Many people who have irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, can identify triggering foods to avoid. But for coffee lovers with IBS, giving up that beloved cup of joe can be a major challenge. So does that mean decaffeinated coffee is the best coffee for IBS? It depends on your specific triggers.
Read more: Caffeine and IBS: What You Need to Know
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An IBS-Friendly Diet
IBS is a common condition that affects the large intestine. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common signs and symptoms include changes in how bowel movements look, changes in how often you have a bowel movement and cramping or abdominal pain that is relieved by going to the bathroom.
Mild cases of IBS can often be managed with diet, lifestyle and stress management. More serious cases may require medication or counseling. Because flare-ups often occur after eating triggering foods, changes in diet tend to be a big focus for those who have IBS.
A common approach for people living with IBS is a low-FODMAP diet, named after specific sugars that can cause digestive distress: fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. High-FODMAP foods, such as dairy, wheat, beans, lentils and some vegetables and fruits, can lead to digestive symptoms like cramping, diarrhea and constipation.
Is Caffeine Your IBS Trigger?
Caffeine is not high in FODMAPs, but it's often noted as something that triggers IBS symptoms. This may be for a number of different reasons, says Emily Haller, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor.
Caffeine is a stimulant that increases gut motility, or the movement of food through the body, Haller says. It may lead to symptoms like cramping, and it can cause anxiety related to IBS and its symptoms. Coffee can also be triggering due to its potential laxative effects. The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders lists caffeine as a common diarrhea trigger, especially if you have more than two to three cups of caffeinated coffee per day.
Adding sugar, milk or other creamers can also trigger symptoms, Haller says.
While lists of IBS foods to avoid or eat can be found easily online, Shanti Lynne Eswaran, MD, a gastroenterologist with a focus on IBS at Michigan Medicine warns that these lists often can't be generalized.
"There is no 'good' or 'bad' list of foods that pertains to all patients with IBS," Dr. Eswaran says. "In general, patients with IBS may have more food intolerances or trigger foods than those without IBS. But each patient is different."
Many people with IBS do just fine drinking caffeine. Others can't tolerate it. Your symptoms will be unique to you, Dr. Eswaran says.
Read more: Your Ultimate Guide to Living Well With IBS
What About Decaf Coffee for IBS?
Switching from caffeinated to decaffeinated coffee can sometimes be helpful, Haller says, especially if you're drinking a lot of coffee and you've identified caffeine as an IBS trigger.
Switching to decaf can help you keep your daily caffeine low. But keep in mind even decaffeinated coffee still contains a small amount, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
Not sure if caffeine is a trigger for you? Haller recommends cutting out caffeinated drinks for a period of time and seeing if your symptoms improve.
The switch to decaf may not always work, and both Haller and Dr. Eswaran note that this process depends entirely on a person's unique experience with IBS. It's not just about caffeine either; other components in decaf coffee — as well as whatever you tend to stir into your coffee, like sweeteners, creamers or milk — may trigger symptoms.
The Bottom Link
Decaf coffee may be fine for you if you want to cut down on caffeine, or if caffeine triggers your IBS, but watch what else you’re adding to or eating with that cup of coffee. Finding your own specific trigger foods can help you identify and follow a diet that is most appropriate for you. A good place to start is keeping a food diary and working with a dietitian, so you can start feeling your best with IBS.
- Mayo Clinic: “Irritable Bowel Syndrome”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “FODMAP Diet: What You Need to Know”
- Emily Haller, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist, Haller Health & Wellness and Division of Gastroenterology, Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
- Shanti Lynne Eswaran, MD, gastroenterologist, Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: “Common Causes of Chronic Diarrhea”
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “Spilling the Beans: How Much Caffeine Is Too Much?”
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.