Have you ever hear someone say that they avoid drinking coffee because it gives them heart burn or indigestion?
There are a few misunderstandings that surround the coffee to acid reflux connection.
So to start off, let’s answer the question in the article’s title.
Q: does coffee cause acid reflux?
A: technically, yes. But it is not the sole culprit.
Coffee “triggers” acid reflux but is not the true cause.
In order to really understand the coffee connection, we have to first look at what is happening within the body during a fit of acid reflux.
First, let me say that acid reflux if very common.
The American College if Gastroenterology says that over 60 million Americans have heart burn once a month.
15 million of those folks have it several times a week and are therefore diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD.)
So what is acid reflux?
Though acid reflux goes by many names like indigestion, heart burn and GERD, the symptoms and workings are the same.
Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid travels backward up the gastrointestinal tract.
The symptoms that manifest range from feeling uncomfortable to pain in the lower chest to ulcers.
What causes the acid to traverse improperly?
When you take that first gulp of delicious coffee, it moves from your mouth, through your throat and down into your belly.
But before it makes it’s final decent into your lower gastrointestinal system, it has to pass a checkpoint called your esophageal sphincter.
This valve acts as a door to the gut, keeping all of the contents of the stomach contained. Acid reflux is hinged upon this small cluster of muscles. (Pun intended)
If this gateway to the gut relaxes due to chemical reactions set off by foods or beverages, like coffee, the strong acids of the gut move up into the throat.
A lot of people do not realize that their stomachs are full of strong acids.
This fact seems counterintuitive when discussing GERD because acids have a bad reputation.
But the acids in your gut are what break down your food! In fact, they are on the most acidic end of the Ph scale.
You probably recognize this scale from high school chemistry.
It measures how much hydrogen is in a liquid. It ranges from 0-14, with 10 micro-increments between digits.
Acids hang out around 0-7.
Stomach acid falls between 1.5-3.5. That’s the difference between battery acid and lemon juice.
A standard cup of black coffee has a ph level of 5.
The acids in coffee kick start your digestive system by activating your salivary glands. They are also responsible for all the subtle differences in flavour notes of each batch.
If you want to learn more about what makes coffee acidic, you can read my in depth article here.
But basically, a cup of coffee does NOT make the stomach more acidic.
Some scientists tested this theory and found that when they neutralized the acidity in coffee on a chemical level, it didn’t help those who suffered from indigestion. They still experienced the symptoms.
So if coffee does not make the stomach more acidic, why is coffee a trigger for acid reflux?
Though there has been extensive testing on how it works, there are lots of different interpretations of the data.
But observational studies show that coffee is definitely a problem for people who have issues with heart burn for several reasons.
#1 Caffeine sets off fight or flight hormones like cortisol or adrenaline.
When the brain tells your pituitary gland to emit those signals, the digestive system goes into sleep mode so the body can focus on staying alive.
During the stun to the digestive system, the esophageal sphincter relaxes, letting the hydrochloric acid of the gut upward which causes heartburn.
#2 Caffeine causes your appetite to decrease.
If you had your first cup of coffee on an empty stomach, it’s likely you’ll skip breakfast entirely.
Lack of nutrients only feeds the fight or flight reflex, but the body cannot produce the neurotransmitters to receive and pass those hormone without food.
So you’re body is stuck in that jittery state, thinking that it’s not hungry.
The foodless tummy is put at risk because the acids in the stomach don’t rest. They’re slushing around causing harm to the internal tissues.
#3 Caffeine causes a decrease in serotonin.
Although coffee does make you “feel” happy by boosting dopamine levels and relaxing your central nervous system, it causes a slow and steady depletion of serotonin.
Serotonin is absolutely necessary for the body to function correctly because it controls sleep habits, good eating habits, and overall balance of your body.
Serious dips in serotonin levels leave you feeling shaky and nervous.
#4 Caffeine causes “nervous indigestion.”
If you have ever felt sick to your stomach before a big meeting, you’ve probably experienced this without categorizing it as a real health issue.
The dip of serotonin, lack of breakfast, and caffeine all combine and manifest as situational heartburn. (not the medical term, but easy to remember)
#5 Coffee is a diuretic.
Coffee, even decaf, is a diuretic– a drink which causes you to need to run to the john ASAP.
This probably sounds funny, given that coffee is water-based. But, consumption of large amounts of coffee in a short amount of time can cause dehydration.
This is especially bad because the mucosal linings of the gut protect it from the hydrochloric acid that breaks down food. When you don’t have enough water in your system, that lining withers up and cannot buffer the acid from the tissue.
Without that lining around the walls of the stomach and esophageal sphincter, the acid damages the gut and can travel up the throat causing acid reflux.
If you’re not planning on giving up coffee, like most Americans, there are changes you can make to your caffeine routine that will help you experience acid reflux less.
The first thing you need to consider is your the origin of your beans.
As a general rule of thumb, the lower the elevation, the lower the acidity.
These aren’t as popular because higher elevation coffees have more complexity due to the higher amounts of acids.
When you’re shopping for coffee that won’t irritate reflux, try looking for Sumatran or Brazilian beans.
The second thing you should keep in mind is the roast of those beans.
Contrary to popular belief, the lighter the roast is, the more caffeine is present.
Caffeine is the main trigger for acid reflux.
Lighter roasts are also much more acidic. Since they are not in the heat for very long, the beans retain much of their original flavors that would be changed into the smokiness of a dark roast.
But there are ways to roast beans specifically to reduce the amount of acids. Producers typically steam the greens and roast them slowly if they’re making, “low-acid” coffee.
So if you have a sensitive gut, drink darker coffee roasts.
The third thing you have to think about is your brewing method.
Steer far and clear of shots of espresso. The heat and pressure involved in pulling an espresso shot make the coffee much more acidic and concentrated.
My absolute favorite way to make coffee is the french press because it produces more well-rounded cups of coffee. When brewing a french press, the water does not need to be as hot as other methods because the water is in contact with the beans the entire time.
Click the picture to see our favorite french presses.
But the best way to avoid a bout of indigestion is to drink cold pressed coffee.
Believe it or not, cold pressed coffee is 70% less acidic than a standard drip.
The tepid water neutralizes the acids in the beans as the water extracts flavonoids and oils over the course of the brew .
The fourth thing you can try, is adding cream.
As I stated previously, a cup of black coffee sits at a ph level of 5. Milk has a ph level of 6.