When you live with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), avoiding foods that trigger symptoms is part of daily life. Coffee has a reputation as a bowel stimulant, but the link between coffee and IBS isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.

IBS describes a cluster of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms regularly seen together, including abdominal pain and changes in bowel movements, such as diarrhea, constipation, or both. Other common symptoms include bloating and a feeling that you haven’t finished a bowel movement.

IBS is a functional GI disorder, meaning it isn’t caused by damage or structural abnormalities in your GI tract. Issues with the communication pathway between your brain and your digestive system, also known as your gut-brain axis, can cause symptoms.

Managing IBS often means making lifestyle changes, taking medication, and monitoring your dietary intake. Certain foods can trigger IBS, and doctors often recommend following a special diet called the low FODMAP diet.

Coffee, a beverage renowned as a bowel stimulant, might seem like it naturally makes the list of foods to avoid with IBS. While it’s true that coffee can stimulate the muscles of your colon, a growing body of research suggests coffee may not be as contraindicated as once thought.

Coffee can be a trigger of IBS.

Coffee and some of its ingredients, like caffeine, stimulate the GI tract in a variety of ways. Coffee can trigger muscle activity in the colon, creating an urge to eliminate your bowels. It also increases the secretion of gastric acid, which can lead to stomach aches and pain.

According to a 2021 study, people who consume higher amounts of caffeine are more likely to have alterations in the gut microbiome associated with IBS.

These effects can all compound IBS symptoms, especially if you’re hypersensitive to certain ingredients like caffeine.

This doesn’t mean everyone with IBS should avoid coffee, however. In fact, you can drink coffee on the low FODMAP diet, a special diet used in IBS management.

The low FODMAP diet, which stands for low fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols, avoids specific carbohydrates known to cause GI symptoms.

When it comes to universal recommendations about drinking coffee with IBS — the verdict is still out. Coffee’s role remains a topic of debate, with conflicting results across research.

A 2021 cross-sectional study, for example, found coffee and caffeine intake were associated with an increased risk of IBS across the entire study population of more than 3,000 Iranian adults.

A 2023 systematic review and meta-analysis, on the other hand, found, that out of more than 400,000 participants, coffee drinkers had a reduced likelihood of IBS compared with non-coffee drinkers.

Similar results were noted in a large-scale prospective cohort study from 2023, which concluded any amount of coffee consumption (0.5 cups to more than 4 cups) was associated with a lower risk of IBS.

How does coffee affect constipation-prominent IBS?

The colonic stimulant effects of coffee may be less impactful if you live with IBS-C, or IBS predominantly featuring constipation.

According to a 2024 cross-sectional study, high caffeine intake is associated with lower odds of constipation due to its ability to regulate motor dysfunction in the colon and disturbances in your colonic microbiota. In other words, consuming caffeine may improve constipation.

Before adding coffee to your routine to manage IBS constipation, it’s important to consider other symptoms of IBS. It’s possible to experience constipation and diarrhea, even with IBS-C. Adding coffee to manage constipation may help one type of bowel complaint while aggravating another.

Speaking with your doctor before adding coffee to your routine for IBS-C can help you weigh the benefits and risks.

Living with IBS doesn’t automatically exclude coffee from your diet. Coffee is a low FODMAP food, which means it may be fine in moderation for some people with IBS.

Understanding your food triggers is important when deciding on food choices. The ability to drink coffee will depend on your reactions. If you notice IBS symptoms after drinking coffee, it may be best to avoid it.

You can explore your sensitivity range by keeping a food journal. This can help you identify which types of coffee affect you the most or if coffee additives, like creamer, contribute to symptoms.

Without an expert consensus on consuming coffee when you have IBS, it’s impossible to say which type of coffee is safest or most suitable.

Ultimately, the best type of coffee is the one that doesn’t aggravate your symptoms.

In the large-scale prospective cohort study from 2023, instant coffee and ground coffee were particularly associated with a lower risk of IBS.

If you love the flavor and ritual of brewing coffee, finding an alternative can be challenging. Many commercial coffee alternatives strive to mimic the flavor, but you might also consider trying:

  • Warm golden milk: a mixture of milk, honey, vanilla, and spices like turmeric
  • Rooibos tea: a naturally caffeine-free tea made from the leaves of the Aspalathus linearis plant
  • Roasted grain drinks: coffee-like hot drinks made from roasted grains like barley or chicory
  • Spiced cider: a hot apple cider made with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, or other spices
  • Herbal chai: beverages made from an herbal alternative to the traditional black tea base

However, it’s important to be aware that your body may not respond well to these alternatives either. For instance, milk, spices, and apples may also be foods you want to avoid when living with IBS. Every person is different, and determining your food triggers is essential.

What about decaffeinated coffee?

If caffeine is what brings on your IBS symptoms, decaffeinated coffee may be a suitable alternative.

However, caffeine is just one ingredient in coffee that can affect the GI tract. If you’re sensitive to other ingredients, you might need to cross decaffeinated coffee off your list.

IBS features a cluster of GI symptoms related to your bowel habits. Abdominal pain, bloating, feelings of fullness, and changes in bowel movements, such as constipation, diarrhea, or both, are common experiences.

The relationship between coffee and IBS isn’t fully understood. Coffee may aggravate IBS symptoms in some people but not others, and recent research suggests coffee may have protective features against IBS development.

Adding or eliminating coffee from your diet depends on your symptoms and doctor’s recommendations.