Decaffeinated Coffee & Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Man with cups of coffee in tray
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If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, it often means that you should forego certain foods and drinks to avoid exacerbating the symptoms. Coffee is one of the drinks professionals commonly recommend to avoid, primarily because of its caffeine content. Drinking decaffeinated coffee may seem like a logical solution, but it, too, can cause a flare-up of IBS symptoms. Knowing why can help you decide if it is worth it to keep decaffeinated coffee in your diet, or avoid coffee, altogether.

IBS Facts

The cause of irritable bowel syndrome, IBS, is not known, but its symptoms are attributed to the muscle of the large intestine contracting more rapidly or more slowly than normal, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Common symptoms include cramping in the lower abdomen, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation -- often alternating between the two. Foods that contain caffeine, such as coffee and chocolate, are often considered "trigger foods," or foods that commonly exacerbate the symptoms of IBS.


Coffee Constituents

The main irritant found in coffee is caffeine, which is a stimulant that can irritate the lining of the intestinal tract by increasing acid secretion. Other ingredients in coffee beans can also cause the lining of the digestive tract to produce more acid. Previously those constituents were unknown and their effects considered anecdotal, recently, researchers isolated two culprits -- catechols and N-alkanoly-5-hydroxytryptamides, which are present only in roasted coffee beans, that steaming remove.

Decaffeinated Coffee

Decaffeinated coffee is coffee that has 97 percent of the caffeine removed. This means that even decaffeinated coffee can have up to 5 milligrams of caffeine, which can add up, if you drink several cups. The other irritants may still be present, as well, depending on the roasting process used. Adding other common digestive irritants to your coffee -- such as milk products or sugar -- may further exacerbate IBS symptoms in some sufferers.


Possible Solutions

Decaffeinated coffee does not affect all IBS sufferers the same way. What causes excruciating cramping and diarrhea for one person might not affect another person at all. If, however, drinking decaffeinated coffee does cause problems, it's best to avoid coffee altogether. Switching to a coffee-like alternative, such as a soy-based or herbal-based drink, may also offer relief, and avoiding dairy or sugar products added to your coffee may, as well. Speak to your doctor before you add anything new to your diet, particularly if you have severe IBS symptoms.


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.