I am so excited for you to read my brand new book, The Inflammation Spectrum. You will discover how inflammation is at the core of most common health woes and exists on a continuum: from mild symptoms such as weight gain and fatigue on one end, to hormone imbalance and autoimmune conditions on the other. How you feel is constantly and dynamically being influenced by every meal. Every food you eat is either feeding inflammation or fighting it. Because no one else is you, the foods that work well for someone else may not be right for your body. At heart, The Inflammation Spectrum is about learning to love your body enough to nourish it with delicious, healing foods. Its insightful quizzes and empowering advice will put you on a path toward food freedom and overall healing. Learn more here.
If you’re a coffee-lover, you may have noticed that scientists can’t seem to make up their minds about whether caffeine is healthy or not. You might be frustrated to see a headline saying “Caffeine is good for you!” only to see a headline—sometimes the very next day—claiming the exact opposite. There’s a ton of research on coffee and tea, but many of the studies on the benefits of caffeine directly contradict each other.
Confusing, isn’t it?
This problem extends to our knowledge on the effects of caffeine on inflammation. One day, it’s on the list of anti-inflammatory ingredients and the next day, one of your favorite wellness experts is telling you to cut it out of your diet.
Should you avoid caffeine, or not? To answer that question, we have to dive deep into the relationship between caffeine and inflammation, starting with how caffeine interacts with the body.
How caffeine works in the body
More than 60 different plants (1) contain caffeine, which comes in the form of a bitter, white substance. Caffeine acts as a natural stimulant and the FDA has it listed as both a food and a drug.
Caffeine affects the body in more ways than one, but it’s probably most famous for interacting with a group of receptors, called adenosine receptors. It’s through its activation of adenosine receptors that caffeine affects brain functions, which include “functions such as sleep, cognition, learning, and memory,” according to a study published in 2010. (2)
Essentially, caffeine attaches itself to adenosine receptors and prevents adenosine—the neurochemical famous for making you sleepy (3)—from doing its job. The result? You feel more awake and alert. Studies, like one (4) published in Nature Medicine, suggest that blocking adenosine may also block pathways that produce inflammatory molecules.
So, does caffeine decrease inflammation?
Understanding the caffeine-inflammation connection
As I mentioned before, answering the question “Does caffeine trigger inflammation, or fight it?” is no easy feat. That’s because research shows that caffeine-containing beverages like coffee can have either pro- or anti-inflammatory effects (5), depending on the person drinking the caffeine.
For example, a 2019 systematic review (6) evaluating the effects of caffeine on inflammatory markers showed that interleukin 6, a common inflammatory marker, was increased by caffeine in three out of five studies. Meanwhile, one out of three trials found that caffeine decreased C-reactive protein levels. The authors conclude that “the pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses to caffeine point to its complex effects on the inflammatory response.”
So why does caffeine seem to affect everyone so differently? There are a few reasons for this—including liver function and gut and mental health status—but a good part of the explanation lies in our DNA; more specifically, with a gene called CYP1A2. Also known as the “caffeine gene,” CYP1A2 determines how quickly (or slowly), we metabolize caffeine.
Getting to know CYP1A2
We inherit one copy of CYP1A2 from our mom and one from our dad. If you have two of the fast variants of the gene, you—like 40% of the population(7)—are a fast caffeine metabolizer. If you have one fast and one slow copy, you’re a medium caffeine metabolizer (this group makes up about 45 percent of the population). You’re a slow caffeine metabolizer if you have two slow versions of the gene, which applies to about 15 percent of us.
If you’re a slow metabolizer you’re more likely to feel (8) jittery and anxious after coffee, and for you, regular consumption is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and digestive disorders. Meanwhile, if you’re a fast caffeine metabolizer, consuming caffeine is associated with positive benefits such as increased longevity, a better mood, and a lower risk for cancer (you can read all about the ins and outs of the caffeine gene here). Knowing this, it will come as no surprise that I advise my slow caffeine metabolizing patients to cut down on caffeine or eliminate it entirely.
So how do you test to see what type of caffeine metabolizer you are? It’s included in most genetic tests, such as 23andMe and FitnessGenes. Once you know what type of caffeine metabolizer you are, you can make smarter choices about your caffeine consumption since the health effects of caffeine—including whether or not it fights inflammation or contributes to it—are dramatically different depending on your metabolizer status.
The best-caffeinated beverages to fight inflammation
Ready for the last piece of the puzzle? Caffeine isn’t typically consumed in isolation, so we also have to consider the health benefits of the specific type of caffeinated beverage you’re drinking.
If you’re a coffee-lover, there’s good news. According to the Harvard Health Blog (9), coffee contains polyphenols and other anti-inflammatory compounds that protect our bodies against chronic inflammation. The same is true for tea, as studies have also shown that different types of tea, including black, green, and oolong teas, have inflammation-fighting properties. Fun fact, green tea is thought to be the healthiest type of tea (10) because of its higher levels of catechins—aka, polyphenols with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (11)—than other types of tea.
But not all caffeinated beverages will have anti-inflammatory health benefits. Energy drinks and sodas are full of sugar, preservatives, chemicals, and artificial colors that can actually trigger inflammation—regardless of whether you’re a slow or fast caffeine metabolizer.
If you’re a fast caffeine metabolizer, some of my favorite healthy caffeinated beverages include organic black coffee blended with MCT oil, Earl grey tea with steamed almond milk (unsweetened, of course!), and an iced matcha with coconut milk and cinnamon. If you’re a slow caffeine metabolizer, try opting for caffeine-free options like herbal teas, rooibos tea, or a golden milk latte.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.
- Willson, Cyril. “The Clinical Toxicology of Caffeine: A Review and Case Study.” Toxicology Reports 5 (November 3, 2018): 1140–52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.toxrep.2018.11.002.
- Ribeiro, Joaquim A., and Ana M. Sebastião. “Caffeine and Adenosine.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease: JAD 20 Suppl 1 (2010): S3–15. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-2010-1379.
- Bjorness, Theresa E, and Robert W Greene. “Adenosine and Sleep.” Current Neuropharmacology 7, no. 3 (September 2009): 238–45. https://doi.org/10.2174/157015909789152182.
- Furman, David, Junlei Chang, Lydia Lartigue, Christopher R Bolen, François Haddad, Brice Gaudilliere, Edward A Ganio, et al. “Expression of Specific Inflammasome Gene Modules Stratifies Older Individuals into Two Extreme Clinical and Immunological States.” Nature Medicine 23 (January 16, 2017): 174.
- Muqaku, Besnik, Ammar Tahir, Philip Klepeisz, Andrea Bileck, Dominique Kreutz, Rupert L. Mayer, Samuel M. Meier, Marlene Gerner, Klaus Schmetterer, and Christopher Gerner. “Coffee Consumption Modulates Inflammatory Processes in an Individual Fashion.” Molecular Nutrition & Food Research 60, no. 12 (2016): 2529–41. https://doi.org/10.1002/mnfr.201600328.
- Paiva, Clrs, Bts Beserra, Ceg Reis, J. G. Dorea, Thm Da Costa, and A. A. Amato. “Consumption of Coffee or Caffeine and Serum Concentration of Inflammatory Markers: A Systematic Review.” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 59, no. 4 (2019): 652–63. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2017.1386159.
- ANAHAD O’CONNOR. “For Coffee Drinkers, the Buzz May Be in Your Genes,” n.d. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/for-coffee-drinkers-the-buzz-may-be-in-your-genes/.
- Winston AP, Hardwick E, Jaberi N. Neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 2005;11:432–9.
- Harvard Women’s Health Watch. “Foods That Fight Inflammation,” November 7, 2018.
- Wu AH, Yu MC. Tea, hormone-related cancers and endogenous hormone levels. Molecular Nutrition and Food Research 2006; 50(2):160–169.
- Trekli, M, D Buttle, and F Guesdon. “Anti-Inflammatory Actions of Green Tea Catechins and Ligands of Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptors.” International Journal of Experimental Pathology 85, no. 4 (August 2004): A75. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0959-9673.2004.390ap.x.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body. We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.
Our articles may include products that have been independently chosen and recommended by Dr. Will Cole and our editors. If you purchase something mentioned in this article, we may earn a small commission.