You love the rich warmth of your morning cup of coffee (and the jolt of energy it provides), but your digestive system doesn't. So why does coffee make your stomach hurt, and is there anything you can do to prevent the pain?
Here are the potential reasons why coffee can make your stomach hurt, plus tips to help you treat or prevent your coffee stomach cramps.
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1. You're Sensitive to Caffeine
But it may also be to blame for the sharp pain in your stomach after drinking coffee — that's right, caffeine stomach pain is a thing.
"Caffeine is a gastrointestinal stimulant," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, dietitian, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It — Taking You from Label to Table.
Caffeine affects everyone differently based on factors like your body size and diet, per the Cleveland Clinic. And some people are just more sensitive to the substance than others, which can pronounce the effects of the stimulant, including those unpleasant gastrointestinal issues.
"Some people feel jittery or nervous after drinking caffeinated beverages, or they might get an upset stomach or a night of interrupted sleep," Taub-Dix says. "Not everyone gets these symptoms, so you have to know yourself and your particular level of tolerance."
So if you're wondering why even modest amounts of coffee upset your stomach, this may be the reason.
In general, drinking up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (that's about 4 cups of brewed coffee) shouldn't cause side effects, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But if you're sensitive to the substance, it's best to stick to a lower daily dose of caffeine that doesn't cause you stomach pain.
2. It's Acidic
Caffeine isn't the only compound responsible for why coffee makes your stomach hurt. The brew also contains a variety of acids — like chlorogenic acids and trigonelline — that can further stimulate stomach acid production and the potential for abdominal pain, according to June 2014 research in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research.
This may be particularly true if you have an underlying condition. "If you have reflux or GERD, your symptoms would most likely worsen by drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages," Taub-Dix says.
Pain in Right or Left Side After Drinking Coffee
There are a number of reasons why you may specifically notice right or left side pain after drinking coffee. According to the Cleveland Clinic, here's what that pain can mean, broken down by area:
- Upper left abdominal pain: Pancreas or kidney problems, gastritis, stomach ulcers or bile reflux
- Upper right abdominal pain: Gallstones, duodenal ulcer, kidney problems or large bowel obstruction
- Lower left abdominal pain: Diverticulitis
- Lower right abdominal pain: Appendix problems
Visit your doctor if you have persistent pain in any of these areas, and they can help determine if an underlying condition is to blame.
3. It Can Contribute to Constipation
Caffeine is a diuretic, which means it triggers your body to urinate more, according to the NLM. And while coffee contributes to bowel movements for some people, this diuretic effect has the potential to stop you up.
Constipation could thus be the reason why your stomach hurts after drinking coffee. Blocked-up bowels can also lead to other symptoms like:
- Hard, dry or lumpy stools
- The feeling that you haven't completely emptied your bowels after going to the bathroom
- Having fewer than three bowel movements a week
4. Additives Can Lead to an Upset Stomach
Though coffee can cause stomach pain, sometimes the coffee itself isn't the culprit. Loading your cup with cream, milk, sugar or other additives may be the actual reason why your stomach hurts when you drink coffee.
- Nausea or vomiting
Similarly, you may have an intolerance to the sugars in some coffee add-ins.
Fructose, for example, is found in sweeteners like honey, high-fructose corn syrup, agave syrup and certain sugars, per the Mayo Clinic. And if your body can't adequately process this type of sugar, it can lead to stomach side effects after drinking coffee.
5. You Have Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common gastrointestinal disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. Why people develop IBS isn't clear, but it may be due to infection, stress, gut bacteria imbalances or intestinal muscle contraction issues. It causes symptoms like:
- Abdominal pain
- Changes in bowel appearance and/or frequency
Food and stress can cause symptoms to flare, per the Mayo Clinic. And according to February 2017 research in Gastroenterology Report, coffee is often a trigger for IBS, perhaps due to an immune condition or specific bioactive molecules in coffee.
Benefits of Coffee
Though it's typically best to avoid coffee if it regularly makes your stomach hurt, the brew may benefit your health beyond giving you increased energy. A November 2017 review in the BMJ found drinking coffee is linked to a lower risk for cancer, heart disease and neurological, metabolic and liver conditions.
Tips to Avoid Coffee Stomach Pain
Now that you know the potential reasons why coffee makes your stomach hurt, here's what you can do about it:
1. Stick to Dark-Roast Coffee
If coffee makes your stomach hurt but espresso doesn't, it may have to do with the darkness of the blend. A dark brown roast coffee blend stimulates gastric acid secretion less compared to medium roasts, according to the Molecular Nutrition & Food Research study.
The study analyzed a difference in concentration of the compounds N-alkanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamides (C5HTs), chlorogenic acids (CGAs), trigonelline and N-methylpyridinium (N-MP) in dark and medium roasts as well as caffeine content.
The amount of caffeine in the two types of coffee was similar, but concentration of N-MP was higher in the dark roast and lower for C5HTs and CGAs in the dark roast compared to the medium roast. This resulted in a lower stimulation of gastric acid secretion, which may be why dark roasts are less irritating to your gut.
2. Avoid Additives
If you notice that sugary or creamy coffee drinks regularly cause stomach upset, it may be best to steer clear of those additives, per the Mayo Clinic.
3. Don't Drink on an Empty Stomach
"For some people, coffee is tolerated better when paired with food instead of having it on an empty stomach (like first thing in the morning)," Taub-Dix says.
4. Try Other Sources of Caffeine
"Some people find that drinking decaffeinated beverages is helpful to prevent gastrointestinal disturbances, but for others, even decaf coffee could cause them to not feel well," Taub-Dix says. That's because decaf coffee can still contain acids that contribute to gastric discomfort.
If you still crave the energizing effects of caffeine but want to avoid discomfort after coffee, try drinking other sources of the stimulant instead, like green or black tea.
"You can also try a less acidic roast of coffee," Taub-Dix says.
- BMJ: "Coffee consumption and health: umbrella review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Caffeine"
- Molecular Nutrition & Food Research: "A dark brown roast coffee blend is less effective at stimulating gastric acid secretion in healthy volunteers compared to a medium roast market blend"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Constipation"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Caffeine: How to Hack It and How to Quit It"
- Mayo Clinic: "Lactose intolerance"
- Mayo Clinic: "Fructose intolerance: Which foods to avoid?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Irritable bowel syndrome"
- Gastroenterology Report: "Irritable bowel syndrome and diet"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Abdominal Pain"
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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.