Your esophagus is the hard tube-like structure through which food and liquid is delivered into your stomach. The inside of your esophagus is lined with soft tissue, which can become irritated as the result of a number of throat and gastrointestinal conditions. Some of the foods and beverages you consume, including coffee, can affect the esophagus in various ways.
Coffee and the LES
You have a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter, abbreviated as LES, at the base of your throat. This muscle is like a lever, opening and closing to let food and fluids pass from your throat to your stomach.The LES can become weakened, sometimes as a result of the foods you eat. A weak LES opens up when it should remain closed, allowing stomach acids to flow upward toward the esophagus. This condition is called acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Coffee is one of the foods that can affect the esophagus by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter. Foods that are spicy, acidic or caffeinated are more likely to lead to an opening of the LES. Other foods in addition to coffee that have this effect include peppermint, onions, chocolate and fried foods.
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Effects of Reflux
Chronic reflux induced by the consumption of coffee -- or other foods that relax the lower esophageal sphincter -- can damage the esophagus. The tissues inside the esophagus become irritated and inflamed and may develop into open sores called ulcers. One of the possible effects of reflux caused by longtime coffee drinkers is a condition called Barrett's esophagus. The erosion of the esophageal lining causes abnormal cells to form, much like the lining of the intestines. The formation of these intestinal cells inside your esophagus can put you at risk for esophageal cancer.
Contrasting opinions are common in science and medicine, and the effect of coffee on the esophagus is no exception. The results of a study in Japan published in the February 2008 issue of the "American Journal of Epidemiology" showed that coffee could affect the esophagus in a beneficial way in certain populations. Adults between the ages of 40 and 64 who had no previous history of cancer were asked to detail their consumption of coffee, green tea and other food items. Those who drank more than one cup of coffee daily were found to have less incidence of oral and esophageal cancer than the participants who were not coffee drinkers. The researchers, associated with Japan's Tohoku University School of Medicine, theorize that the beneficial effect of coffee on the esophagus is due to anticarcinogenic substances found in coffee.
The majority of people who experience GERD, Barrett's esophagus or other conditions of the esophagus have more than one dietary trigger that provokes symptoms. Even if you cut out coffee entirely, you may require further medical treatment in addition to lifestyle and diet modifications. Medications that reduce or stop the production of stomach acids can minimize harmful effects on your esophagus and make you feel better. Consult your doctor for a list of treatment options.