Why Does Coffee Cause Acid Reflux?

There’s nothing like the taste of coffee first thing in the morning…

That is unless you suffer from a condition shared by 20-30% of the population. If you experience acid reflux, your first taste of coffee will most likely sneak its way back to you a few hours later.

What exactly is acid reflux?

Coffee Cause Acid RefluxThis occurs when acid from the foods and beverages you ingest revisit you in the form of different types of uncomfortable symptoms.

A few of these symptoms may include:

  • Heartburn
  • Bitter taste in your mouth
  • Dry mouth
  • Throat irritation

Many coffee drinkers experience acid reflux due to the natural acidic properties of coffee. There are up to 30 types of acids in coffee that not only contribute to the health benefits of coffee, but to the taste and flavor zing that everyone knows and loves. However, the acids in coffee can also lead to some unpleasant results as well.

Today, we’ll explore this condition as well as ways you can avoid dealing with it’s side effects, while still being able to enjoy your coffee.

There’s ACID in my coffee?

When the word “acid” is mentioned, it can definitely be perceived in a positive or negative light. This is because there are good acids and bad acids too. However, in reality, acid is naturally present in many things that we use or ingest everyday from our own saliva to fruits, vegetables and coffee.

On a scale of 0-10, with 0 representing battery acid and 10 representing antacids, a fresh brewed cup of coffee falls right in the middle. That means it’s not the most acidic thing we may ingest, but its certainly not the least.

The most abundant acid in coffee — chlorogenic acid (also known as CGA) — is an antioxidant that may provide health benefits. This particular acid is more abundant in green coffee beans than roasted beans. Research shows that chlorogenic acid may reduce individual’s chances of heart disease, diabetes and reduce blood pressure.

Because the amount of CGA in coffee beans is inconsistent and hard to measure, people who like to enjoy its benefits in a more controlled method choose to take it in a supplement form. When controlled, it can help people with certain ailments. However, as with other supplements, there are definitely limits to how much people should take.

The side effects of taking in too much CGA include:
Rapid heart beat
Trouble breathing

Though CGA alone is not bad, too much can have some negative side effects.

Is acid bad?

Acid in general, in limited quantities is good for you, as your body needs both acidic and alkaline foods and beverages in order to maintain a healthy balance. However, if there is too much acidity present in the body, it can cause health issues.

Research shows that a diet high in acidic foods may cause your bones to deteriorate, and can also increase chances of heart disease, cancer and liver disease.

If you suffer from acid reflux after drinking coffee, chances are other acidic foods may cause this as well. The following are other substances that are higher in acid content than coffee, and may cause a reaction as well:

  • Lemon juice
  • Vinegar
  • Orange juice
  • Soda
  • Tomato juice
  • Beer

There are also foods that don’t start as acidic when ingested, but turn acidic through their digestion process. Avoiding these foods may have the same affect as cutting other acidic foods and beverages from your diet. These foods include:

    • Sugar
    • Grains
    • Processed meats
    • Certain dairy products

This doesn’t mean that we should stay away from sugars, grains and the others listed above, it simply means that limiting consumption and being mindful when ingesting them can lead to a healthy balance of acidic and alkaline foods.

Acid Levels in Dark Roast vs. Light Roast?

There is varying data to argue that dark roasted beans contain less acid than light roasted and vice versa. Naturally, there are multiple types of acids in coffee beans and those acids react differently depending on brewing times and roast level.

Due to multiple acids having different affects through processes such as roasting and brewing, it’s impossible to make a case for acid levels increasing or decreasing through the roasting process.

Here are the four most common types of acid found in coffee, and how their acid levels are affected due to roasting:

  • Citric: Heaviest concentration in green coffee beans
  • Chlorogenic: Heaviest concentration in green coffee beans
  • Phosphoric: Heaviest concentration the darker the roast
  • Acetic: Heaviest concentration the darker the roast

That said, there is no clear evidence that shows that roasting coffee to a certain level will create more or less acidity in the overall product. It could also be that the combination of the acidity and caffeine contribute to acid reflux.

Is caffeine to blame?

There have been arguments made that the caffeine in coffee is the culprit of acid reflux. Caffeine is naturally a stimulant and can irritate the esophagus.

However, because caffeine is only part of the coffee bean makeup, it is difficult to pin point it as the only factor contributing to acid reflux in coffee drinkers.

Ways to brew low acid coffee

Because coffee beans vary in their level of acidity before being brewed, there are ways to decrease the amount of acid in the finished product.

Cold brewing is a method to brewing coffee with cold water instead of hot water. The grounds are steeped in cold water for 24 hours, which extracts less acid from the beans than hot water does. On average, brewing coffee this way creates 70% less acidity in the finished product. As a result, it tends to have a smoother flavor as well, as it’s acidic “punch” is greatly reduced. The strength of the finished product depends on the grounds to water ratio. Cold brew (also know as “toddy”) can be brewed to a strength to give you either a drip quality brew or even an espresso strength.

Egg shells make a great accompaniment to coffee grounds before you brew, as they are mostly calcium carbonate, and will offset the level of acidity present. It is best to use this method when using a drip coffee machine. Place your coffee grounds in a filter in the brew basket, and add shells from a couple eggs to the grounds as well prior to brewing.

Calcium also offsets the acid levels in coffee due to the its neutralizing properties. This is a common reason why people like milk or cream in their coffee, or prefer drinks like a latte or cafe au lait. Not to mention, dairy products provide a creamy and tasty finish. On the other hand, these options are not a good choice for lactose intolerant folks, as this might have the adverse affect.

Preventative measures against acid reflux

There are a few things you can do in case you struggle with acid reflux after you consume coffee and other acidic foods.

  • Don’t lay down right after consuming coffee
  •  Don’t drink coffee on an empty stomach
  • Eat smaller meals
  • Avoid spicy foods
  • Avoid fatty foods
  • Avoid carbonated beverages
  • Consume coffee with alkaline heavy foods

How to balance out acidity in your body

Acidic foods are on one end of the pH spectrum, while foods heavy in alkaline are on the other end. That said, the two together have an effect that cancels out properties of the other when consumed together.

There are many alkalizing foods that will help neutralize the acidity in your body, which can help to alleviate the signs of acid reflux. Overall, it is a good idea to take in foods that are high in alkaline to contribute to both a balanced diet and because these foods generally tend to be healthier options.

Some alkaline heavier foods are as follows:

  • Fats such as olive oil or coconut oil
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Beans and lentils
  • Unsweetened yogurt
  • Fresh fruits & vegetables

In a short answer, yes, drinking coffee may contribute to acid reflux, as acidic properties naturally occur in the beans themselves. However, coffee may not be the only contributor.

It is best to eat a healthy and balanced diet, give your body time to digest, and to not to be overactive after you finish eating and drinking. Listening to your body and trying an elimination diet can sometimes help you figure out what is causing the issue.

Coffee Cause Acid RefluxAcid reflux is caused by the loosening of a circle of muscles in the lower esophagus called the LES, the LES acts like a valve letting food through to the acidic stomach, and preventing stomach acid from coming back up.

There are said to be many different possible causes for the condition and many aggravating factors, but the evidence on coffee and its impact on the condition is mixed to say the least.

What Does The Research Say?

While it is commonly believed that drinking coffee causes acid reflux, which particular property of coffee that might affect it is unclear. Caffeine was considered to be the culprit, but while some evidence was found to show that decaffeinated coffee was less of a factor in acid reflux, decaffeinated tea showed no improvement over tea that contains caffeine, so the evidence is conflicting.

While many foods are considered to be risk factors, fatty foods and alcohol to name a few, there is not much clear evidence that coffee should be included in the risk list.

It is probably fair to say that cutting out coffee is something that should be on a list of possible dietary changes that might work for someone with acid reflux, however, given that it is often advised by professionals. If you have acid reflux condition and drink a lot of coffee, try to cut down and see if there is any change for you. There may or may not be, but it’s got to be worth a try.

What Are The Options?

If the thought of giving up coffee, or even cutting down with a single serve coffee maker, fills you with horror then there are options open to you. It stands to reason that people who have problems keeping acid inside their stomach should probably not consume acidic substances.

Here’s a tip. You could also get a small Keurig sized mug and a single serve coffee maker and then brew only the low acid coffee k cups and use this as a test to see if your acid reflux improves.

Coffee is not as acidic as it is considered to be, we talk in terms of acid tastes and bitterness, but that is a flavor not a pH level. Coffee sits somewhere between saliva and fruit juice with a pH level of around 5 depending on what sort of coffee you drink. It’s not as bad as a lot of other everyday foods. If you suffer from acid reflux and find that regular coffee does bring you discomfort however, all is not lost.

Low Acid Coffee Options

There are low acid coffees available, sometimes this is advertised on the packaging, but sometimes not. Keeping in mind a few pointers can make a difference in how much acid you’re consuming, without cutting back on coffee at all.

The acid levels in coffee decrease the darker the roast. The roasting process seems to burn the acid out of the coffee, and the darker roasts have a significantly lower pH than lighter ones. Given that the coffees that usually use darker roasts are espressos, then switching to espresso is definitely going to reduce the amount of acid you consume per coffee.

Lattes and cappuccinos which are espresso based but contain large quantities of milk are also great if you like them, as they serve to dilute the coffee too, making the acid less potent.

If you’re concerned that drinking coffee is causing or aggravating any medical condition, serious thoughts must be given about whether continuing to drink it is the right choice for you. If you are going to drink coffee, we recommend trying to find a low acid version that works for you and keeps you healthy. There are plenty of options to try out, and experimenting with coffee is one of life’s pleasures.

Can Coffee Cause Acid Reflux?

Have you ever hear someone say that they avoid drinking coffee because it gives them heart burn or indigestion?
There are a few misunderstandings that surround the coffee to acid reflux connection.

So to start off, let’s answer the question in the article’s title.

Q: does coffee cause acid reflux?

A: technically, yes. But it is not the sole culprit.

Coffee “triggers” acid reflux but is not the true cause.

In order to really understand the coffee connection, we have to first look at what is happening within the body during a fit of acid reflux.

First, let me say that acid reflux if very common.

The American College if Gastroenterology says that over 60 million Americans have heart burn once a month.

15 million of those folks have it several times a week and are therefore diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD.)

So what is acid reflux?

Though acid reflux goes by many names like indigestion, heart burn and GERD, the symptoms and workings are the same.

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid travels backward up the gastrointestinal tract.

The symptoms that manifest range from feeling uncomfortable to pain in the lower chest to ulcers.

What causes the acid to traverse improperly?

When you take that first gulp of delicious coffee, it moves from your mouth, through your throat and down into your belly.

But before it makes it’s final decent into your lower gastrointestinal system, it has to pass a checkpoint called your esophageal sphincter.

This valve acts as a door to the gut, keeping all of the contents of the stomach contained. Acid reflux is hinged upon this small cluster of muscles. (Pun intended)

If this gateway to the gut relaxes due to chemical reactions set off by foods or beverages, like coffee, the strong acids of the gut move up into the throat.

A lot of people do not realize that their stomachs are full of strong acids.

This fact seems counterintuitive when discussing GERD because acids have a bad reputation.

But the acids in your gut are what break down your food! In fact, they are on the  most acidic end of the Ph scale.

You probably recognize this scale from high school chemistry.

It measures how much hydrogen is in a liquid. It ranges from 0-14, with 10 micro-increments between digits.

Acids hang out around 0-7.

Stomach acid falls between 1.5-3.5. That’s the difference between battery acid and lemon juice.

A standard cup of black coffee has a ph level of 5.

The acids in coffee kick start your digestive system by activating your salivary glands. They are also responsible for all the subtle differences in flavour notes of each batch.

If you want to learn more about what makes coffee acidic, you can read my in depth article here.

But basically, a cup of coffee does NOT make the stomach more acidic.

Some scientists tested this theory and found that when they neutralized the acidity in coffee on a chemical level, it didn’t help those who suffered from indigestion. They still experienced the symptoms.

So if coffee does not make the stomach more acidic, why is coffee a trigger for acid reflux?

Though there has been extensive testing on how it works, there are lots of different interpretations of the data.

But observational studies show that coffee is definitely a problem for people who have issues with heart burn for several reasons.

#1 Caffeine sets off fight or flight hormones like cortisol or adrenaline.

When the brain tells your pituitary gland to emit those signals, the digestive system goes into sleep mode so the body can focus on staying alive.

During the stun to the digestive system, the esophageal sphincter relaxes, letting the hydrochloric acid of the gut upward which causes heartburn.

#2 Caffeine causes your appetite to decrease.

If you had your first cup of coffee on an empty stomach, it’s likely you’ll skip breakfast entirely.

Lack of nutrients only feeds the fight or flight reflex, but the body cannot produce the neurotransmitters to receive and pass those hormone without food.

So you’re body is stuck in that jittery state, thinking that it’s not hungry.

The foodless tummy is put at risk because the acids in the stomach don’t rest. They’re slushing around causing harm to the internal tissues.

#3 Caffeine causes a decrease in serotonin.

Although coffee does make you “feel” happy by boosting dopamine levels and relaxing your central nervous system, it causes a slow and steady depletion of serotonin.

Serotonin is absolutely necessary for the body to function correctly because it controls sleep habits, good eating habits, and overall balance of your body.

Serious dips in serotonin levels leave you feeling shaky and nervous.

#4 Caffeine causes “nervous indigestion.”

If you have ever felt sick to your stomach before a big meeting, you’ve probably experienced this without categorizing it as a real health issue.

The dip of serotonin, lack of breakfast, and caffeine all combine and manifest as situational heartburn. (not the medical term, but easy to remember)

#5 Coffee is a diuretic.

Coffee, even decaf, is a diuretic– a drink which causes you to need to run to the john ASAP.

This probably sounds funny, given that coffee is water-based. But, consumption of large amounts of coffee in a short amount of time can cause dehydration.

This is especially bad because the mucosal linings of the gut protect it from the hydrochloric acid that breaks down food. When you don’t have enough water in your system, that lining withers up and cannot buffer the acid from the tissue.

Without that lining around the walls of the stomach and esophageal sphincter, the acid damages the gut and can travel up the throat causing acid reflux.

If you’re not planning on giving up coffee, like most Americans, there are changes you can make to your caffeine routine that will help you experience acid reflux less.

The first thing you need to consider is your the origin of your beans.

As a general rule of thumb, the lower the elevation, the lower the acidity.

These aren’t as popular because higher elevation coffees have more complexity due to the higher amounts of acids.

When you’re shopping for coffee that won’t irritate reflux, try looking for Sumatran or Brazilian beans.

The second thing you should keep in mind is the roast of those beans.

Contrary to popular belief, the lighter the roast is, the more caffeine is present.

Caffeine is the main trigger for acid reflux.

Lighter roasts are also much more acidic. Since they are not in the heat for very long, the beans retain much of their original flavors that would be changed into the smokiness of a dark roast.

But there are ways to roast beans specifically to reduce the amount of acids. Producers typically steam the greens and roast them slowly if they’re making, “low-acid” coffee.

So if you have a sensitive gut, drink darker coffee roasts.

Secura 50oz French press

The third thing you have to think about is your brewing method.

Steer far and clear of shots of espresso. The heat and pressure involved in pulling an espresso shot make the coffee much more acidic and concentrated.

My absolute favorite way to make coffee is the french press because it produces more well-rounded cups of coffee. When brewing a french press, the water does not need to be as hot as other methods because the water is in contact with the beans the entire time.

Click the picture to see our favorite french presses.

But the best way to avoid a bout of indigestion is to drink cold pressed coffee.

Believe it or not, cold pressed coffee is 70% less acidic than a standard drip.

The tepid water neutralizes the acids in the beans as the water extracts flavonoids and oils over the course of the brew .

The fourth thing you can try, is adding cream.

As I stated previously, a cup of black coffee sits at a ph level of 5. Milk has a ph level of 6.

So the addition of a little milk, takes the edge off of an acidic cup of coffee.

If I’ve done my job well, you now have a better understanding of how the gut responds to coffee. And are equipped with few tricks up your sleeve to help friends who experience this unpleasant side effect of coffee chemistry.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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