Why do bad things happen to good people?

By Sammy Nickalls
Updated April 04, 2018
Michelle Arnold / EyeEm/Getty Images

Life is filled with tough choices. Consider the first one many of us make every single morning: A steaming cup of life-giving coffee or not having a crampy, painful stomach. Sure, there are plenty of harder decisions we’ll all be faced with at some point, but coffee should be one of the easy ones, right?

So why, for some of us, does it make our stomachs feel like a toxic wasteland every morning? And more importantly, how can we keep on drinking coffee without getting all bloated and uncomfortable? Can’t we just have this one thing?

There has been surprisingly little academic research on the subject, considering the fact that Americans drink over three cups of coffee a day on average. However, publications from The Washington Post to Scientific American have explored coffee’s effects on digestion.

According to Dr. Ehsan Ali, MD, a primary care physician and concierge doctor in Beverly Hills, a cup o' joe and indigestion can go hand in hand. “Coffee can stimulate the nervous system, which causes the stomach to contract and squeeze,” Dr. Ali explained. “In large amounts, [this] can be the cause of stomach pains.”

It may be tempting to chug coffee when you’re feeling particularly exhausted during that mid-afternoon slump; when it’s cooled off it doesn’t taste all that great and morphs into an unpleasant quick fix. But it’s best to warm it up or add ice and savor it. That’s not only because you deserve better than sad, lukewarm coffee, but because it’s healthier to take your time.

“Drinking it very slowly with small sips can make it easier on your stomach,” Dr. Ali said.

Additionally, coffee “increases the acidity in the stomach,” which can cause a stomach ache—especially for people with acid reflux or acidity, explained Dr. Ali.

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It’s difficult to avoid intense acidity, as that’s the nature of most brewed coffees, explained cardiologist Dr. Steven Gundry—but some roasts are easier on the stomach. Cold-brew coffee, for example, has less acid than hot coffee due to the way it’s prepared. “You can even buy low-acid coffees,” Gundry said.

Dr. Gundry also highlighted that it’s important not to drink coffee on an empty stomach, as the aforementioned acidity isn’t all too stellar for your stomach lining. It’s important to provide a cushion—like “a full eight ounces of water with a squeeze of lemon before your first cup in the morning,” he added. “You’ll be amazed how that helps.”

Acidity isn’t the only culprit, though—caffeine is also a factor, though it's not entirely understood why, according to Niket Sonpal, M.D., a gastroenterologist and assistant clinical professor of medicine in New York City. "There is an association between caffeine and having a bowel movement," Sonpal said when asked why coffee, as Women's Health so aptly puts it, "gives you the runs."

According to Dr. Sonpal, "the thinking is caffeine is a pro-motility agent," meaning that it encourages contraction of the muscles that help pass food through the digestive tract. This could cause cramping and, alas, an urgent trip to the bathroom. (Listen, we were inevitably going to reach this point of the conversation. Don’t pretend you didn’t know that.)

If your stomach is still cramping up after your morning cup, and you’re open to changing things up, you can try (whispers) tea, which can provide that blessed dose of caffeine without all the stomach issues. Dr. Ali suggests green tea, which “is much milder and less likely to cause stomach issues,” he said.

However, if the thought of giving up your coffee makes you equal parts drained and distraught, there’s always the trusty antacid. Just make sure your coffee is worth it. Who needs burnt office coffee that causes indigestion when you can have sous vide coffee that causes indigestion?