What Happens to Your Body When You Drink Coffee on an Empty Stomach

Here's how to avoid unpleasant gastric symptoms.

Besides water, coffee is the most widely consumed beverage in the nation: Three-fourths of Americans drink at least one cup of joe every day. Ample research suggests that this is an overall healthy habit to have—one that helps protect from certain chronic illnesses and even lowers your risk of premature death. However, experts say that if you drink coffee on an empty stomach, there are some ways it may negatively affect your gastric health.

That's why we checked in with Chantel Strachan, MD, a primary care physician and internal medicine specialist with Columbia Primary Care, part of Columbia University. She says that some people who instinctively reach for coffee first thing in the morning may find themselves experiencing an unpleasant set of symptoms.

RELATED: 30 Health Benefits Coming From Your Cup of Coffee.

Certain foods can trigger acid reflux and heartburn, causing a burning pain in the chest and upper abdomen. For many people, coffee has this effect.

"Coffee contributes to increased acid production in the stomach and can relax the barrier, also known as a sphincter, that separates the stomach and the esophagus," explains Strachan. "This can lead to backflow of acid, which produces the sensation of heartburn."

She adds that for some, chronic reflux can increase the risk of developing Barrett's esophagus—a condition in which the lining of the esophagus becomes damaged, thickened, and inflamed as a result of acid reflux. Though this occurs only rarely, Barrett's esophagus can develop into esophageal cancer in some cases. "However, this has not been proven to be directly related to use of coffee on an empty stomach," the doctor notes.

However, not everyone who drinks coffee on an empty stomach will suffer consequences.

"Many people enjoy their morning coffee and remain asymptomatic. Use of mixers, like creamer or milk, could be helping to reduce potential increased acid production that is associated with coffee," notes Strachan.

Choosing a decaffeinated or low-acid coffee blend can also help you minimize the production of gastric acid. This should, subsequently, reduce your symptoms or minimize their severity.

RELATED: What Happens to Your Body If You Stop Drinking Caffeine, According to Experts.

Strachan says that before you overhaul your morning habits, it's worth noting that coffee has many potential health benefits: "Coffee has been shown to reduce risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and various cancers. The benefits appear to predominantly outweigh the potential risk."

In fact, studies have shown that drinking coffee can also lower your risk of Parkinson's disease, stave off Alzheimer's disease, combat obesity, protect the liver, and more.

Rather than cutting it out or even cutting down, eating a little breakfast before pouring your first cup of java should help protect your gastric system from the influx of acid.

However, Strachan says that the most important thing is to listen to your body. "If coffee on an empty stomach contributes to any adverse gastrointestinal symptoms, then discontinue," she advises. If you're symptom-free, there's likely no need for a change.

Those looking for alternative beverages may find that green or black tea comes with many of the same benefits while causing less gastric distress. Herbal tea made with ginger, camomile, turmeric, and peppermint may improve digestion and soothe the stomach.

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Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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