It's common for your morning cup of joe to send you straight to the bathroom. So much so, you may have come to rely on it as a fail-safe remedy for constipation.
Many of us are familiar with the tummy rumbles after those first few sips, but the way coffee affects our gut health is still a relatively new area of scientific study.
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A growing body of research and a network of gut health experts now support the idea that coffee may have benefits for your digestive tract.
"The polyphenols in coffee can feed beneficial gut bacteria, promoting growth and activity," says Joseph Salhab, DO, a gastroenterologist based in Davenport, Florida. "They can also help limit the growth of 'bad' bacteria."
And according to Dr. Salhab, you can add to those benefits by spooning some cocoa powder into your cup.
The Gut Benefits of Coffee With Cocoa
The jolt of energy might be the first thing you think of when it comes to coffee's numerous benefits, but there's more to the story. When it comes to digestion, coffee and cocoa boast particular perks.
The Combo Is High in Antioxidants
"Coffee consumption has been a topic of interest in nutritional and medical research for many years, although its effects on gut health and the microbiome are a relatively recent area of research," says gastroenterologist Sarah Robbins, MD, founder of Well Sunday.
Coffee is rich in antioxidants and other compounds that have been tied to reducing inflammation in the body and protecting against a number of health conditions, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Many of the coffee benefits are attributed to antioxidants, and that may be especially true for the gut. "Coffee's antioxidant properties are protective against oxidative stress, which can contribute to GI issues," Dr. Robbins says.
Introducing cocoa may add to these benefits: "Cocoa powder is high in polyphenols, much like coffee. When you combine the two, you're essentially adding more antioxidant power to your beverage," Dr. Salhab says.
Oxidative stress and unbalanced gut bacteria are key factors in gastrointestinal conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, where parts of your digestive tract become inflamed, causing symptoms like diarrhea, stomach pain, bloody stools, weight loss and fatigue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Research shows polyphenols may be able to mitigate oxidative stress, promote bacterial diversity in the gut and improve your immune responses, according to a April 2023 review in Antioxidants.
It Also Contains Fiber
Most Americans aren't getting enough dietary fiber, according to the American Society for Nutrition.
Adults should aim for 25 to 38 grams of fiber per day, and adding a tablespoon or 2 of cocoa powder to your morning cup of coffee can help get you there. One tablespoon of cocoa powder has 2 grams of fiber, per the USDA.
Your digestive tract needs dietary fiber to maintain a healthy bacterial environment, or microbiome, according to a December 2022 review in Microorganisms.
"Beneficial bacteria ferment prebiotic fibers to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) such as acetate, propionate and butyrate — and these SCFAs play several roles in gut health," Dr. Robbins says.
Butyrate helps support the gut lining, which stops harmful bacteria and microbes from getting into your bloodstream, according to the Cleveland Clinic. "SCFAs also have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help maintain a balanced immune response in the gut," Dr. Robbins says.
Fiber also increases the weight and size of your stool and softens it, making it easier to poop and helping to prevent issues like constipation, according to the Mayo Clinic.
4 Tips for Preparing a Gut-Healthy Coffee
There's more than one way to ensure your morning coffee is supporting your health rather than hurting it.
"Factors like additives in the coffee, the amount you drink and the time you drink it also play a role in how coffee affects digestion," says Michelle Pearlman, MD, a gastroenterologist and the CEO and co-founder of Prime Institute.
Below, our experts share a few things to keep in mind.
1. Consider Light vs. Dark Roasts
"When we talk about coffee, its purest form, which is black coffee, is arguably the most beneficial way to drink it. Interestingly, light roasts often retain more of their antioxidant properties," Dr. Salhab says.
That said, light roasts may not be ideal for some people. "For anyone with a sensitive stomach, dark roasts might be a more suitable choice as they tend to be less acidic," he adds.
2. Mind Your Brewing Method
If you have heartburn or acid reflux when drinking hot coffee, a cold brew may be more suitable.
"The process of cold brewing makes coffee less acidic compared with hot brewing methods. This can be gentler on the stomach and may be a good option for those who experience digestive discomfort with regular coffee," Dr. Robbins says.
3. Time Your Coffee Accordingly
When you drink your coffee is another important factor in how it will affect your gut.
"Drinking coffee early in the morning, especially on an empty stomach, can increase the production of stomach acid, which may not be ideal for those with acid reflux, heartburn or other digestive issues," Dr. Robbins says. "Having a small meal or snack before drinking coffee can mitigate this effect."
On the other hand, sipping on an empty stomach may be helpful in certain circumstances. "If you are constipated, coffee on an empty stomach may stimulate a bowel movement," Dr. Robbins says.
The caffeine in your coffee is credited with that increase in gut motility, according to Michigan Medicine.
4. Avoid Certain Add-Ins
Some common coffee ingredients could hurt your gut.
"My main piece of advice is to limit coffee additives that commonly trigger symptoms in the GI tract or intensify cravings and hunger," Dr. Pearlman says. "These include added sugars, creamers with artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame (which may cause diarrhea and bloating in some people) and dairy for those who are lactose intolerant."
Choosing a creamer with less fat may also be a better option for some people. "Choosing light creamers over full-fat options can help lower the calories and potentially prevent issues like acid reflux," Dr. Salhab says.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "9 Reasons Why (the Right Amount of) Coffee Is Good for You"
- Michigan Medicine: "Energy Drinks, Caffeine and Your Digestion"
- CDC: "What is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)?"
- Antioxidants: "Oxidative Stress, Inflammation, Gut Dysbiosis: What Can Polyphenols Do in Inflammatory Bowel Disease?"
- American Society for Nutrition: "Most Americans are not getting enough fiber in our diets"
- USDA: "Cocoa Powder"
- Microorganisms: "Dietary Fiber Intake and Gut Microbiota in Human Health"
- Cleveland Clinic: "The Health Benefits and Side Effects of Butyrate"
- Mayo Clinic: "Fiber"