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Fact or Fiction: Does Caffeine Cause Inflammation?

Unpacking the Caffeine-Inflammation Connection

Does caffeine cause inflammation: bag of coffee beans, a metal scoop, a cup of coffee
Key Points:
  • Research shows that caffeine is neither pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory.
  • Coffee reduces low-grade inflammation and fights chronic disease via several mechanisms (unrelated to caffeine itself).
  • Overall, coffee offers numerous health benefits, but it may be best for certain people to avoid it.

Will we have to ditch our morning pick-me-up to improve inflammation? Thankfully, research suggests we won’t. Caffeine consumption appears to have an overall neutral effect on our health. In fact, one of our favorite caffeinated beverages, coffee, appears to have unique compounds that can actually lower inflammation. 

Chronic inflammation is linked to health conditions like anxiety, heart disease, and diabetes [1]. While the causes of inflammation are broad, some common factors include diet, exercise levels, smoking, and stress [1]. As our diets are one of the biggest contributors we can control, we should try to eat foods that don’t increase inflammation. 

This article will break down the role that caffeine and coffee have on our immune systems and how they affect our levels of low-grade inflammation. 

Does Caffeine Cause Inflammation?

Coffee-lovers will be pleased to hear the verdict on caffeine and inflammation. Research supports that caffeine does not appear to have an overall inflammatory effect on the body [2]. Caffeine does not appear to be particularly anti-inflammatory either, but it is often consumed as coffee, which seems to have beneficial health effects. In fact, moderate coffee use actually appears to decrease inflammatory markers and is linked to a decreased risk of all-cause mortality [3, 4].

This means that regular coffee use may be connected to a reduced likelihood of death from any chronic health condition. 

While caffeine itself has neither a beneficial nor negative effect on inflammation, the other organic compounds found in coffee, like chlorogenic acid, are likely to have anti-inflammatory benefits. 

Several studies have found that coffee drinkers experience a largely anti-inflammatory effect and improvements in low-grade inflammation [2, 5]. Regular coffee drinkers tend to have lower levels of inflammatory markers as well as a decreased incidence of cancer, dementia, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic conditions [3, 6].

Coffee use can be especially beneficial for the gut. A 2021 study showed that coffee offers antioxidant, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory properties to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract [7].

There are several ways that we can measure inflammation levels in the body. Inflammatory markers, hormones, and blood sugar levels can all help detect chronic immune activation [1, 8].

The following research will dive into each of these markers a bit further. Keep in mind that these observational studies can show us that coffee drinkers may have a better profile of certain inflammatory markers, but these results can’t directly point to coffee as the cause. 

Let’s take a more detailed look at the potential effects of coffee on a few major indicators of inflammation:

Scientist working in her lab

1. Inflammatory Markers 

Research shows that consumption of coffee may decrease C-reactive protein, also known as “CRP” [9, 10]. CRP is a nonspecific marker of inflammation that is often included in screening lab work. When elevated, it means there is a large inflammatory burden on the body, though it doesn’t tell us the inflammation cause. It is often elevated in conditions like heart disease, chronic infections, obesity, autoimmunity, and cancer [1, 8].

Regular coffee drinkers show a 16% decrease in CRP along with considerable improvement in other inflammatory cytokines [2, 10]. One study determined that for every half-cup increase in coffee consumption, CRP decreases by up to 5.5% [9].

It is important to note that these results on coffee and CRP may be race and gender-specific. European men did not experience the same level of anti-inflammatory benefits that European or American women and Japanese men did [9].

Tumor-necrosis factor alpha, or TNF-alpha, is another inflammatory marker that is elevated in certain types of cancer, auto-immunity, and liver disease [11]. It contributes to oxidative stress in the body, which is linked to many chronic conditions like neurological and cardiovascular disease.

One clinical trial found that coffee green bean extract — raw coffee in supplement form — is a potent antioxidant [11]. After eight weeks of use, coffee green bean extract reduced inflammation and TNF-alpha levels in obese patients with fatty liver disease. More importantly, its use was determined to be safe [11].

2. Hormone Levels

Adiponectin is a hormone secreted by our fat, and it has an important role in protecting against insulin resistance. It has anti-inflammatory effects, and low levels of adiponectin are linked to the development of diabetes and obesity [10].

Moderate coffee-drinkers, people who consume at least four cups of coffee per day, experience nearly a 17% increase in high-density adiponectin. This preserves their insulin sensitivity and may help protect them from developing type 2 diabetes [10].

Coffee use is also linked to lower levels of leptin [10]. Leptin is one of the hormones responsible for regulating appetite and fat storage, and elevated levels are linked to higher amounts of inflammation in the body [10]. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that coffee was found to protect against obesity and metabolic syndrome [12, 13, 14].

There is a strong correlation between disrupted sex hormone levels and the effects of chronic inflammation [1]. Fortunately, coffee consumption has been shown to increase testosterone levels in both men and women while decreasing the burden of excess estrogen [10]. Maintaining proper hormone levels is important for suppressing chronic inflammation, as testosterone has been shown to decrease the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines [1].

Coffee has also been shown to increase the protein sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which helps bind excess hormones that are circulating in our system [10].

3. Blood Sugar Control

We have already touched on the complex relationship between chronic inflammation and blood sugar control. As sugar is highly inflammatory to the body, the higher your blood sugar levels are, the more likely you are to have chronic inflammation [8].

Fortunately, drinking coffee has an overall positive effect on our glucose control. As previously discussed, it has hormonal influence on blood glucose, as it regulates adiponectin and leptin. Research found that when drinking one extra cup of coffee per day, people have a 6% lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes. These results were partially attributed to coffee’s anti-inflammatory effects [15].

C-peptide is released from the pancreas and acts as a precursor to insulin — the hormone involved in glucose regulation. As blood sugar levels increase, insulin and c-peptide are secreted in order to decrease glucose levels. One large-scale research study found that coffee drinkers had nearly 9% lower c-peptide levels than non-coffee drinkers. They also had lower levels in IGFBP-3, a growth hormone that increases with blood sugar levels and is a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes [10].

So we know the anti-inflammatory effects of coffee, but how much is enough? Research shows that most of the above benefits occur around 3-4 cups daily [3, 10, 12, 16]. However, the dose will vary for everyone, depending on many factors, including height and weight. Those with coffee sensitivity, anxiety, or IBS may find it more beneficial to consume minimal to no coffee.

Does Caffeine Cause Inflammation? It May In Select Cases

While caffeine is not inflammatory, it can be included in some drinks that are. For instance, sodas and energy drinks contain several ingredients that can trigger an inflammatory response for some people. Plus, any added sweetener or creamer in coffee may raise blood glucose and insulin levels [17].

Coffee consumption can also lead to gut disturbances like heartburn, upper GI discomfort, and IBS for some people [18, 19, 20, 21].

In addition, caffeine intake during pregnancy is typically discouraged, as it is linked to low birth weight, preterm birth, and miscarriage [3, 12]. Talk to your physician if you have questions about consuming caffeine while pregnant.

One small study found that caffeine may have either pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory effects depending on the individual [22]. Those with a sensitivity to coffee or one of its components may be more likely to experience inflammation-inducing effects. This is similar to how some individuals who have a histamine intolerance may have an immune reaction to avocados. Even the healthiest foods can cause an inflammatory response in individuals who are sensitive to it. 

Research shows that some brands of instant coffee contain a small amount of gluten that can trigger an immune response in gluten-sensitive individuals. Pure caffeinated coffee (non-instant) was found to be safe for gluten sensitive and celiac populations [23].

If you are having symptoms that you think may correlate to drinking coffee or caffeine, consider eliminating it from your diet to see if your symptoms improve. However, if you do not have symptoms that coincide with caffeine or coffee consumption, there is likely no concern that it is causing an inflammatory reaction.

Many people are concerned about the effects of coffee consumption on their blood pressure and heart health. Despite these concerns, one study found that even heavy coffee use, defined as drinking six or more cups per day, is not linked to an increased risk for heart disease. However, this level of coffee consumption also negated the cardiovascular benefits seen from light-to-moderate coffee intake [24].

These findings are backed by two more clinical trials that found that both black coffee and green bean coffee extract reduce the risk of hypertension [13, 25]. Regardless, it is best to speak with your primary care physician before adjusting the amount of coffee you drink, especially if you have a history of high blood pressure.

Does caffeine cause inflammation: woman stretching her legs

How to Combat Chronic Inflammation 

You may be looking for other ways to decrease your inflammation levels, aside from having to increase your coffee consumption. Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do to address low-grade inflammation [1, 8]:

  • Change your diet: Include more healthy fats, like salmon, olive oil, and nuts to help reduce inflammation. Research recommends adhering to a diet low in carbohydrates, such as the Mediterranean or Paleo diets
  • Consume more antioxidants: Fresh fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants and fiber that help combat inflammation. Drinking more green tea for its polyphenol content can also help boost immune function.
  • Consider supplements: Research shows that adding fish oil, flaxseed oil, curcumin, and magnesium to daily regimen can reduce inflammation. It is important to consult your doctor before taking new supplements.
  • Get moving: Physical activity is extremely important for reducing low-grade inflammation. Research shows that 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity can offer the best results.
  • Get your beauty sleep: Getting at least 7-8 hours of quality sleep per night is incredibly important as sleep has a restorative effect on your immune system and lowers your body’s inflammation levels.
  • Stress less: Research supports that practicing daily yoga or meditation is effective at lowering cortisol levels that contribute to chronic inflammation. If you have difficulty calming your mind, try using one of the many meditation phone apps that cater to beginners.

Combating low-grade inflammation often takes a multi-faceted approach that combines lifestyle changes, along with an anti-inflammatory diet and supplements. Addressing your gut health is also essential, as conditions like leaky gut and SIBO can lead to body-wide inflammation. 

The Bottom Line on Caffeine and Inflammation

The results are in, and while caffeine appears to be health-neutral, there are many anti-inflammatory effects of coffee. Caffeine aside, these health benefits are likely due to other compounds in coffee. 

Coffee intake reduces inflammation by lowering inflammatory markers, regulating blood glucose, and modulating anti-inflammatory hormones. Its antioxidant properties may theoretically offer some protection against many health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and autoimmunity. 

When low-grade inflammation goes unchecked, it can cause many uncomfortable symptoms like anxiety, mood disruptions, blood sugar swings, joint pain, and allergies [1]. You can generally address inflammation with strategies like proper diet, exercise and lowering our stress levels.

For more help with addressing any symptoms that you think may be linked to chronic inflammation, reach out today and schedule a visit through our clinic’s website. You can find additional information on the link between gut health and inflammation in my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You

➕ References

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