Irritable Bowel Syndrome & Coffee

A woman stirring a cup of coffee at a cafe.
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Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is one of the most common digestive complaints, making up between 20 and 50 percent of all digestive-related visits to the doctor in the U.S., according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The symptoms of IBS vary from person to person, as do the particular stimuli that exacerbate the symptoms. A trial-and-error period can help determine whether coffee is troublesome for people with IBS, but coffee is usually on the list of things to avoid.

About IBS

The cause of IBS is unclear, and the intestines of an IBS patient look normal when examined, but it is clear that symptoms occur when the muscles of the intestinal tract contract either more quickly or more slowly than normal. Common symptoms are primarily gastrointestinal and can include abdominal cramps, gas, bloating, mucus in the stool, and diarrhea or constipation -- or alternating bouts of both. Pain is often relieved after a bowel movement. Approximately 60 percent of IBS patients have psychological symptoms, such as anxiety, and some have low levels of the brain chemical serotonin, commonly correlated with depression.

Potential Irritants

Some of the risk factors associated with the onset of IBS include a low-fiber diet, an instance of infectious diarrhea, overuse of laxatives and emotional stress. Other types of bowel inflammation, usually temporary, are also a risk factor. Several foods are commonly identified as irritants to IBS, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, including fatty foods, artificial sweeteners, chemical additives, dairy products, alcohol and gluten. According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, four things -- insoluble fiber, coffee/caffeine, chocolate and nuts -- are the most likely to cause problems, although what acts as an irritant will vary for each person.

Coffee Problems

The caffeine in coffee can cause problems for those with IBS because it increases peristalsis -- the contraction of the muscles in the intestines -- and causes the increased secretion of acid in the stomach. Although caffeine is the main culprit, researchers from the American Chemical Society isolated two other components in coffee -- catechols and N-alkanoly-5-hydroxytryptamides -- that can also increase the production of stomach acid. This may mean that even drinking decaffeinated coffee can cause problems if you have IBS.

Potential Solutions

Finding out whether coffee, either regular or decaffeinated, is causing you problems if you have IBS typically requires a trial-and-error approach. Ingredients commonly added to coffee, such as dairy products and artificial sweeteners, can also cause problems, so you need to consider possibly removing those as well. If drinking any type of coffee does exacerbate your IBS symptoms, switching to an herbal alternative, such as a chicory-based drink, may be a viable alternative.

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. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker before leaving the house.