Do Coffee, Sugar, Alcohol, and Dairy Cause Inflammation?

woman reaching for cocktail in rocks glass on table

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Inflammation can absolutely be painful—but it is also common, especially when it comes to digestion. You’ve likely been there: You put a certain food in your body, and now you feel off. But which foods cause this—and are they the culprits you so often read about, like coffee, sugar, alcohol, or dairy? Ahead, Alisa Vitti, the founder of FLO Living, a functional nutrition and women’s hormone expert, explains how these foods play into the body’s inflammatory response.

Related: 12 Anti-Inflammatory Foods Everyone Should Be Eating (and Drinking!)

Coffee

While caffeine does not cause inflammation directly, Vitti explains, it can indirectly cause issues. Ultimately, she says, it comes down to whether or not your body can metabolize coffee’s caffeine content effectively. Nearly 90 percent of the population, she explains, “has a mutation on their CYP1A2 gene;” This mutation prevents the gene from creating the enzyme needed to properly metabolize caffeine, she adds. “Without this, you might experience varying degrees of caffeine toxicity that can disrupt your metabolism and create inflammation indirectly,” she notes.

Sugar

Sugar is a more widely-understood ingredient—one that is more clearly tied to inflammation, notes Vitti. As for how it impacts the body? It disrupts blood glucose levels, insulin levels, and A1C and homocysteine ​​levels—all of which (you guessed it) directly lead to inflammation.

Alcohol

Unfortunately, alcohol packs a one-two punch when it comes to the body’s inflammatory response. The first wave hits thanks to its sugar content—and the second is a direct result of the increased strain the liver feels when it is tasked to metabolize the alcohol. According to Vitti, there’s another element to this equation: The pesticides and chemicals used in the process of creating the alcohol can also create inflammation. To combat this, she suggests buying organic options whenever possible.

Dairy

Your body can experience both short- and long-term reactions to dairy, notes Vitti, especially if you are particularly sensitive. While dairy has a slew of health benefits, those who feel unwell after enjoying a glass of milk, a few slices of cheese, or a cup of yogurt should consult their physicians—and consider cutting back or avoiding the stuff altogether if it’s truly difficult for you to digest. The reason? “Cow dairy containing A1 casein proteins creates microscopic tears in the lining of your small intestine, which, over time, creates leaky gut,” notes Vitti. “When food leaves the gut in this improper way, your immune system gets activated to address this problem, creating an autoimmune response.” This might manifest, at first, she says, as a food sensitivity—but could lead to bigger health issues down the road.

Genetics and Food Exposure

Genetics do play a role when it comes to the digestion of the aforementioned ingredients and inflammation—but Vitti explains that epigenetics (which references your exposure to food and your lifestyle) can magnify sensitivities, resulting in inflammation. “But that is not dependent on age—only at what rate you get to that overload tipping point,” she says, noting that another major factor is the gut microbiome and the health of the bacteria that live there.

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