6 Facts About Coffee and Chemo: Is Decaf OK? | MyBCTeam

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6 Facts About Coffee and Chemo: Is Decaf OK?

Posted on August 1, 2023

There are pros and cons to drinking coffee during chemotherapy (chemo), and like with most things, everyone is different. Some coffee drinkers try to cut back on how many cups of coffee they drink, some switch to decaf, and others find they’re simply not as interested in coffee while undergoing treatment.

Members of MyBCTeam have shared a range of experiences with drinking coffee during chemo. “I could drink iced coffee during chemo, but not before my vitals and finger stick,” shared one member.

Another member chose to avoid caffeine. “On chemo days, I would stay away from coffee because my heart rate was always high, and caffeine didn’t help,” they explained. “Toss steroids on top of that, and it just made it worse. I’d have decaffeinated coffee occasionally, though.”

Unless you receive specific advice from your health care provider, the judgment call is yours to make. Here are some considerations about whether to continue drinking regular coffee during chemo, to switch to decaf, or to avoid java entirely until your treatment is complete.

1. Caffeinated Coffee — and Sometimes Decaf — Makes It Harder To Sleep

It may seem like a no-brainer, but consuming caffeine can be a major barrier to a restful night’s sleep, especially close to bedtime. Since chemotherapy increases the risk of insomnia, avoiding caffeinated coffee may make it easier to get a good night’s rest during treatment. One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is fatigue. As tempting as it is to look for an extra boost from coffee, you may end up sabotaging a much-needed nap or early bedtime. Instead, focus on calming habits that allow your body to rest as needed. Sleep Foundation recommends avoiding caffeine at least eight hours before bedtime — so if you generally go to bed at 10:30 p.m., avoiding caffeine after 2:30 p.m. may help with insomnia.

Consider, too, switching to decaf to see if that helps. According to the National Coffee Association, the decaffeination process removes about 97 percent of caffeine from coffee. So while a regular coffee cup has 95 milligrams of caffeine, a cup of decaf has just 2 milligrams.

Still, your body may associate coffee with a surge of energy, so drinking decaf may also interfere with your ability to sleep. Therefore, you may want to avoid both regular and decaf coffee later in the day.

2. Coffee Can Help With Constipation

Drinking coffee doesn’t worsen all chemotherapy side effects. In fact, coffee and chemo can be a good combination for certain issues, particularly constipation. Chemotherapy drugs and pain medication often lead to constipation, adding more discomfort to cancer treatment. Coffee counts as part of your fluid requirements, and drinking at least 8 ounces of fluid per day can help you stay hydrated and have regular bowel movements.

The acids in coffee are responsible for its laxative effects, or stimulation, of the digestive tract. Although to a slightly lesser extent than caffeinated coffee, decaf coffee can also stimulate the urge to pass a bowel movement. However, people who drink coffee all the time may become desensitized to this effect. You can ask your oncologist for stool softeners or other constipation remedies if coffee isn’t quite doing the trick.

3. Your Sense of Taste May Change During Chemo

Some people find it difficult to eat enough during chemo. Nausea and taste changes can make food unappealing, causing you to miss out on important nutrients your body needs to cope with the demands of treatment. Health experts therefore generally advise that people undergoing chemo consume beverages separate from meals to avoid filling up on noncaloric drinks (including coffee). Instead, sip water or drink your coffee between meals.

Some MyBCTeam members say they didn’t feel like drinking coffee during chemo. “I was offered coffee and tea during chemo,” explained one member. “But my taste for coffee went, and it really hasn’t returned. I have a very small 4-ounce cup of coffee with coconut creamer.”

People are often surprised when a familiar or comforting cup of coffee starts to taste different or becomes too strong in acidity to tolerate. It’s normal for eating habits and preferences to change during chemo, so be sure to listen to your body and feed it the foods and drinks you can tolerate and enjoy.

4. Green Tea May Not Be the Best Alternative

When trying to cut back on coffee, many people assume green tea is a healthier option. However, green tea and green tea supplements can interact with certain chemotherapy drugs, especially bortezomib (Velcade), which is used to treat blood cancers.

If you want to swap coffee for tea, noncaffeinated herbal teas might be a better bet, depending on your medication regimen. Before changing your drinking or supplement habits, ask your oncology team if there are any medication interactions you should be aware of.

5. Coffee Can Make Protein More Appealing

Chemotherapy-associated taste changes can limit your interest in food. But if you like the taste of coffee, you can use it as a base for chilled smoothies with nutritious frozen berries, vanilla Greek yogurt, and nutrient-dense nut butters.

Some people require extra protein during chemotherapy, but you might not always be in the mood for a zesty steak or eggs. Mixing flavored protein powders into cool coffee can be a nice treat that provides the amino acids you need to stay strong. Studies show that protein supplements, like whey protein isolate, preserve muscle strength and reduce the toxic effects of chemotherapy treatment in some populations. This may be especially important if you’re underweight before treatment or if you’re not interested in food as a result of chemo side effects. Ask your oncologist about meeting with a registered dietitian nutritionist for dietary strategies to ensure you get enough protein during chemo.

6. Coffee May Improve Your Cancer Outlook

Only you and your health care team can decide whether you should cut back on coffee during breast cancer treatment. But if you do choose to give it up, you may want to resume the habit when chemo is over. The jury is still out on coffee’s potential pros and cons for various health conditions. However, most research points to coffee’s protective rather than harmful effects against breast cancer. Once you finish chemo and start feeling up to drinking coffee regularly, there’s probably no reason not to.

Coffee has beneficial compounds called polyphenols that can act as antioxidants against cancer and other health conditions, including heart disease and diabetes. Specifically, the chlorogenic acid in coffee may help protect against metabolic syndrome, a combination of multiple metabolic conditions that can increase risk of heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers.

Coffee itself has many health-promoting properties. However, these beneficial effects may be reduced if you always drink your coffee with added sugar and cream. Nonetheless, quality of life both during and after cancer treatment is crucial. If you don’t want to give up coffee during chemo, find out from your doctor whether it’s really necessary to do so. Once you understand all the potential benefits and risks for your individual health, the choice is up to you.

Find Others Who Understand

MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, more than 64,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their tips with others who understand life with breast cancer.

Have you changed your coffee intake during chemotherapy? Do you have concerns about the effects of caffeine, or do you believe coffee consumption provides health benefits? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on August 1, 2023
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    Kathryn Shohara, MS, RDN, LDN, CNSC is a clinical dietitian for adults at Baylor Scott & White Hospitals. Learn more about her here.
    Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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