep into your esophagus (a condition called acid reflux).
This can result in the most common symptom of acid reflux, heartburn, which can feel like a sharp pain in your chest. Coffee can also make you nauseous as a result of its high acidity.
If coffee does give you acid reflux, don't ignore it. Coffee can exacerbate stomach ulcers and other digestive issues.
"Long-term, chronic acid reflux from coffee could damage your stomach lining and lead to esophagitis, inflammation of the esophagus," Dr. Singh says. Untreated esophagitis could potentially damage the lining of your esophagus, upping your risk of esophageal cancer.
Dr. Singh also points out acid reflux can be a reaction to mold, an effect that might be magnified if your stomach is empty when you drink up. Regularly clean and descale your coffee maker to help limit symptoms.
What Should I Drink First Thing in the Morning?
Water is the best thing to drink first thing in the morning, especially if you feel dehydrated or are prone to acid reflux.
Case in point: In a September 2020 study in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, participants who replaced two servings of coffee a day with two servings of water had a reduced risk of acid reflux.
You can also try switching to green tea in the morning, which has a pH of 7 to 10. “It may be less irritating to your stomach,” Dr. Singh says.
Is It Better to Drink Coffee Before or After Eating?
Drinking coffee before eating gives you a super strong hit of acidity, turning your stomach into what Dr. Singh calls a "bowl of gastric acids."
The good news: "Eating alkaline foods along with your coffee helps reduce the total acidity level," Dr. Singh says. So make yourself a plate of eggs, avocado toast or oatmeal for breakfast.
3. You Could Feel Jittery
Caffeine can make you feel jittery pretty quickly. It's absorbed into the body within 45 minutes, and peaks anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours after drinking, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Depending on whether you've already eaten or not, you'll feel the effects faster or slower, especially if you've eaten a fiber-rich meal.
Your genetics will also play a role in how jittery coffee makes you. A March 2018 report in Coffee & Health found genetic variations determine how your body processes caffeine.
If you have a fast metabolism, drinking a cup of joe is unlikely to make you jittery, but for those who digest caffeine slowly, you're more prone to those jitters whether you've eaten or not.
And if you do tend to get jittery, then drinking java on an empty stomach tends to amplify that effect, Dr. Singh says.
Eating a snack or meal can help quell your jitters, as can opting for a lower dose of caffeine. "Drink half-caf, where you mix half decaffeinated coffee and half regular coffee," Dr. Singh suggests, or use fewer grounds or more water when you make your coffee.
And don't chug your mug. "Drink a cup of coffee over the course of a full hour in order to micro-dose the amount of caffeine you are getting," Dr. Singh says.
Finally, limit your total caffeine intake. "The rule of thumb for people who get jittery is a maximum of 200 milligrams a day," Dr. Singh says. That's about two 8-ounce cups of home-brewed coffee, per the Mayo Clinic, or one tall-sized dark roast coffee from Starbucks.
What if You’re Doing Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting (IF) — where you restrict the timeframe during which you eat — is associated with a slew of health benefits, from weight loss to lower blood pressure. You can still drink zero-cal beverages like black coffee during food-free hours.
If you're an IF devotee, you might now be wondering if you should skip your caffeine fix between meals. "It's a personal decision," Dr. Singh says. "If you feel fine when you have coffee while fasting, then there's nothing to worry about."
On the other hand, if coffee causes stomach pain or makes you feel shaky, then give green tea or half-caf a try. Or spread out your coffee intake by nursing a single serving all morning long.
Whatever you choose, don't forget to drink plenty of H2O along the way. Not only is caffeine a diuretic, but about 20 percent of the water you need comes from food, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So if you're IF, you may be low on fluids already. Try alternating sips of coffee and water.
When Is the Best Time to Drink Coffee?
The best time to drink coffee is after you've eaten a meal.
Order your latte in the late morning, shortly after breakfast. If you drink it before you have food in your stomach, you're at risk for all the symptoms mentioned above: a surge in blood sugar, heartburn and acid reflux, jitteriness and the opposite effect: Coffee can make you tired.
What's more, your cortisol levels peak around 7 a.m., according to the University of Michigan Medicine. Cortisol is a hormone that gives you an energy boost, so unless you're sleep-deprived, you should already be feeling relatively peppy early in the morning.
So, how long after waking should you drink coffee? You'll get the most bang for your buck if you hold off on caffeine for a few hours, once cortisol has started to wane.
On the other hand, you should steer clear of coffee after about 2 p.m. "Having it in the late afternoon or evening could interfere with sleep," Dr. Singh says.
A small November 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found getting 400 milligrams of caffeine (about four cups of home brew or a medium-roast Venti at Starbucks) six hours before bed slashed sleep time by more than an hour.
So, How Bad Is It Really to Drink Coffee on an Empty Stomach?
In the best of all possible worlds, you'd stick to java with a meal. But if you're sipping it solo and feeling good? You're probably in the clear.
"If you aren't experiencing any symptoms, then I'd say it's OK," Dr. Singh says. "But if you do suspect it is causing a problem, then I would pay attention to that."
- Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology: "Association Between Beverage Intake and Incidence of Gastroesophageal Reflux Symptoms"
- Nature: "Acidity and Antioxidant Activity of Cold Brew Coffee"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Caffeine"
- American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy: "Diet and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)"
- Coffee & Health: "Genetics, metabolism and individual responses to caffeine"
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Glucose control upon waking is unaffected by hourly sleep fragmentation during the night, but is impaired by morning caffeinated coffee"
- NIH: "What does it mean to take medicines on an empty stomach?"
- AND: "How Much Water Do You Need"
- Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: "Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed"
- University of Michigan Medicine: " Cortisol in Blood Test"
- Starbucks: "Starbucks Coffee Company Beverage Nutrition Information"
- Mayo Clinic: "Caffeine content for coffee, tea, soda and more"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.