Does Coffee Cause Inflammation?

Drinking coffee can provide surprising health benefits, but when it comes to inflammation, it depends. Here's what the latest science says.

Does coffee cause inflammation?

Americans’ long-lasting love affair with drinking coffee shows no signs of ending. According to a 2020 survey conducted by the National Coffee Association, coffee consumption is up 5 percent since 2015, with 62 percent of Americans indulging daily. The average coffee lover now drinks more than three cups of coffee every day. Science swings back and forth on the health benefits of coffee but lately, seems to be more in favor of java than not.

The weight of the evidence today indicates less harm and more good from a cuppa Joe, says Melissa Ann Prest, a doctor of clinical nutrition and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Several studies have suggested that coffee may be associated with a reduced mortality, including a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. And some of these benefits may be from coffee’s anti-inflammatory properties. (This is what happens to your body when you drink coffee every day.)

Here’s what you need to know about coffee and its effects on inflammation in the body.

What is inflammation?

After an insect bite or another injury, you may notice some swelling and redness around the site.

That’s inflammation, which is caused by your immune system sending specialized blood cells to fight the threat, explains Sameer Arora, MD, a cardiology fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A similar process can happen inside your body.

If there’s a real threat, that’s a good thing. But if the immune system is chronically in overdrive (maybe due to an unhealthy diet, not enough sleep, or stress), it can lead to cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and more.

You can help fight inflammation by fixing any bad habits, but adding certain foods and beverages to your diet can also help. Those include leafy green vegetables like spinach, fatty fish like salmon, and, yes, coffee. (Learn about signs of inflammation in your body.)

Antioxidants and polyphenols in coffee

Coffee contains inflammation-fighting antioxidants, the same compounds that make fruits and vegetables so good for you.

“Antioxidants help protect cells against damage,” says Prest. And especially damage caused by free radicals. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant that may bind to LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and boost heart health, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Free radicals are unstable molecules in your body that oxidize and can cause cell damage which, in turn, can contribute to heart disease, cancer, type diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and other woes.

“Any food items that contain antioxidants counteract that process,” says Sharon Zarabi, RD, program director of bariatric surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

woman getting coffeeMStudioImages/Getty Images

The downside of coffee

Depending on your body’s sensitivity and how much you drink, java can have a downside. There is, of course, the issue of insomnia which is why experts advise you to avoid coffee or other caffeinated beverages late at night.

And the jitters may make coffee unwise for people who have Parkinson’s or tremors caused by something else, says Dr. Arora. Coffee may also aggravate heartburn, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

You can also end up with fatigue, especially if you drink too much coffee. “Then you’re pumping out a bunch of adrenaline and cortisol which puts you in panic mode and causes stress,” explains Zarabi. “Inflammation is the body’s response to stress.

Coffee and your heart

People are often concerned about whether coffee may damage your heart. It can, after all, speed up your heartbeat. Good news.

“The consensus is that coffee in moderate amounts is definitely not harmful to cardiovascular health,” says Dr. Arora. “In fact, two-to-three cups a day is generally cardiovascular healthy.” It can boost your blood pressure temporarily, but there’s no indication this is long-lasting, he adds.

Inflammation plays a role in heart disease, which is the No. 1 killer of Americans. In particular, it contributes to atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries which causes blood-vessel blockages and potentially heart attacks and strokes. (Learn about the symptoms of clogged arteries.)

The best brew

There are as many ways to prepare coffee as there are actual types of coffee beans. What’s the healthiest? According to an April study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, that would be filtered brew, which was linked with a lower mortality rate than unfiltered coffee, as long as you stayed below five cups a day.

The authors speculate that there are more antioxidants in filtered coffee. So steam your coffee through a paper filter and forego the French press. (Also, avoid these coffee myths.)

And think twice before you start adding cream and sugar.

“Once you start pouring heaping spoonfuls of creamer and sugar, these are pro-inflammatory,” says Zarabi. They can also add to your waistline which just means more inflammation.

So, coffee can help reduce inflammation, yet it can also cause inflammation in some people depending on health choices and other individual variables.

Next, read about surprising health benefits of coffee.

Sources

Amanda Gardner
Amanda Gardner is a freelance health reporter whose stories have appeared in cnn.com, health.com, cnn.com, WebMD, HealthDay, Self Magazine, the New York Daily News, Teachers & Writers Magazine, the Foreign Service Journal, AmeriQuests (Vanderbilt University) and others. In 2009, she served as writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is also a community artist and recipient or partner in five National Endowment for the Arts grants.