When someone talks about addictive substances, certain beverages and items come to mind. Alcohol, methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine, heroin and nicotine in cigarettes may all top the list of addictive substances. But there is another substance – one that is legal, consumed daily by the average teenager and adult, sold on nearly every street corner, yet still recognized by the World Health Organization to be addictive: caffeine.
Anyone who drinks coffee on a semi-regular basis is likely to be subject to a barrage of well-meaning warnings centered around the adverse effects of coffee. It may cause dependency, stain your teeth, heighten anxiety, etc. Here’s one not often mentioned: coffee impacts gut health.
What Is Gut Health and Why Does It Matter?
Coffee isn’t the only drink that impacts gut health. There is a whole myriad of beverages that affect the gut’s well-being, for good or ill. But what exactly constitutes gut health, and why does it matter?
Located in the large intestine is an area called the cecum, home to over a thousand different types of bacteria, viruses and fungi. These microbes constitute the gut microbiome. As people age and are exposed to new foods and environments, their microbiome diversifies and becomes stronger. This microbe diversification has four primary health benefits.
Improves Gut Health
Studies have shown that an unhealthy or less diverse microbiome can adversely affect the gut, causing diseases like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and increased bloating and cramps. Conversely, a healthy microbiome (particularly one containing Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli bacteria present in yogurt) helps close gaps between cells in the intestinal wall and prevent leaky gut syndrome.
Helps Regulate the Immune System
In today’s day and age, when it seems that living with COVID-19 and all of its variants has become an ever-present reality, strengthening the immune system is essential. Microbes aid in communicating with immune cells, regulating the body’s response to infection.
Contributes to a Healthy Heart
While unsavory characters in the microbiome produce trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a chemical that increases the risk of heart attack or stroke by blocking arteries, other bacteria (such as Lactobacilli) have been shown to lower cholesterol.
Aids in Controlling Brain Health
Serotonin – colloquially referred to as the “happy chemical”, is a neurotransmitter that fights depression by boosting one’s mood, and is primarily made in the digestive tract. Protecting the microbes that help to produce serotonin can help protect mental health. Additionally, a healthy gut microbiome positively affects millions of nerves that connect the gut to the brain.
Drinks to Avoid
Through studying the different types of bacteria present in food and the microbiome, scientists have established a connection between what people drink and the health of their gut microbiome. Although it’s important to note that none of these drinks are likely to destroy your gut health when drunk in moderate amounts, here are four that may have adverse effects when consumed in significant quantities.
Though it may be heartbreaking to see a widely-consumed and beloved beverage on this list, coffee has regularly been linked to diarrhea and dehydration due to its tendency to increase “gut motility” (moving things down the gastrointestinal tract faster). Coffee can also worsen symptoms for people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.
A close relative of coffee due to its high caffeine concentration, energy drinks such as Reign and Redbull have similar adverse side effects: diarrhea, gastritis and inflammation. It can also worsen acid reflux.
Unsurprisingly, alcohol is also at the top of this list. In some cases, it exacerbates leaky gut syndrome by damaging intestinal wall cells. Alcohol is also particularly harmful to the delicate balance in the gut microbiome, killing good and necessary bacteria. This has many negative consequences, including digestive issues, weight changes, increased exhaustion and breakouts.
Besides having no nutritional value and sending dentists into fits, the sugar in soda prevents the production of a protein called Roc, which protects Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron. A study led by Yale and the National Institutes of Health found that the simple sugars glucose and fructose (both elements in the table sugar that ends up in sodas) halts the creation of Roc, which in turn prevents the successful colonization of B. theta. Deprived of B. theta, the digestive system struggles to process fiber-rich foods like vegetables.
Unfortunately, diet soda isn’t necessarily much better where gut health is concerned – studies have shown that the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas throw off the microbial balance in the gut by killing off E. coli.
Drinks That Bolster Your Gut Microbiome
If you’re looking to go above and beyond by not only avoiding excessive consumption of these harmful drinks but also adding some beneficial beverages to your daily routine, here are three you might like to start with:
It turns out the most widely naturally occurring beverage is also one of the best for your health! Besides boosting hydration, water helps maintain a balanced microbiome. Alkaline water can be particularly helpful as it promotes the development of probiotics.
This fermented drink is commonly found at most supermarkets, and like other fermented beverages, it contains many healthy probiotics. These probiotics can help treat and prevent gastrointestinal issues, have positive mental effects and aid in weight management.
Although tea is also a source of caffeine, certain types of tea can help improve gut health. For example, ginger is commonly used to increase the health of the gastrointestinal tract, making ginger tea perfect for digestive issues. Ginger is also a prebiotic, essentially serving as a source of nutrition for healthy bacteria.
One should be wary of high quantities of caffeine, alcohol and sugar in a daily beverage, opting instead for water and drinks containing prebiotics and probiotics to keep your gut happy and healthy.