Does Coffee Cause Inflammation? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say
Over the years as I've talked to people about their diet, many tend to treat coffee like chocolate or wine: a guilty pleasure. They know coffee isn't essential, yet they have little desire to give it up. But is this guilt really necessary?
One of the reasons why someone might feel guilty for drinking coffee is that they've heard that drinking coffee causes inflammation, or that the brew can exacerbate symptoms of inflammatory conditions, such as joint pain and gastrointestinal issues.
The Link Between Coffee and Inflammation
Fellow coffee drinkers, I have great news! Research suggests that coffee does not cause inflammation in most people—even if your norm is more than one or two caffeinated cups. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Coffee may have anti-inflammatory effects in the body. These effects are thought to be a primary reason why research has linked regular coffee consumption with lower risks for many inflammatory-related conditions, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, type 2 diabetes, gout, heart disease and some cancers.
Coffee's anti-inflammatory benefits stem from the over 1,000 bioactive compounds it contains. The brew is a particularly good source of compounds called polyphenols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Polyphenols in coffee, like chlorogenic acid, diterpenes and trigonelline, appear to stop free radicals from causing damage that can then generate inflammation; some also appear to block the production of inflammatory compounds by inhibiting gene expression and enzymes associated with their development.
The result is that studies suggest that regular coffee consumption may lower one or more inflammatory blood markers. That said, a few large studies have found that coffee is associated with lower levels of the inflammatory marker CRP (and that as coffee consumption increases, CRP levels decrease), but a review and meta-analysis published in 2020 in Nutrients found that, overall, coffee did not have a measurable impact on CRP. The authors say that because of this conflicting evidence, more research is needed. Perhaps other factors, such as smoking and BMI, may affect these results.
What About Sugar, Cream and Decaf?
Many people enjoy their coffee with sugar or artificial sweeteners, which are both associated with inflammation. When looking at coffee's anti-inflammatory potential, most, if not all, studies have examined the effect of caffeinated black coffee with no additions like sugar, sweeteners or cream. Ingredients added to foods like these that contain added sugars, chemicals and saturated fat are inflammatory when consumed in excess.
However past research suggests that coffee still provides health benefits even when it contains cream and sugar. In terms of inflammation, there's likely little impact when minimal amounts are added in one to two cups a day, but several cups with larger amounts could potentially cancel out coffee's anti-inflammatory benefits.
For decaf fans, studies suggest it offers comparable benefits to regular coffee. Findings in a few studies indicated that decreases in inflammatory markers may be slightly less when decaffeinated is consumed in comparison to caffeinated. However, the overall consensus is that caffeine isn't the major contributor to the anti-inflammatory benefits observed with coffee consumption. Rather, it's other polyphenols in coffee that are responsible, and these are found in both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee.
How Much Caffeine Is Safe?
Caffeine's stimulant effect is why many of us reach for coffee, but as many have experienced, too much caffeine can cause jitters and a racing heart. This raises the question of whether too much caffeine from coffee could at some point turn inflammatory.
Research is limited, but a range of coffee intakes were included in those studies in which coffee was associated with decreases in inflammatory markers. Subjects with higher caffeinated coffee intakes (ranging from 3 to 7 cups) appeared to reap very similar benefits compared to those who consumed less. That doesn't mean you should consume that much caffeinated coffee. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is generally safe, an amount found in 4 or 5 cups of coffee (note that this refers to 8-ounce cups; many mugs and takeout cups are larger). Pay attention to the amounts that feel good to you and scale back if you notice side effects, such as anxiety, rapid heart rate, upset stomach, headaches or mood changes.
However, it's important to note that each individual metabolizes caffeine differently, some of which is dictated by our genetic makeup, and excessive caffeine—or even just a little more than your norm—can lead to inflammation in other ways. One of the most common side effects of caffeine is disrupted sleep, which has been shown to contribute to inflammation. In fact, a lack of good-quality sleep is associated with generating inflammation and increases in CRP and other inflammatory markers.
Bottom Line on Coffee and Inflammation
Coffee is a primary source of polyphenols in our diet, and these antioxidant compounds exert beneficial anti-inflammatory effects in most people. You can definitely drop any guilt you had over your morning joe, but do keep tabs on your overall intake to fully reap coffee's benefits. If you enjoy several cups throughout the day, consider switching to decaf after 1 to 2 cups of caffeinated, and limit all caffeine intake after lunch to prevent sleep disruption. It's also a good idea to go easy on what you add to your coffee. A little cream and sugar won't hurt, but it's probably best to avoid coffee drinks loaded with added sugars.