Avoiding caffeine on an empty stomach has been swirling around social media due to its suggested impact on our hormones. Cortisol, which is the body’s “stress hormone” is an important hormone in our “fight or flight” response - and is necessary for acute stress situations (think running from a bear). However, chronically high cortisol can have negative effects on our sleep, mood, energy, and heart.2 These high levels of cortisol can be a result of stressful environments like work, relationships, and just living in a modern society.
Cortisol levels naturally increase in the morning when we wake up as a result of our sleep cycles, and some research suggests that caffeine can further increase this rise in cortisol - which as a result can cause consistently higher than ideal cortisol levels.2,3 However, there is sample research that also indicates that caffeine does not impact our cortisol enough to cause negative effects.3 At the end of the day, caffeine affects our bodies and hormones all differently. Some of us are more sensitive to the impact of caffeine, while others can drink cups with no side effects. Therefore, listening to your body is key. The FDA recommends <400mg of caffeine per day (which is about 4 cups) so if you find that you are anxious and jittery after that morning cup, try opting for decaf or waiting a few hours after breakfast to minimize the effects.4
My biggest piece of advice when discussing caffeine on an empty stomach is to actually forget about caffeine, and instead focus on ways that you can create an environment that supports healthy cortisol levels to minimize that chronic cortisol stress which negatively affects our health.
Based on research, a cup of coffee in the morning before breakfast does not seem like the factor that will send your health spiraling. Instead, try prioritizing these factors to help lower your internal stress and support your health from the inside out.
Sleep, sleep, sleep! Lack of sleep (7-9 hours of shut-eye is ideal) can disrupt our body's balance system (HPA axis), metabolism, and increase our cortisol levels. (1) When we are tired, we also gravitate towards artificial means of energy - like caffeine! Prioritizing sleep is one of the best things you can do to help restore your body, promote healthy cortisol levels, and keep your sleep cycle in rhythm!
Exercise! Exercise is a powerful way to reduce stress, promote positive mental benefits, and help you sleep better at night.5
A balanced, healthful diet! A nutritious diet loaded with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, and healthy fat is a must for overall health! Not only are vitamins and minerals an essential part to healthy hormone levels, these nutrients are pivotal in supporting our mental and physical health - which play a big role in optimal cortisol levels as well.6
While the timing of caffeine may not have a direct impact on cortisol, still prioritizing a nourishing breakfast that focuses on healthy fats and protein can help start your day off on the right foot - giving you the energy and stability you need for your day.
Breathe! Taking time to breathe and build our mind-body connection has been shown to positively impact our cortisol levels and help us control our response to stressors that are out of our control.7 Creating space for yourself and deep breathing can help you relax and naturally lower those cortisol levels.
Overall - one choice is not the defining factor for your overall health. Instead, it is the combination of lifestyle decisions you make that support optimal health and incorporating some of these cortisol-supportive tips can positively impact your day-to-day health routine.
- Emily LaBombard, MPH, RDN, LDN
Hirotsu C, Tufik S, Andersen ML. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Sci. 2015;8(3):143-152. doi:10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002
Papakonstantinou E, Kechribari I, Sotirakoglou Κ, et al. Acute effects of coffee consumption on self-reported gastrointestinal symptoms, blood pressure and stress indices in healthy individuals. Nutr J. 2016;15:26. Published 2016 Mar 15. doi:10.1186/s12937-016-0146-0
Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. [Updated 2022 Aug 29]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
Boston 677 HA, Ma 02115 +1495‑1000. Caffeine. The Nutrition Source. Published July 30, 2020. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/caffeine/#:~:text=%5B5%5D%20The%20U.S.%20Food%20and
Harvard Health Publishing. Exercising to relax. Harvard Health. Published July 7, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax
Soltani H, Keim NL, Laugero KD. Waking Salivary Cortisol Associated with Magnitude of Cholesterol Reduction in Women Fed a Healthy Whole-Food Diet for 8 Weeks. Curr Dev Nutr. 2022;6(5):nzac083. Published 2022 May 3. doi:10.1093/cdn/nzac083
Perciavalle V, Blandini M, Fecarotta P, et al. The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurol Sci. 2017;38(3):451-458. doi:10.1007/s10072-016-2790-8