The Great Coffee Debate

Last updated: April 2022

"I Don't Drink Coffee. Should I Start?" is the headline of an article I just read in The New York Times' "Health" section, written by a non-coffee drinker who is wondering if he should start guzzling cups of delicious caffeine like the rest of us. And so follows the debate: Is coffee good or bad for you? I don't know. Nobody seems to really know for sure. I feel like there's always some study coming out in the news about how coffee is either good OR bad, depending on the week or day. I may be exaggerating a bit on the frequency of this, but I do feel like the public is often given contradictory information regarding the health benefits and risks of this mass-consumed beverage. Personally, I feel my own health is invested in the debate because 1.) I'm a daily coffee drinker, and 2.) I have a suspicion that coffee may make my RA worse.

I'm drinking my first cup of coffee (with a little skim milk and a teaspoon of sugar, I admit) of the morning as I write this article, actually. Also as I write, I'm still currently taking prednisone daily, which does not make me happy. It's a low dose, 7 mg, as I keep attempting to taper all the way down and off the drug from being on 30 mg last July. It's been a slow, complicated process, with many setbacks.

Does coffee increase my flare frequency?

During these months since my major flare-up last summer, I have been drinking coffee fairly regularly, while especially increasing my consumption once I started substitute teaching again in September. I often wonder: Does all of this coffee (and added milk and sugar) have anything to do with continued small flare-ups and my inability to get off of  the dreaded prednisone? I've tried to cut down on coffee, but when you're on your feet teaching a class of noisy, wild, and often obnoxious kids all day, it's difficult to not have. I need to try harder though, I know.

So what makes me suspect that coffee might play a part in my RA flare-ups? It's usually very hard for me to determine if any food I eat affects my RA, unlike some people who can see clear connections with food and the disease. However, I have noticed a pattern over the years (I think), when I've started working at different administrative/office temporary jobs.

Noticing the patterns

As soon as I would start working in this 8-5 pm office environment, I would immediately begin gulping down coffee and Diet Coke all day--usually to try to stave off boredom and fatigue. Coincidentally(?), I've noticed having significant flare-ups at some point when working at these jobs. Is it the coffee? The Diet Coke? Stress from the job? It's hard to say, but I do think there's possibly a pattern there. Who knows. RA drives me crazy with its unpredictability and confusing, nonsensical behavior. Finding clear answers for how RA affects your own body is one of the biggest challenges of living with the disease.

Are there health benefits?

Let's get back to the coffee debate. According to The New York Timesarticle, 64% of Americans drink at least one cup a day, and many support the studies that claim there are health benefits to drinking coffee. As stated in the article, a recent review of studies found that greater coffee consumption was linked to a decrease in the risk of liver cirrhosis. More studies claim it's linked to other health benefits: reducing tinnitus risk, reducing melanoma risk, surviving colon cancer, and living longer, among others. Click on the links in the article for more information about these claims.

The aforementioned health benefits plus the nice buzz of energy one gets from a strong cup (or two) of coffee sounds great. So why are we debating this? Well, coffee and caffeine have some downsides. One that I've personally experienced is increased anxiety symptoms: shakiness, jitters, higher anxiety levels. Insomnia can also be a negative side effect of coffee consumption, due to the caffeine. The article mentions heartburn as a possible coffee side effect, something I'm also familiar with, unfortunately. In fact, I've suffered from terrible stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and heartburn from gastritis, which I believe was partly due to drinking a lot of coffee (along with Diet Coke). Coffee, sadly, seems to be hard on the stomach.

RA, inflammation, and coffee

Back to coffee's connection to RA and inflammation: Is there one? I just tried googling to see if I could find any articles supporting an RA-coffee link, however I couldn't find anything from major news sources. One article from Harvard University ("What is it About Coffee?") went at length to describe the positive effects of coffee on reducing the risks of getting certain diseases: Alzheimer's, cancer, liver disease, diabetes, to name a few. A Reuters article from July 2015 ("Coffee Drinking May Lower Inflammation, Reduce Diabetes Risk") claims coffee reduces inflammation. But what about RA and other inflammatory diseases? I'm still confused.

Is it worth it?

Again, personally I think I've experienced more negative effects from coffee than positive ones. And I just have this hunch that coffee has something to do with some of my RA flare-ups. I'm interested to hear from others with RA if and how drinking coffee has affected their joints and the progression of their disease. I can't be alone in this, right? Please tell me your coffee stories! And, if there's a Giving-Up-Coffee support group out there somewhere, please send that info to me as well. In my heart (and joints) I know I need to give up this delicious, energizing friend I rely on every morning. It won't be easy, but my body will probably thank me for it.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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