The main issue with coffee (raise your hand if you suffer from acid reflux…sigh) is how acidic it is. So, how does drinking coffee on an empty stomach compare to sipping it alongside your scrambled eggs in terms of digestion?
“For many people, drinking coffee on an empty stomach is fine, but for others who are sensitive, it can trigger nausea as well as gastroesophageal reflux,” say the Nutrition Twins, Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT and Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT. “This occurs because it can relax the sphincter in the lower esophagus, which allows acid to come back up into the esophagus—although for some people this even occurs when they drink coffee with food.”
The Nutrition Twins say it’s not all about the stomach, though. People who get the jitters or anxiety from coffee may be better off having coffee with their breakfast to slow down the effects of the caffeine. “Some people metabolize caffeine faster—this depends on genetics. A small study suggested that drinking black coffee on an empty stomach may also impair blood sugar control, which can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as heart disease.”
They go on to note it also may be beneficial to drink coffee a couple hours after waking up, since cortisol is highest upon waking and cortisol already gives you an energy boost. “The caffeine from the coffee will benefit you more if you wait a couple of hours for cortisol levels to drop before drinking it,” according to the Nutrition Twins.
If, however, you find yourself struggling because you want to have coffee on an empty stomach but aren’t tolerating it well, the Nutrition Twins suggest opting for an unsweetened cappuccino or latte since the protein and the fat in the milk will slow down the absorption of the coffee, as well as its caffeine, and can mitigate some of its effects. “Coffee sweetened with sugar can make jitteriness worse since it also can create a sugar high as the caffeine kicks in.”
The Nutrition Twins also add that drinking coffee before breakfast in the morning (i.e. on an empty stomach) is more likely to trigger peristalsis, helping you to move your bowels faster and go number two. However, if the caffeine from the coffee makes you run to the bathroom too soon, you’re also better off drinking it with a meal to slow down the effects of the caffeine.
Caffeine and gut health
While the research on timing of coffee intake has not been studied enough to get consistent results, we do know quite a bit about the general benefits of caffeine. “Caffeine intake suppresses bacteria and research has shown that both long-term coffee consumption as well as drinking two or more cups of coffee daily increases good bacteria in the gut compared to those who don’t drink coffee,” say The Nutrition Twins.
That said, in both cases the research didn’t distinguish whether drinking coffee before breakfast or after was most beneficial. “It’s been shown that high caffeine intake positively affects the microbiome by increasing anti-inflammatory bacteria and reducing harmful bacteria, while the chlorogenic acid in the coffee also appears to contribute to health in a wide variety of ways. Research has also shown that coffee appears to have an antioxidant, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effect on the lining of the digestive tract, but again it doesn’t specify if having it before, during, or after a meal is ideal,” say the Nutrition Twins.
Bottom line: Stephanie Nelson, RD, lead nutrition scientist at MyFitnessPal summed it up best. “If you drink coffee on an empty stomach and the effects bother you, then you’re better off eating something with your coffee,” she says. “However, if you don’t experience stomach issues after drinking coffee on an empty stomach, there’s nothing harmful about drinking coffee before breakfast.”