Why Does Coffee Hurt My Stomach?

Coffee can hurt your stomach because it stimulates gastric activity.
Image Credit: TARIK KIZILKAYA/iStock/GettyImages

You love the rich warmth of your morning cup of coffee, but your stomach doesn't. If coffee makes your stomach hurt, you'll want relief without giving up your morning caffeine boost. The good news? You may not have to give up coffee completely — just go for a darker dose.

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Coffee hurts your stomach because it stimulates gastric activity. Choosing a different roast may help prevent the discomfort.

Coffee Has Benefits

Besides the obvious benefits of waking you up and tasting like a hug in a mug, coffee may also afford numerous physical and mental benefits. The_ BMJ_ published a meta-analysis in November 2017 stating that benefits include an 18-percent lower risk of cancers and reduced risk of certain neurological, metabolic and liver conditions.


Planta Medica research from November 2017 also noted that coffee consumption may help prevent Type 2 diabetes and liver disease. Adults who consume moderate amounts of coffee — defined at three to four cups per day — experience these benefits without any notable health risks.

Coffee also has power to protect against some neurodegenerative diseases, and habitual consumption is associated with lower risk of several cardiovascular conditions, including heart disease, congestive heart failure and stroke, reports a paper in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases in May 2018. This paper also notes that the benefits of coffee consumption outweigh any risks associated with it, such as heart palpitations or anxiety.


Causes of Coffee Stomach Pain

The problem is that wanting to take advantage of these health benefits is difficult when each sip irritates your gut. When coffee makes your stomach hurt, it's likely due to components in it, including caffeine, chlorogenic acids and N-alkanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamides.

That these compounds stimulate the release of gastric acid has long shown in research such as that published in the_ Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology_ in February 1999. The research notes that coffee stimulates gallbladder contraction and colonic activity, which can be the cause of digestive distress.


Increased Colon Activity

Coffee is well-known for its ability to help get the bowels moving, and it's seemingly not due to the caffeine. A study presented at the 2019 Digestive Disease Week in Texas revealed that coffee may suppress bacteria and increase muscle motility, regardless of caffeine content.

Increased colon activity doesn't increase your risk of colorectal cancer, however. Research in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention published in April 2017 found an inverse relationship between coffee consumption and colon cancer. This suggests that, despite coffee hurting your stomach, it may protect you from developing colon cancer in the long-term.


No Association With GERD

Coffee is often irritating to people with GERD — gastroesophageal reflux disease — but a meta-analysis in the May-June 2014 issue of Dis Esophagus shows that there's no significant association between coffee intake and GERD. Of course, if you suffer from GERD and coffee makes your stomach hurt, limit how much you drink. You may have a more sensitive reaction; respect your body.

Read more: The Best Foods to Eat if You Have Acid Reflux

Affects Gut/Brain Axis

In a small study published in Nutrition Journal in 2016, 40 participants were evaluated for self-reported gastrointestinal symptoms, blood pressure and stress indices immediately following coffee consumption.

The participants reported no real symptoms of abdominal discomfort, bloating, dyspepsia and heartburn. However, the coffee's effects on participants' stress levels indicated that it did affect the sympathetic nervous system.

In some people, it's possible that this stimulation isn't relaxing, but irritating enough to cause a reaction in the gut that causes pain.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is one of the most common gastrointestinal diseases. Why people suffer from IBS isn't clear, but the condition is characterized by increased food sensitivities and digestive reactions to stress. You may experience abdominal pain and discomfort and altered bowel habits as a result of the disease.

Gastroenterology Report published a paper in February 2017 focusing on available dietary interventions for the condition. Coffee is often considered a potential trigger for IBS symptoms, perhaps due to an immune condition or specific bioactive molecules in coffee.

Coffee isn't the only potential irritant of IBS. Foods such as dairy products, fruits, wheat, juices, vegetables and sweetened soft drinks and chewing gum can also trigger symptoms. If you have stomach pain when you drink coffee as well as when you consume other foods, see your doctor for a thorough evaluation.

It May Be the Milk

You may think Starbucks coffee hurts your stomach. And you may experience discomfort if you like a milky drink, such as a latte or cappuccino. It's not the coffee irritating your gut, but possibly the lactose in the milk.

If you have symptoms including stomach pain, gas, diarrhea and bloating after downing a "specialty" coffee drink, you may have lactose intolerance. Even a splash of milk in your morning cup of coffee can trigger discomfort in sensitive people. Try switching to almond, soy or coconut milk the next time you load your coffee with a creamer to see if you still have pain.

Read more: Which Type of Milk (or Nondairy Milk) Is Best? The PROs and CONs of 9 Different Kinds

Find Relief in Dark Coffee

If coffee hurts your stomach 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 research in a June 2014 issue of Molecular Nutrition and Food Research.

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.

Caffeine content 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.

Read more: 8 Ways You're Doing Coffee All Wrong and How to Get it Right

Relieve Coffee Discomfort

If you do experience bloating and pain after drinking coffee, take steps to relieve it. Eat something when you drink the coffee — even a piece of whole-wheat toast or a banana — to help soak up the extra gastric juices.

Other ways to relieve bloating as suggested by Brigham and Women's Hospital include drinking your coffee closer to room temperature and sitting upright as you sip. Physical activity may help relieve your pain too.

You may also find that the stimulation of your colon causes an extreme urge to hit the restroom. Once you clear your bowels, bloating and stomach pain from coffee may dissipate.