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Can coffee cause diarrhoea?

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Coffee is known to boost the digestive system, but researchers believe this could be due to a variety of factors. One aspect is thought to be coffee’s high caffeine level in comparison to other hot beverages such as tea.

“Coffee is one of many food substances that is high in caffeine and the caffeine in the coffee can lead to the gut symptoms experienced,” said Dr Bridgette Wilson, a registered dietitian from London.

“Other common foods that are also high in caffeine include tea, energy drinks, cola beverages and dark chocolate.”

Many studies back up the notion that caffeine has a laxative effect. In one study, individuals were given either water or caffeine powder dissolved in water, and their anorectal function was assessed. Caffeine consumption resulted in higher anal sphincter contractions and an increased need to poop, according to the findings.

“Caffeine is a gastrointestinal stimulant which means that it speeds up peristalsis (muscle contractions that move food through the digestive tract),” said registered dietitian Caroline Bletcher.

“Therefore it speeds up transit through the bowel, resulting in symptoms such as diarrhoea and stomach cramping.”

However, findings suggest that there may be other factors at work as well. Caffeinated and decaf coffee both promote the production of gastrin, a hormone that instructs the stomach to release gastric acid. Because gastrin facilitates digestion, it may add to our desire to use the restroom after drinking coffee.

The gastrocolic reflex – a physiological reaction in which the act of eating or drinking induces movement in the gastrointestinal tract – is another reason coffee influences our bowels. As a result, drinking a cup of coffee with breakfast may be sufficient to trigger the desire to ‘go.’ Furthermore, this reaction is especially prominent in the morning, when many individuals go for their cafetiere.

Coffee’s acidic nature can also stir the bowels, which may explain why some people have stomach problems with both decaffeinated and normal coffee. Both the decaf and caffeinated varieties include chlorogenic acid, which causes an increase in stomach acid and the generation of gastric acid. As a result, this acid helps in the passage of food through the digestive tract.

Is coffee good for irritable bowel syndrome?

“People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may have a more sensitive gut and therefore the effect of caffeine could be more pronounced,” said Wilson.

“Caffeine is what is known as a stimulant, meaning that it can lead to over-excitation of the nervous system, including the nervous system attached to our gut.

“When the gut nervous system is overstimulated, it can lead to increased contractions within the large bowel, leading to cramping sensations and looser and more urgent stools. Some people with IBS already experience symptoms associated with over-stimulation of the gut nervous system. So, coffee and other sources of caffeine could make this worse.”

However, Wilson stresses that there are multiple reasons of IBS and that people react differently to things such as coffee.

“Not everyone with IBS will have an over-excited gut nervous system, so for those people caffeine is no more likely to lead to gut issues than in people without IBS,” she said.

What can you do to counteract coffee’s bad effects?

Naturally, getting things going isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Caffeine use should be limited to 400 mg per day, which equates to three to five cups. Pregnant women should limit their caffeine intake to no more than 200 mg per day. However, some people may be more sensitive to the effects of a flat white than others.

Cut down your coffee intake

Those who experience stomach issues after drinking coffee may find it beneficial to reduce their caffeine intake. Decaf or half-caffeinated coffee may benefit, and some study suggests that the type of coffee ingested may also have an effect. A 2014 study found that dark roast coffee produced less stomach acids than medium roast coffee due to a different chemical balance.

Don’t drink coffee on an empty stomach

Since many individuals opt for a fresh brew before breakfast, doing so on an empty stomach may worsen undesirable consequences such as diarrhoea and stomach pains. Having a cup of coffee with or after your meal may be beneficial.

Be wary of extras

Sometimes, how coffee is consumed may have a negative effect too. Adding cow’s milk, cream, syrups, sugar or sweeteners can trigger stomach discomfort for some

However, coffee sensitivity varies by individual, and it may take some trial and error to determine what works best.

Image Credit: Getty

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