If your tummy doesn’t feel so great following a meal, you may have heard that a bit of caffeine might be able to get *things* moving along. But does after-dinner coffee actually help your gut digest your last meal of the day… or might it do more harm than good for your gut (as well as other aspects of your health)?
Below, with the help of Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, of Real Nutrition in New York City, we’ll cover the pros and cons of drinking coffee after dinner.
How drinking coffee after dinner impacts digestion
Whether you opt for coffee in the morning, afternoon, or at night, you’ll generally experience speedier digestion. “This is because caffeine is a stimulant that increases gut motility and peristalsis which promotes elimination,” Shapiro says. “It also stimulates the production of digestive hormones, which promote the digestion of food in the stomach.”
You might already be familiar with coffee’s ability to bring digestive action to life, especially if you head to the bathroom to pass a BM shortly after finishing your first cup of joe at breakfast. According to Shapiro, the same mechanisms apply to drinking coffee after dinner—so yes, doing so can very well help your gut’s ability to digest your nighttime meal.
“Since coffee helps with the production of gastrin, hydrochloric acid, and bile, it will help to break down food in the stomach—including proteins and fats,” says Shapiro. (Ideally, you’ll be building a balanced plate with these macros plus complex carbs, some of which may include a colorful variety of plant-based goodies.) “Also, as coffee stimulates the muscles in the gut, it will increase motility, assisting digestion and moving food through the GI tract,” she says. The end result: less time to digest your food and faster relief in the form of a satisfying bowel movement.
Is post-dinner coffee suitable for everyone?
To start, let’s cover who may be best served by sipping on post-dinner java. “Individuals who are slower digesters or have slower motility, those who have time to sit after dinner, and those who want to stay up and stay out later may benefit from drinking coffee after dinner,” Shapiro says. If you feel sluggish after a big meal, she adds that coffee can put more pep in your step while stimulating digestion, allowing you to feel more energized and help keep feelings of heaviness at bay. Of course, you may also be in this camp if you already take to coffee well, don’t experience GI distress from it, and don’t struggle to catch your ZZZ’s with that extra caffeine in your system after the sun sets.
On the flip side, there are some people for whom it may be better to lay off coffee after dinner… or perhaps at any time of day, for that matter. “Individuals who are very regular or have diarrhea, have a hard time sleeping, and those who suffer from stress and anxiety may want to avoid it,” Shapiro says. “Plus, if you are sensitive to caffeine, you may want to consider avoiding it as it can interrupt your sleep.”
Digestion and sleep hygiene aside, Shapiro calls out one more important fact to consider. “Coffee can inhibit the absorption of iron, so if you are low in iron, you may want to avoid it at mealtimes,” she says. Since a 2021 study published in Lancet Haematology suggests that about 17 percent of premenopausal women are considered iron-deficient under new thresholds, it’s worth testing your levels to ensure that you’re not lacking this mineral—and that your coffee habits aren’t standing in the way of your intake.
4 tips to drink your way to better digestion after dinner
On a parting note, Shapiro shares a few final tips to sip your way to better digestion after dinner, whether you opt for coffee or another hot bev of choice:
1. Start small with espresso. “Ordering espresso is often recommended since it isn’t a lot of liquid, so it won’t make you even more full,” says Shapiro.
2. Take your coffee black. The RD notes that skipping on milk and creamers can also help to avoid potential GI discomfort.
3. Try out decaf. If you’re trying to cut back on coffee for whatever reason but like the digestive perks it offers, Shapiro says that decaf—which still contains a bit of stimulating caffeine—will make for a worthy substitute.
4. Enjoy another warm post-dinner drink. “For those who want to stop drinking coffee, you can try herbal tea or my personal favorite: hot water with lemon. These drinks help you to digest… and they feel elegant, too,” Shapiro adds.