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Medical News Today: Should people with GERD avoid caffeine?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease usually causes heartburn, as well as respiratory and digestive symptoms. Doctors often recommend that people with this common illness avoid drinking caffeine. However, the scientific evidence is not so clear.

In this article, we examine the effects caffeine may have on gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and investigate whether all people with GERD should avoid coffee and tea.

We also describe GERD and explore some dietary and lifestyle changes that can reduce symptoms.

Can a person with GERD drink coffee or tea?

Woman with GERD pouring coffee into tea mug
Coffee or tea may worsen GERD symptoms in some people.

Some people report that some foods and drinks, such as coffee and tea, trigger or worsen GERD symptoms. It is also common for doctors and health organizations to recommend that people with GERD limit or avoid the consumption of caffeinated beverages.

However, from the scientific evidence, it is not clear whether all people with GERD should avoid coffee and tea.

A 2013 study on the effects of coffee on GERD states, “Coffee use is often discouraged in patients with GERD, although little evidence exists linking coffee consumption and GERD incidence.”

Some people with GERD report that caffeinated drinks aggravate their symptoms, while others find that these beverages do not affect their symptoms.

In an interview for the journal Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Lauren B. Gerson, an associate professor at Stanford University, discusses the effects of lifestyle changes on GERD and notes that no studies have determined the effects of avoiding caffeine on the disease.

However, Gerson suggests that a person with GERD try identifying and eliminating the foods and drinks that trigger symptoms. Recording meals and symptoms in a diary can help.

What effect does caffeine have on GERD?

The effects of caffeine on GERD are unclear.

Though healthcare professionals often note that caffeine can aggravate reflux symptoms, little scientific evidence backs this up. In fact, guidelines on managing GERD do not recommend eliminating caffeine from the diet.

This lack of evidence that caffeinated beverages worsen GERD symptoms suggests that a person may not have to eliminate caffeine from their diet.

However, if a person finds that caffeine aggravates their GERD symptoms, they may prefer alternatives to coffee and caffeinated teas. Some other options include:

  • herbal or fruit teas
  • decaffeinated coffee
  • chicory coffee

Other dietary and lifestyle changes

Many people, including medical professionals, have identified specific foods and drinks that regularly aggravate GERD symptoms.

Some common triggers include:

  • chocolate
  • peppermint
  • tomatoes and tomato products
  • spicy foods
  • acidic foods
  • fatty foods
  • alcoholic drinks

However, as with caffeine, little scientific evidence suggests a strong association between these products and GERD symptoms.

Some people may benefit from cutting these foods and drinks from the diet, and every person with GERD should identify which foods trigger their symptoms.

According to guidelines on managing GERD, research indicates that other lifestyle interventions can reduce symptoms of the disease:

  • weight loss, for people who are overweight
  • raising the head of the bed by 6–8 inches with foam wedges or blocks
  • avoiding eating for 2 or 3 hours before bedtime

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders (NIDDK) also recommend:

  • avoiding overeating
  • quitting smoking
  • wearing clothing that is loose, especially around the abdomen
  • remaining upright after meals for at least 3 hours
  • maintaining an upright posture when sitting
  • trying over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as antacids

What is GERD?

Man with sore throat having trouble swallowing, holding glass of water.
GERD can cause trouble swallowing.

GERD causes stomach contents to rise into the food pipe, or the esophagus. This occurs if the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) grows weak or otherwise stops functioning.

The LES is a valve at the bottom of the food pipe that opens to let food and liquid into the stomach. If the LES fails to close, stomach acid can rise into the food pipe, causing symptoms of GERD.

The most common symptom of GERD is heartburn, a burning sensation in the chest. The symptoms vary in type and severity, and some people have few or none.

Other symptoms of GERD include:

  • an unpleasant taste in the throat or mouth
  • bad breath
  • tooth decay
  • a sore throat
  • chest pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • difficult or painful swallowing
  • respiratory problems, such as wheezing, coughing, chest congestion, or asthma

GERD is a common condition. According to the NIDDK, it affects around 20 percent of people in the United States.

Risk factors for developing GERD include:

  • being overweight or obese
  • being pregnant
  • smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products
  • taking certain medications

Summary

GERD is a common condition that can cause a range of symptoms. Some can affect a person’s quality of life.

Medical professionals often advise people with GERD to eliminate certain foods and drinks from the diet, including those with caffeine. However, little scientific evidence links caffeine with the disease.

If caffeine seems to aggravate symptoms of GERD, it may be a good idea to avoid it and see if symptoms improve.

Keeping a food diary can help a person identify the foods and drinks that trigger or worsen their GERD symptoms.

A range of OTC and prescription medications can treat GERD, and a doctor can advise about the best treatments.

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