Coffee: An IBS Trigger I (Eventually) Left Behind

My IBS first surfaced when I was mid-way through college. At the time, coffee had become my greatest vice and savior. It was that crucial something that helped me power through the long days of classes, multiple part-time jobs, and the frequent all-nighters I needed to pull off to complete research papers and projects. Without coffee, I don’t know if I would have made it through university at that time, much less managed to make it onto honor roll most semesters. As my parents weren’t paying for my education, I needed to work my way through school, and as such, sleep became a luxury rather than a right.

Stubborn about my coffee

However, knowing what I know now about IBS and its common triggers, it is no surprise that my first serious bout with IBS struck when I was in college and downing several cups of coffee every day and night (nor is it a surprise it happened when I was also getting limited sleep and on a diet of substandard cafeteria food). Still, even when I became aware that coffee was bad for IBS, I was reluctant to give up the trigger. So instead, I scaled back when I could, usually to one cup a day, occasionally skipping days here and there when that was an option (meaning, no term paper due the next day). My IBS did calm down somewhat, at least to a point that seemed semi-manageable for awhile, so I didn’t see my health as an incentive to completely forego my greatest habit. Yet, the summer after I completed college, my IBS flared so badly that I was constantly ill for months on end. I still was stubborn about my coffee and refused to give it up, relishing my morning joe even as my intestines felt like they were tied in triple knots for hours afterwards.

It wasn’t until the following fall came around and I moved into a new place where my new roommate convinced me to kick the coffee habit that I decided to give it a go. She had been hospitalized for her own GI issues at one point and the doctors had told her coffee consumption was a big culprit. I adopted her method, which was switching to black tea instead. Because I was used to a lot of caffeine intake, I double-bagged my tea cup the first few months to prevent caffeine withdrawal and companion migraines. I then gradually weaned down to one bag per cup, and then to only having one cup of tea per day. While tea also can be an IBS trigger, it wasn’t as strong a one as coffee was for me, and definitely was less harsh on my sensitive system overall. I still drank coffee, but only once or twice a week as opposed to daily. From there, I went down to only having coffee a couple of times a month as a treat for myself. Now, I only have it a couple of times a year, if at all. And while I won’t lie and say I didn’t miss it badly those first few years, I rarely do anymore.

Kicking the habit

In the past five years, I switched from regular to organic black tea and then from there, to decaffeinated organic tea–as caffeine also exacerbates not only IBS but endometriosis as well (which in my case, compounds my IBS). Organic methods of decaffeinating tea do not use the harsh chemicals mainstream decaffeinating methods use (and as a sidenote, switching to decaf coffee can have limited to no impact on IBS as all coffee beans contain an enzyme that is a known GI irritant, which can also be an IBS irritant.1-3 Some days, especially if my stomach is already feeling sensitive, I opt for a gentle herbal tea like chamomile rather than black tea. I also no longer use dairy in my tea, but organic almond or rice milk instead, which I believe also helps decrease GI irritation. Sometimes, when I miss the taste of coffee, I will have an herbal coffee as an alternative. There are several brands that taste very close to real thing and, mixed with almond or coconut milk creamer, can be as rich as any cup of coffee I have had, yet without the stomach upset or the jittery, wired-feeling that follows. It’s also nice not to have the hard crashes that accompany coming down from a caffeine high anymore.

Sometimes, you don’t realize how much something was messing with your body and how much better you feel without it, until you give yourself quite a bit of time to completely detox and then acclimate. While it took years to completely kick my coffee habit, my IBS is so much more manageable now than it used to be. When I really weigh the short-term enjoyment of a cup of coffee with the long-term relief of not suffering incessant intestinal cramping or constant fear of leaving my house and being away from a bathroom, it really is ultimately no contest.

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