Ask the Poop Doctor is a new column from Dr. Sameer Islam, MD, a Texas-based gastroenterologist who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. He also hosts segments such as Poop Tip Thursday and Let's Talk About Poop on his YouTube channel. Have a question you'd like to submit? Leave it in the comments section below!
Why exactly does coffee make you poop?
Amazingly enough, we actually don’t know why coffee makes you poop. We know that coffee initiates what's known as the "gastrocolic reflex"—that's when your stomach "wakes up" from the coffee and starts to contract. This continues all the way down from the stomach to the small intestine to the colon, where you will eventually have your bowel movement. The effect is the same in men and women.
There's some thought that the acidity of coffee is what also helps to stimulate your bowels. Coffee, both decaf and caffeinated, contain chlorogenic acid, which triggers higher stomach acid levels and higher production of gastric acid. The overall acidity bump makes the stomach move its contents out more quickly than usual. But, once again, it's not clear which of the hundreds of chemicals found in a cup of Joe are responsible for that boost. Lastly, we know there is a role in the actual beans and oils in coffee that helps you poop.
Will decaf coffee achieve the same effect?
Yes, both decaf and caffeinated coffee will make you poop, but the caffeine in coffee will help you poop more. So, if you're really hoping to get a movement, go for the caffeinated cuppa Joe.
Does it matter if you add milk or cream to your coffee?
Yes, all that milk and cream can negate some of the positive effects we see in coffee. Not to mention the excess calories and sugar that comes with adding that stuff.
What about other drinks that contain high amounts of caffeine, such as energy drinks?
Nope, there’s something in the coffee beans themselves and the oils that allows you to have a bowel movement with them. Other caffeinated drinks typically don’t have the same effect as coffee does.
Have there been any noteworthy studies that help explain this connection?
The closest thing that we have is a study in 2018 regarding patients getting coffee after surgery. Commonly after surgery, the bowels don’t want to "wake up" (referred to as an ileus). This can lead to pain, nausea, and constipation. The results of this study showed that consuming coffee did improve bowel movement after surgery.
What's the connection between coffee, hormones, and gut health?
There is active research going on right now about how coffee can improve your overall gut health. Coffee has been shown to improve your liver health, decrease the risk of colon cancer, improve cognitive function, decrease the risk of cardiovascular death (CHF, heart attack, stroke), type II diabetes, Parkinson’s, etc. More and more studies are coming out, so stay tuned.
How do conditions like IBS and lactose intolerance factor in?
Patients who have IBS may not respond to drinking coffee, especially if they have IBS constipation-predominant. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re suffering from diarrhea, GERD, heartburn, or have lactose issues, sometimes drinking coffee will worsen those conditions. Everyone is different when it comes to their response.
If you're trying to use coffee to make yourself poop, such as before a race, when should you drink it?
It can be as quick as 10 minutes, but for most people, the peak concentration in the blood occurs after 45 minutes. So, if you plan a long trip or a race, make sure you prepare for the need to poo soon after drinking it.
How much coffee do you need to achieve the, um, desired effect?
Every person is different in terms of how they respond to coffee's effects. There are many factors involved: your tolerance to caffeine, whether you have other conditions (irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn), what kind of coffee you drink, and so on.
However, up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. That's roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola, or two "energy shot" drinks. Keep in mind that the actual caffeine content in beverages varies widely, especially among energy drinks.
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