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Caffeine is a stimulant drug, speeding up the messages that travel between the brain and the body. Research estimates that 85% of American adults consume caffeine each day, in some form. Indeed, most of us prefer to take our daily dose first thing in the morning in the way of hot coffee. For many of us, the first taste of coffee or tea can be just what we need to fire up our central nervous systems.
Caffeine is in the seeds, nuts, and leaves of several plants, including:
- Coffea Arabica - used for coffee
- Thea sinensis - used for tea
- Cola acuminata - used in soft drinks
- Theobroma cacao - used in cocoa and chocolate
- Paullinia cupana - used as guarana in snack bars and energy drinks
These sources of caffeine appear in numerous products:
- Coffee and coffee-flavored food products (ice cream, frozen yogurt, etc.)
- Decaffeinated coffee
- Black, oolong, green, and white teas and yerba mate (herbal tea is naturally caffeine-free)
- Chocolate in all of its forms (bars, hot cocoa, ice cream, etc.)
- Energy drinks
- Protein bars (especially with chocolate or coffee additives)
- Breakfast cereals
- Medications for PMS, headaches, and migraines
- Some common additives in foods including ginseng, malic acid, and niacin
Some of the most popular drinks associated with American culture contain high levels of caffeine. The American coffee culture has reached its tentacles into every state and has extended worldwide. Similarly, the preference to pair a carbonated beverage with most meals or events has become part of the cultural landscape across the globe.
When a ritual is so ingrained in our cultural framework, we rarely question its effects on us. Given its popularity, caffeinated beverages have captured the attention of the medical community, and many studies look at their impact on certain health conditions.
Caffeine acts as a stimulant of the central nervous system, yet its effects go beyond the brain. Currently, studies are inconclusive as to how much caffeine alters the thyroid. Research suggests that caffeine can temporarily increase metabolism by increasing fat utilization. The thyroid is responsible for regulating metabolic processes in the body. Because caffeine can increase the body's metabolism, your thyroid gland may become taxed in regulating your system when caffeine is present.
Some effects of caffeine include:
- Feeling more alert and active
- Faster breathing or heart rate
- Restlessness or irritability
- Increased blood pressure
- Higher body temperature
- Heartburn or stomach pains
- Dehydration and Increased urination
Caffeine affects everyone differently depending on their size, weight, health, frequency of use, other drugs or medications, and the amount consumed. Additionally, your body may respond differently based on whether you have an overactive or underactive thyroid.
If you have hyperthyroidism, caffeine may worsen your thyroid symptoms because of its stimulating effect. You may find caffeine worsens your already racing and irregular heart rate, high blood pressure, and diarrhea.
On the contrary, if you have hypothyroidism, you may find that caffeine helps temporarily stimulate some of the slower symptoms in your body, including constipation, low heart rate, cold intolerance, and fatigue.
Some studies find that caffeine may have anti-inflammatory properties. For people with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, caffeine may help alleviate pro-inflammatory cytokines (small cell proteins) that lead to chronic inflammation of the thyroid. Although caffeine consumption will not put the brakes on autoimmune processes, research suggests that caffeine intake will not necessarily exacerbate your autoimmune condition.
Note that while a cup of coffee may provide temporary relief of some of your hypothyroid symptoms, including fatigue and low heart rate, it is not the solution. It's best if you work with a trustworthy thyroid specialist to explore treatment options for you based on your specific symptoms, medical history, and lab results.
If you take thyroid medication, you know to take your medication 30 to 60 minutes before your first meal of the day. This gap is necessary because food can interfere with the absorption of thyroid medications, causing you not to absorb your full dose. The caveat is that many people assume they can swallow their thyroid medication with their preferred morning beverage.
Caffeine interferes with the intestinal absorption of thyroid medications. This is because caffeine stimulates function in the colon and may also increase the amount of fluid passing from your body to your intestines. Both of these can make your oral medication pass through your intestines too quickly, impacting absorption. Some of the medication may even leave your body in the stool before it has a chance to absorb.
It's not recommended that you switch your thyroid hormone prescription to another brand; however, if you have trouble with absorption, a liquid or gel formulation might be right for you. Tirosint is a soft gel form of levothyroxine, also available in a liquid. Liquid and gel formulations can absorb into the body more quickly than standard formulations. Studies even show that Tirosint taken at the same time as your coffee has no negative impact on thyroid hormone levels or absorption. Please consult with your doctor about the right medication for you.
Generally, for optimal absorption, you should only take your thyroid medication with a glass of water and wait one hour before drinking or eating anything else. If you look forward to a steaming cup of coffee to start each day, keep your thyroid medication next to your bed and take it the moment you wake up.
There is no universal answer to caffeine consumption that applies to everyone with hypothyroidism or Hashimoto's. For some, caffeine may trigger unwanted thyroid symptoms. In contrast, others may experience few side effects other than the pleasure of a warm drink. However, caffeine intake in moderate doses is unlikely to cause any adverse effects on your endocrine system.
Some people find that giving up caffeine after ongoing use can improve troublesome symptoms. However, this process can be challenging because your body needs to adjust to functioning without its usual dose of caffeine. If you decide to stop your caffeine intake, do so gradually as an abrupt stop can lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that start within 24 hours of your last dose and could last for 36 hours or more.
Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal can include:
- Fatigue or drowsiness
- Depressed mood or irritability
- Difficulty concentrating
- Flu-like symptoms
A note from Paloma Health
If you struggle to manage your Hashimoto's symptoms, we recommend that you meet with a thyroid specialist to determine the best treatment plan for you. Treatment may include diet and lifestyle modifications in addition to medication. Work with your doctor to identify dietary triggers and reverse nutrient deficiencies that could be aggravating your system.