Decaf Coffee and IBS

Decaf Coffee and IBS – To Drink or Not to Drink?

If you’ve got irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may have been told to avoid coffee or limit your caffeine intake. (For the record, that level of restriction may or may not be helpful!)  And what about decaf coffee and IBS? Is that any better?

One size never fits all – but if you’re suspecting that caffeinated coffee does trigger your IBS-D symptoms, and you’re not thrilled with the idea of sacrificing your morning brew, decaf may be a worthwhile option to consider..

In this article I’ll provide you with clinical insights based on my first-hand experiences as a functional dietitian and holistic nutritionist in private practice, to help you navigate decaf coffee and IBS with more clarity!

Coffee stimulates gastric juices and colonic motility – for better and worse

According to research, caffeinated coffee stimulates colonic contractions and gastric acid secretions… but so does decaf, to a lesser degree. (1, 2, 3

On the other hand, I’ve found in clinical practice that most people with IBS-C actually prefer caffeinated coffee over decaf, since it seems to be a lot more helpful at getting the bowels going in the morning! (Even people without constipation anecdotally report that coffee helps to “get things moving” each morning.)

So, are there any other reasons explaining why some people with diarrhea-predominant IBS (IBS-D) feel better when switching to decaf, while others don’t?  

The research is sparse, but I believe everything happens for a reason…

IBS, caffeine, and stress/insomnia

If you’re prone to stress and/or insomnia, and you know those issues make your IBS symptoms worse, consider keeping an IBS food diary to see if caffeinated coffee is amplifying the stress/anxiety/insomnia.

If that’s the case for you, it’s 100% worth switching to decaf – or even trying out “half caff” (50/50, caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee) to see if this helps reduce your anxiety/insomnia.

Decaf and IBS-D: clinical observations

Many of my fellow gut health practitioners and I all agree that we haven’t seen a consistent difference among our clients with diarrhea who switched over to decaf from regular coffee. It actually varies a lot, case-by-case. 

While most people stop there, I decided to investigate further into this.  The information about gastric acid and colonic motility is interesting, but I noticed (after lots of digging and critical thinking) there’s more to the story when it comes to decaf coffee and IBS-D!

IBS and food sensitivities

As a certified LEAP therapist (CLT), I run a lot of mediator release (MRT) food sensitivity testing in my functional nutrition clinic, because diarrhea is a very common symptom of food sensitivity reactions.  

Here are a few interesting patterns I’ve observed as a CLT as it pertains to coffee, caffeine, and IBS, which may help you to better navigate whether or not it’s worth switching to decaf (if you have IBS-D)…

Caffeine sensitivity

My clients with IBS-D and/or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) who tested positive for a chemical sensitivity to caffeine were more likely to experience symptom relief from diarrhea when they switched to decaf, compared to those who didn’t have a caffeine sensitivity.

Coffee sensitivity

On the other hand, some my clients with food sensitivities turned out to have a food sensitivity to coffee itself (versus just to the caffeine chemical). In these cases switching to decaf doesn’t seem to make any difference in their symptoms of diarrhea.

The takeaway here is that it’s possible to have the same kind of reaction to decaf if your sensitivity is to the coffee extract itself. 

  • If that’s the case, you may be better off looking for a coffee alternative, such as yerba mate (if you want the caffeine) or a caffeine-free herbal coffee substitute (such as Teeccinio or Dandy Blend).

Pros and cons of switching to decaf coffee for IBS-D

Decaf and IBS: more stuff to consider

Chemical solvents:  the dark side of decaf

Not all decaf is the same, and not all of it is “healthy” for the gut – even if it’s not triggering your IBS symptoms!  

In fact, a lot of mainstream, conventional decaf coffee is decaffeinated using chemical solvents which may in some cases do more harm than good when it comes to your gut microbes. (4)

If you’re going to make decaf coffee a staple in your everyday routine, and you’re trying to optimize your gut health, I recommend opting for an organic decaf coffee that was made via the Swiss Water process.

What are you putting in your coffee?

Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind, for some people it could be the stuff you’re adding to coffee (not the coffee itself) triggering your symptoms.  

  • For instance, if you’re reacting to the type of milk/milk substitute or sweetener you usually add to your morning brew, switching to decaf won’t do your IBS any justice!)

More blog articles for you!

For more clarity and guidance on how to navigate this, feel free to check out the following articles:

Decaf coffee and IBS: final verdict

Despite the blanket statement that “coffee triggers IBS”, with all due respect, I agree to disagree!  At least half of people with IBS (anecdotally, based on over a decade of clinical case study observations) seem to tolerate coffee just fine.

At the same time, some people with IBS-D or IBD may feel better drinking decaf since it’s not quite as stimulating to gastric secretions and colon motility, compared to regular coffee.

People with a caffeine sensitivity may also feel better drinking decaf coffee; however, some people with IBS-D or IBD may actually have an underlying sensitivity to coffee itself, which is one reason why not everyone with IBS-D feels better switching to decaf coffee.

If you decide to go decaf, make sure to stay mindful of the quality of decaf coffee you decide to drink, and what you’re putting in it.

When in doubt, start keeping an IBS food diary and work with a dietitian or holistic nutritionist who specializes in gut health so you can crack your Gut Code!

Speaking of cracking your code, if you’d like to learn more, feel free to download my free gut health nutrition guide:  

5 Diet Mistakes to Avoid When Healing Your Gut!

Free Download - 5 Diet Mistakes to Avoid When Healing Your Gut - by Jenna Volpe RDN LD CLT

XO – Jenna

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