There’s nothing quite like the aroma of freshly brewed coffee to kickstart your day. But for people who struggle with GERD, that morning ritual might come at a price. In fact, up to 40 million people in the United States alone either reduce or avoid coffee because of coffee acid reflux.
In this deep dive into the world of coffee and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), we’ll unravel the factors that transform your beloved brew into a potential heartburn trigger. But don’t worry. I’m not here to take away your caffeine fix. We’ll also uncover the secrets to enjoying a cup without the burn with a GERD Coffee Guide.
GERD happens when the contents of your stomach refuse to stay where they belong and instead creep back up into your esophagus. Because of the high acidity required to properly digest your food, this reflux of your stomach contents may irritate your esophagus, causing the burning sensation commonly known as heartburn.
Most people experience occasional heartburn without it becoming a recurring problem. But if it happens more than twice a week, you may have GERD. While heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, it’s not the only one.
🥵 A burning feeling that rises from your stomach to your chest and throat
🥵 A bitter or sour taste in the back of your mouth
🥵 Food or liquid moving up from your stomach into your mouth
Less common symptoms of GERD include a chronic cough or hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, bad breath, and more.
Your stomach has a mucosal lining that prevents damage from stomach acid. But the esophagus does not. So when the acidic contents of your stomach hit your esophagus, you experience a burning sensation.
The esophageal sphincter (LES), is the valve that connects your stomach and your throat. Its job is to keep the contents of your stomach where they belong. This circular band relaxes when you swallow, then closes again to keep your stomach contents in their proper place.
But if your LES doesn’t close properly, digestive juices can rise up out of your stomach and irritate your esophagus.
Many people notice an increase in heartburn when they drink coffee. There have been studies done on this phenomenon, but the results aren’t entirely conclusive. Some doctors believe chemicals in coffee cause the stomach to overproduce acid, resulting in a burning sensation and stomach irritation.
Rationally, it seems like the acid content of coffee would be the problem. And in some cases it may be. But in one study, when they neutralized the acid in coffee, the GERD patients who drank it still experienced acid reflux. So while the acid in coffee may be a contributing factor, it’s not the only one.
It’s also possible that the oil content of your coffee can be causing problems. Oils and fats tend to slow the rate of digestion. And when this happens, food stays in the stomach longer. If your digestive system is healthy, this isn’t an issue. In fact, including healthy oils and fats in your diet can help you stay satisfied. But if your LES isn’t doing its job, keeping the contents of your stomach from moving down the line can increase the likelihood of reflux.
Caffeine can contribute to heartburn in a couple ways. First off, caffeine increases the production of stomach acid, which can then move from your stomach into your esophagus and cause heartburn. Second, caffeine causes your LES to relax, making it potentially less effective at keeping the contents of your stomach where they belong.
Coffee beans are made up of many complex molecules. While caffeine is the star of the show, other molecules like chlorogenic acid, pyrogallol, N-alkanoyl-hydroxytryptamide, and catechol make an appearance as well.
Some research has shown that caffeine, catechols, and N-alkanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamine can all stimulate stomach acid secretion. But since most of these are removed during the processing of the raw coffee bean, we know there’s more to the story. There doesn’t seem to be a single, pivotal irritant. It is a mixture of compounds that signal your stomach to start producing more acid. Even the bitter flavor of coffee may also contribute to the increase in stomach acid.
And that seems to be the issue. It’s not as much the acid present in your coffee, but your coffee’s ability to trigger the release of excess stomach acid that is the likely connection between coffee and heartburn.
Just because you experience a connection between coffee and heartburn, doesn’t mean you need to give up on the rich aroma, robust flavor, and energy boost you get from that morning cup of java. But you may want to make some changes in the type of coffee you use, or even how you brew it.
Dark roasts are best. According to a 2014 study, dark roast coffee contains a balance of chemicals that produce less stomach acids than a medium roast. The theory is that darker roasts contain less of the compounds known as C5HTs and chlorogenic acids (CGAs), which may cause stomach issues.
Roasting coffee longer doesn’t just cut out some potentially acid-inducing substances. It also boosts N-methylpyridinium (NMP), which blocks the stomach cells’ ability to produce hydrochloric acid. A ratio of high NMP to low C5HTs and CGAs causes the stomach to produce less acid. The longer the roast, the darker, and the higher the levels of NMP. In fact, dark roast coffee can contain up to double the amount of NMP than light roasts.
NMP alone didn’t have the same effect. It’s likely the combination of specific chemicals that makes the difference.
Your best bet is to avoid both light roasts and arabica beans since these tend to produce more acid. But there are some varieties that may help reduce your coffee-related GERD symptoms:
There isn’t one specific type of bean classified as “espresso”. But generally, most espresso roasts do fall into the dark roast category. But espresso has another advantage. The brewing process is shorter, which reduces the amount of acids from the coffee that end up in your cup.
Look for coffee labeled “dark roast”. And when you open your coffee beans, you’ll notice they are very dark in color and have an oily sheen. Light roast coffees don’t have that same oily look.
Mushroom or Chicory Coffee Blends
It may sound strange to have mushrooms or chicory (a type of dandelion) in your coffee. But mushroom coffee boasts of numerous health benefits. And chicory coffee has been around since the 1800s.
Some people find they experience fewer GERD symptoms with these blends, possibly because of the reduced caffeine content.
How you prepare your coffee can make a difference as well. We already talked about how the quicker brewing process might make espresso more stomach-friendly.
You also might want to try cold brew. Cold brew coffee is made with room temperature or cold water. In cold brew, the ground coffee is steeped from 12-24 hours. This extended steeping process and cooler temperatures produce a less bitter, lower acid coffee.
Because coffee causes stomach issues for millions of people, some brands are using this to cash in with potentially deceptive marketing ploys.
Some coffee brands advertise their products as “stomach-friendly”. But there often is no scientific backing for this claim. You can certainly try these coffees. But they may not work as advertised.
Low Acid Coffee
Again, this is marketing. Yes, some coffee brands may technically have higher pH levels (meaning they’re lower in acid), but the difference is slight. In fact, black coffee has a pH of around 5.2, cold brew is about 5.1, and low acid coffee lands at a pH of about 5.7. So not much difference. And as we already covered, it’s probably not the acid in the coffee that’s causing the problems in the first place.
Some coffee makers double-ferment their coffee by adding a second “soak” of the beans. They claim this double soak removes the “bitter notes” and makes their coffee easier on the stomach. But again, there’s no proof that this actually helps.
✔ Add milk — Some of the proteins in milk will bind to the CGAs that may be causing you to produce more stomach acid. When these compounds bind to milk proteins, they aren’t as easily absorbed and may cause fewer problems.
✔ Use a paper filter — Paper filters tend to trap more than metal filters, leaving some of the more troublesome substances behind.
✔ Limit the amount of coffee you drink.
✔ Avoid drinking coffee on an empty stomach.
If you’re struggling with GERD, you’re probably concerned about more than just coffee. GERD can interfere with your life. And GERD isn’t something that just happens “when you get older” or “because you eat spicy food”. There are underlying causes that contribute to all stomach issues and digestive problems.
If you’re ready to figure out what’s really going on so you can address your symptoms from the root and finally feel better, I’m here for you. I offer a free 15-minute consultation where we can take a look at your symptoms and strategize some solutions.