Is Caffeine Bad for People With Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

Caffeine is a stimulant that's found in many different foods and beverages, and it affects the body in several ways. Most people know that caffeine is found in coffee, tea, and cola drinks, but it can also be present in chocolate, coffee-flavored ice cream or frozen yogurt, energy drinks, snack, and some medications (over-the-counter painkillers in particular). As many as 85 percent of adults in the United States consume caffeine on a daily basis. In the rest of the world, the percentage of people who use caffeine jumps to 90 percent.

Cup of tea
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For people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a chronic digestive disease, caffeine can have a big impact on the symptoms. As with most things related to diet, moderation is key, and caffeine consumption is no different.

For example, a high-sugar chocolate snack bar can give you a burst of energy—but might also contribute to loose stools.

Effects of Caffeine on the Body

Caffeine tends to be seen in a positive light because it can heighten alertness, which in turn may translate into better performance at work or school. Caffeine can also stimulate metabolism and reduce anxiety for some people.

However, it can also have negative effects, such as a decrease in the quality of sleep. Sleep is extremely important for people with IBD, and care should be taken to lessen the potential for caffeine to cause sleep disturbances.

Caffeine and the Digestive System

When it comes to the gastrointestinal system, caffeine-containing foods and beverages could be problematic. Coffee, in particular, which may contain anywhere between 80 and 130 mg of caffeine, has been associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Some people drink coffee in the morning in order to be able to move their bowels. It's commonly thought that it is the caffeine that stimulates the bowels, but more likely it is also due to the other chemicals found in coffee. The evidence seems to support the idea that coffee can stimulate the colon. In fact, even decaffeinated coffee can stimulate the bowels, although the effects are somewhat decreased.

For some people with IBD, moving the bowels more frequently may be problematic, especially if chronic diarrhea is already a problem. In many instances, coffee or other sources of caffeine can cause bowel urgency and diarrhea.

Caffeine and Children

Caffeine can suppress the appetite, and it can compound the problem in children with IBD, who may already suffer from a lack of appetite. Children with IBD are at risk for several complications, especially from the lack of certain nutrients or from general malnutrition.

Children and adults with IBD who are underweight should take extra care to ensure that they are not suppressing their appetite. Getting enough nutrients every day is crucial to maintaining their weight and overall health.

Is Caffeine Dehydrating?

Caffeine is a diuretic: It causes a person to urinate more. It's not clear if this effect can contribute to dehydration. However, the loss of fluids could cause stools to become harder, making them more difficult to pass. Anyone who tends to have constipation will want to make sure that they are drinking enough water to compensate.

Caffeine and Sleep

Caffeine's effects on the body are highest about an hour after it's ingested. Caffeine isn't stored by the body and is eventually excreted in the urine, but it can continue to have effects that last four to six hours.

Eating or drinking caffeine within a few hours of bedtime could cause a disruption in sleep. People with IBD are already at risk for problems with sleep, especially if waking at night to use the bathroom.

Interaction With Medications

Many people forget that caffeine is itself a drug, and can, therefore, interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications. Some of the drugs that can interact with caffeine include antibiotics, Tagamet (cimetidine), anticoagulants, and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).

Patients with IBD should talk to their doctors about their caffeine use and how it may interact with any medications.

Caffeine in Our Culture

In America, caffeine consumption is something of a ritual. About half of Americans drink coffee in the morning. Caffeine is bitter and is therefore often disguised with one of a dizzying array of sweeteners or additives, which can include sugar, milk, honey, or aspartame.

While some have their morning caffeine at home, others head to one of the many coffee houses or fast-food restaurants that serve caffeinated drinks. Coffee and tea are also commonly served after dinner with dessert, or in the mid-afternoon to combat fatigue.

Coffee and tea drinkers bond over their caffeine dependence, often making light of it. However, caffeine dependence can be a serious problem, and breaking the cycle of caffeine use is difficult.

A Word From Verywell

While most people take their caffeine use lightly, it is actually a topic that should be carefully considered. People with IBD may experience both positive and negative effects of caffeine use. If you have digestive issues, you should discuss your caffeine consumption with a gastroenterologist in order to assess the potential for medication interactions and other complications.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.