Is It Actually That Bad to Drink Coffee on an Empty Stomach?

experts say coffee is healthy, but when you drink it matters...
written by JOSEY MURRAY
Source: Mike Jones | Pexels
Source: Mike Jones | Pexels

For most of us, the routine is the same: roll out of bed, stumble to the kitchen, and pour a nice hot (or iced) cup of coffee *cue Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5*. For many of us, this ritual is a simple joy that motivates us to get out of bed and helps us face the world. But recently, wellness influencers and health experts alike have been making waves for sharing that this simple ritual may actually have negative consequences for our health: Some claim that drinking coffee on an empty stomach can affect hormonal health, increase cortisol and glucose levels, and may even contribute to acne, bloat, and acid reflux. For example, Olivia Hedlund, FNTP, shared on TikTok that since drinking coffee after breakfast instead of before, she has more energy, clearer skin, improved digestion, less bloat, and less anxiety.

Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN is a registered dietician nutritionist who specializes in neuroendocrinology. She told me that she has worked with thousands of clients over the years who experimented with different approaches to coffee and caffeine. “What I’ve consistently seen in my clinical experience is that almost everyone does better when they avoid drinking coffee on an empty stomach and many people do better eating a protein-rich meal at least 30 minutes before they have their coffee/caffeine.”

I don’t want to believe it, but these anecdotes are pretty convincing. Because I love my first-thing-in-the-morning cup of coffee, I wanted to get to the bottom of it, so I dug a little deeper into the claims and the research and brought along a couple of experts to see if changing my morning coffee routine is really worth it or just another internet craze that doesn’t have to apply to everyone. Here’s what I found:

What are the potential effects of drinking coffee on an empty stomach?

Blood sugar crashes

Davis explained that drinking coffee on an empty stomach might lead to more reactive hypoglycemia. “At some point after consuming coffee, glucose levels typically fall lower than where they were before you consumed the coffee [which] may lead to reactive cravings or fatigue that peak mid-morning or sooner,” she explains. In other words, drinking coffee without eating can cause blood sugar crashes which can look like increased anxiety, irritability, and fatigue (none of which I need any more of, that’s for sure). Davis says that in her practice, she sees fewer glucose swings, less reactive cravings, and less reactive fatigue or brain fog when individuals eat before drinking coffee.

Digestive upset

Bad news for hot girls with stomach issues out there: caffeine on an empty stomach could be to blame (see this TikTok for a relatable giggle). “For some people with a sensitive stomach or IBS, drinking coffee on an empty stomach can cause diarrhea and urgency. It can also irritate acid reflux, as coffee can stimulate acid production in the stomach,” explains Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and author of Gentle Nutrition. Without food in your stomach, coffee interacts more directly and more harshly with your stomach and digestive system. While eating before drinking coffee may alleviate these effects for some, others may experience digestive effects no matter when they drink coffee.

Suppressed appetite

Coffee (especially on an empty stomach) is a known appetite suppressant. Toxic diet culture may have told you that’s a good thing, but that actually means shutting off one of your body’s most important ways it communicates with you, which could lead to a lack of nutrients and many correlated symptoms or health problems. “Suppressed appetite can actually impact one’s ability to feed themselves adequately during the day and often leads to binge eating or impulsive emotional eating later at night,” shares Hartley. We need our appetite to nourish our bodies with food and nutrients during the day, and to give us cues on how to properly fuel our bodies with the energy it needs.

Hormone-related symptoms

If you are a woman with a reproductive cycle, caffeine can contribute to hormonal imbalances and increased anxiety and insomnia. Alisa Vitti, integrative nutritionist, author, and founder of FLO Living, notes that individuals with estrogen dominance-related conditions like PCOS or endometriosis, may be more sensitive to caffeine and its hormone-disrupting effects. Davis speaks similarly about the effects of caffeine on those with PCOS: “I’ve worked with countless individuals with PCOS over the years who have noticed coffee on an empty stomach does significantly impact their symptoms.” She recommends avoiding caffeine on an empty stomach through an entire cycle to test how it impacts your symptoms.

Less energy (yes, really)

Although you may swear you need coffee for energy (and you may really feel the effects short-term), it could be negatively affecting your energy long-term-especially when you’re drinking it without food. “Caffeine doesn’t supply the fundamental building blocks for energy in the body; it just forces the body to work harder with the energy reserves already on board,” Davis explained. “Your body deserves nourishment in the morning that’s more than what coffee can provide. Just because something helps you feel alert, that doesn’t mean you’re fueled,” Hartley agreed. Eating a big breakfast with at least 30g of protein and lots of fiber and fats first thing in the morning is actually the best way to provide the body with energy for the entire day.

Who might be more sensitive to coffee on an empty stomach?

In general, individuals who are more sensitive to caffeine are also more sensitive to coffee on an empty stomach. According to Davis, some people are more susceptible to the negative effects of caffeine and it doesn’t matter if they eat before drinking it or not. She explains that sometimes coffee can contribute to worsened anxiety and mood swings, digestive upset, worsened reactive fatigue, reactive cravings, poor sleep, and exacerbation of hormonal imbalances. For those who are sensitive to the effects of caffeine such as women with a reproductive cycle, it may be even more important to consider how to create a balanced coffee routine and healthy relationship to caffeine (for tips on how, keep reading).

Bottom line: Is it bad to drink coffee on an empty stomach?

While the experts I talked with gave lots of potential symptoms and reasons caffeine on an empty stomach could have negative consequences, I can’t give a one-size-fits-all conclusion–both you and I know that’s not how nutrition works. The answer to this controversy, like many nutrition questions, seems largely to be it depends.

Every expert that I talked with shared negative effects they saw in their personal practices, which is highly encouraging information to test out how caffeine may be affecting you, but there is not enough research to conclusively determine that coffee on an empty stomach is detrimental for everyone.

Coffee affects everyone differently. For some, it can be a superfood, but for others, drinking it on an empty stomach can be harmful. Davis believes that acknowledging individual differences in tolerance is the most important thing about understanding the effects of coffee on health. “Whether or not something may be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for you depends on the dose and the dose that may be ‘good’ for one person might be ‘bad’ for another person due to multiple factors such as the genetic ability to metabolize caffeine or other bioactive and other health conditions.” So how are you supposed to know if your body interprets coffee as a superfood or a trigger? Test it for yourself and talk to your doctor or nutritionist.

So you need to change your coffee routine… now what?

Experimenting with your coffee habit is key to figuring out what works best for you and your body. If you feel like you may be more sensitive to caffeine or want to change up your coffee routine to better suit you, here are some tips for switching up your ritual for the better.

Eat a breakfast appetizer

If you aren’t ready to have breakfast first thing in the morning but want to experiment with not drinking your coffee on an empty stomach, try something smaller. “If my clients don’t have an appetite in the morning, I encourage them to have what I like to call a ‘breakfast appetizer’ within about an hour of waking up,” Hartley recommended. “For example, try buttered toast, a bar, yogurt, or a small smoothie–it’s something that isn’t necessarily enough fuel for the morning, but enough to get appetite and digestion going.” Make it something delicious so that you can wake up thinking about your new breakfast appetizer rather than about having to wait for your coffee.

Wait a few hours to drink your coffee

Your cortisol peaks around 30 minutes after you wake up. Therefore, slugging down that coffee first thing is likely to increase cortisol even higher. When you wait to have your coffee until mid or late morning, you allow your cortisol to naturally lower before you fill your body with the caffeine that spikes it again. Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, PhD, recommends waiting 90-120 minutes after waking to enjoy your coffee. This amount of time allows you to actually benefit from the energizing effects of caffeine and avoid that dreaded afternoon crash.

Drink something non-caffeinated

If you love having a special drink to sip on when you wake up, try some coffee alternatives. Things like a cacao latte (check out Erika Polsinelli’s go-to from this article), beet latte, golden latte, or matcha have lower or no caffeine content, pack a healthy dose of other nutrients, and might even be tastier than coffee (oops I didn’t mean to say it). Other exciting options that give you more of a coffee feel include MUD/WTR or herbal coffee alternatives like Rasa, Teecino, or Dandy Blend.

Scale down or take a break from caffeine in general

“If you are someone who isn’t tolerating coffee and/or caffeine well, eating food before or alongside your coffee/caffeine may not always make a difference and you may need to experiment with less coffee/caffeine overall before you see improvements,” Davis said. She recommends scaling down over the course of a week or two rather than quitting cold turkey, and then giving yourself a two-week break from caffeine to see how you feel without it.