The National Coffee Association has found that Americans are drinking more coffee than ever, with the average coffee drinker having at least three cups per day. If you’re a regular coffee drinker who also experiences some discomfort in your chest after a cup or two, it may not be from the energy jolt caffeine provides (though the caffeine may still be to blame). That begs the question: Can coffee cause heartburn?
Though research notes that some people are more likely to experience heartburn than others, if you do experience the occasional heartburn, identifying your triggers is a good place to start in the quest to avoid future bouts. Though researchers tend to argue about whether or not coffee is one of those triggers, the more studies that emerge suggest that for some people, coffee can cause heartburn.
Can Coffee Cause Heartburn?
Heartburn is most commonly a reaction of acid reflux (or its more chronic version, gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD). It is commonly a pain or burning sensation in the center of the chest, which occurs when acid travels back up from your stomach into your esophagus as you eat.
“There is a muscle between the esophagus and the stomach known as the lower esophageal sphincter,” explains Dr. Neel Choksi, MD, a gastroenterologist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. “It relaxes when we swallow to allow food to pass through to the stomach and closes tightly to prevent food and acid from regurgitating back into the esophagus. This muscle can spontaneously relax without swallowing in response to a number of different foods and drinks, including caffeinated beverages such as coffee.”
There are few studies that specifically look at coffee and heartburn—most focus on the impact coffee can have on GERD, which is, again, a chronic condition (and more problematic than occasional bouts of heartburn). Some studies, such as a 2014 analysis published in Diseases of the Esophagus, suggest no significance between coffee intake and GERD symptoms. However, a more recent 2019 study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology does find a correlation between coffee and GERD symptoms, though it should be noted that this study was only performed on women.
When looking at the role coffee plays in digestion, research suggests that coffee does in fact affect esophageal function. Additionally, a 2022 review in Nature has found a link between coffee and an increase in gastric secretions (which, as a reminder, is what enters the esophagus to cause heartburn).
Besides relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter, Dr. Alexa Malchuk, MD, MPH, a physician at One Medical, explains that there are two other common reasons that coffee may cause heartburn.
“Coffee itself is acidic and may make it more challenging for the body to naturally neutralize acid,” notes Dr. Malchuk. “[Also], very often folks drink coffee in the morning, on an empty stomach.”
Do All Caffeinated Drinks Cause Heartburn?
If you experience heartburn after drinking coffee, the bad news is that you will likely experience it with other caffeinated drinks, too, which Dr. Choksi says is because the caffeine in the coffee is what relaxes that muscle in the esophagus. So, simply switching out your coffee for soda or a caffeinated tea isn’t likely to solve the problem.
“It is best to substitute caffeinated beverages—[such as] coffee, tea [and] soda—with water,” shares Dr. Malchuk. “This has been shown to reduce heartburn symptoms.”
Related: Does Water Help with Heartburn?
You may want to consider the type of coffee you are drinking, but again, any level of caffeine may trigger heartburn if it’s a trigger for you. Dr. Malchuk notes that light roasts do tend to have more caffeine content than dark roasts, for example. Recent research does suggest that cold brew has a lower acidity than hot coffee, however, researchers add that further studies are needed to narrow down the exact composition of each.
Is Heartburn Normal?
Experiencing occasional heartburn shouldn’t raise too many red flags; especially as there are a number of foods and drinks that can be triggers for heartburn. Dr. Choksi shares that some of the common ones include:
“Many people also find that spicy and greasy foods trigger their heartburn symptoms,” Dr. Choksi adds. “Cigarette smoking is also a well-known cause of reflux.”
It should be noted that food and beverages aren’t the only things that can cause acid reflux and heartburn. Dr. Choksi shares that anatomic abnormalities, such as a hiatal hernia, may cause worsening heartburn. Also, functional abnormalities, such as slow emptying of the stomach, may be a cause.
Related: 15 At-Home Remedies for Heartburn
“Habits such as eating late at night can stimulate acid production which can, in turn, reflux into your esophagus when you lie down,” explains Dr. Choksi. “I generally recommend those who have reflux wait three to four hours from the time you eat your last meal to the time you lie down. “
If you do notice you are experiencing heartburn frequently, you should visit a doctor to get tested for GERD. If diagnosed, you can discuss treatment options with your provider, as well as what food and drinks you may want to eliminate to help avoid worsening symptoms.
Next up, read up on even more common causes of heartburn.
National Coffee Association. “NCA releases Atlas of American Coffee.” Accessed 10/17/2022.
Argyrou A, Legaki E, Koutserimpas C, et al. Risk factors for gastroesophageal reflux disease and analysis of genetic contributors. World J Clin Cases. 2018;6(8):176-182.
National Library of Medicine. “Heartburn: What you need to know.” Accessed 10/17/2022.
Dr. Neel Choksi, MD, a gastroenterologist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.
Kim J, Oh SW, Myung SK, et al. Association between coffee intake and gastroesophageal reflux disease: a meta-analysis. Dis Esophagus. 2014;27(4):311-317.
Mehta RS, Song M, Staller K, Chan AT. Association Between Beverage Intake and Incidence of Gastroesophageal Reflux Symptoms. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2020;18(10):2226-2233.e4.
Lohsiriwat S, Puengna N, Leelakusolvong S. Effect of caffeine on lower esophageal sphincter pressure in Thai healthy volunteers. Dis Esophagus. 2006;19(3):183-188.
Nehlig A. Effects of Coffee on the Gastro-Intestinal Tract: A Narrative Review and Literature Update. Nutrients. 2022;14(2):399. Published 2022 Jan 17.
Dr. Alexa Malchuk, M.D., MPH, a physician at One Medical
Rao NZ, Fuller M. Acidity and Antioxidant Activity of Cold Brew Coffee. Sci Rep. 2018;8(1):16030. Published 2018 Oct 30.