Coffee vs. Tea

Perhaps you’re used to kick-starting your morning with a cup of coffee or winding down in the evening with a steaming mug of tea. Can these beverages cause heartburn or other symptoms of acid reflux? Can they lead to the more chronic problem of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)?

One factor that can lead to reflux action is the type of foods and beverages that you consume. This is because certain substances irritate the esophagus or weaken the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which prevents the backward flow of stomach contents and can cause reflux.

If you suffer from GERD, you may consider limiting your consumption of both coffee and tea, as both relax the LES. However, some studies have suggested distinctions between the effects of coffee and tea and the many types. Here’s what you need to know.

The Effects of Caffeine on GERD

Caffeine—a major component of many varieties of both coffee and tea—has been identified as a common trigger for heartburn. However, some research suggests that it’s not quite that simple. Studies on the effect of caffeine on GERD have yielded mixed results.

A study published in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics noted that, while coffee and tea have been commonly believed to cause gastroesophageal reflux, the actual effects of the two beverages previously hadn’t been determined. Therefore, the study aimed to evaluate coffee and tea-induced reflux before and after a decaffeination process. Researchers then compare the results with the effects of water and caffeinated water. 

The study found that drinking regular (caffeinated) coffee led to significant reflux effects when compared to tap water and caffeinated tea. On the other hand, drinking caffeinated tea had effects on reflux symptoms comparable to the effects of drinking water. Decaffeination of coffee significantly reduced reflux symptoms, while decaffeination of tea had no such effect.

The study’s authors concluded that while caffeinated coffee increases reflux—an effect that is less pronounced after decaffeination—the same couldn’t be said of caffeinated tea. Therefore, because caffeine doesn’t seem to be responsible for reflux, the symptoms must be attributable to other components of coffee.

However, a Stanford University study that appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine evaluated medical reports published on heartburn from 1975 to 2004. Researchers found no scientific evidence to support the idea that eliminating coffee helps to avoid reflux. Another study published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology also found caffeinated coffee to have no significant effect on acid reflux in either GERD patients or people without GERD.

To Avoid or Indulge?

With the jury still out about caffeine’s effects on reflux, it can be difficult to know whether GERD patients should avoid coffee or tea.

Some evidence suggests that going decaf may help coffee drinkers avoid reflux symptoms. A study published in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics concluded that drinking decaffeinated coffee rather than regular coffee can decrease reflux in patients with GERD.

The relationship between tea and GERD is similarly debated. While some medical centers, including the Cleveland Clinic, recommend avoiding tea to avoid heartburn, there is a fair amount of evidence that suggests tea doesn’t cause reflux. Research published in the journal Gut reported that neither tea nor coffee appear to be risk factors for GERD. Another study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology also found that tea didn’t influence reflux and found drinking coffee to have only a mild association with reflux.

Conclusion

There are a few caveats. While the majority of studies have focused on black (caffeinated) tea, some types of herbal teas are in fact associated with GERD symptoms. For example, peppermint and spearmint may cause heartburn—while using the enteric coated tablet form of dried peppermint extract can actually help ease heartburn.

The lack of consensus in the scientific and medical community about the effects of coffee versus tea on GERD symptoms suggests that knowing your personal tolerance for these beverages is your best bet. If you’re uncertain about whether or not to avoid coffee, tea, or both, talk to your doctor. They can help you identify your individual triggers for GERD.