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Is drinking coffee on an empty stomach bad for you? Nutritionists weigh in

It feels so good to sip from that first cup of coffee in the morning, but are you actually harming your body if you drink it on an empty stomach?
/ Source: TODAY

It feels so good to sip from that first eye-opening, life-restoring cup of coffee in the morning, but are you actually harming your body if you drink it on an empty stomach?

Some reports say yes, claiming the habit could boost acid production in your belly, causing indigestion and heartburn, and amplify the feelings of jitteriness and anxiety.

That may be worrisome if you routinely reach for the dark brew without necessarily eating something first. So we asked two experts to clarify: NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor Madelyn Fernstrom; and Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute and a TODAY contributor.

As with many things, it’s not the same for everyone. Much of your response to coffee depends on your health history.

"This is a personal choice. Each person must decide if the early morning coffee on an empty stomach works for them," Fernstrom said. "It works for some people, and not others. What's most important is to know your own body."

The acid factor:

The issue is two-fold, Fernstrom said: Acid is naturally found in coffee; plus, the beverage can stimulate the production of acid in your stomach. People who have reflux or heartburn are most vulnerable to the effects.

If you have no issues and a single cup of coffee does not promote symptoms, then it’s fine to drink it on an empty stomach, Fernstrom said.

If symptoms do occur, coffee is best to avoid. Caffeine content is unrelated to acid content, so switching to decaf won’t have an impact. You may want to try a low-acid coffee like TruCup, which can help.

Or you may want to try eating a bite first. Any time there’s something in the stomach, it will help to reduce symptoms from foods that may be irritants, Kirkpatrick said. Some of her patients tolerate coffee just fine, while others tell her it "tears up their stomach" and they avoid it.

“I don't think there is enough data to make a population-wide declaration to stop making your first cup of coffee in the morning. For individuals who tolerate it fine, there’s no need to limit,” Kirkpatrick said.

What to know about jitteriness:

Most people who choose to drink a cup of coffee — whether on an empty stomach or not — don’t experience jitters or nervousness, Fernstrom said. A large cup of joe is typically way under the 300-400 mg limit recommendation for a safe amount of daily caffeine.

Some people are caffeine-sensitive, meaning even a small amount of caffeine promotes these negative effects. In that case, decrease the amount of java you drink or skip it all together.

Genes play a large role in the jitteriness and nervousness factor. Variants in a gene called CYP1A2 can have an impact on how quickly or slowly you metabolize — or clear the system of — caffeine.

Bottom line:

Coffee is probably the greatest source of antioxidants for people around the world and there are many studies that indicate numerous health benefits of coffee consumption.

That said, pay attention to how it feels for you.

“I tell my patients, with all foods, to listen to their bodies. That is the best way to determine if something like coffee will work with you,” Kirkpatrick said.

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