Caffeinated beverages are a morning staple for many people around the world. Most types of coffee, tea, soda, and even some supplements contain caffeine that can help jump-start the day. What are the health benefits and risks of caffeine, and do they change if you’re living with multiple sclerosis (MS)?
Many members of MyMSTeam use caffeinated beverages to help with symptoms of MS. “Fatigue is annoying. Tired most of the time,” wrote one member. “Caffeine helps me to stay awake and focused.”
Read on to learn about the pros and cons of caffeine for MS symptoms, what the current research shows, and when to consider curbing your caffeine habit.
Caffeine is a natural stimulant, meaning it speeds up communication between the body and the brain. Caffeine can make you feel more awake. It can also increase your attention span and ability to focus, make you feel more energetic, and reduce your appetite.
For people living with MS, fighting fatigue is often a top priority. At Cleveland Clinic, fatigue is the most commonly reported MS symptom, experienced by as many as 80 percent of those with MS.
Fatigue can be a symptom of MS itself or a medication side effect. It could also be caused by a mental health condition or another medical problem, stress, insomnia, or an unbalanced diet. Regardless of the cause, MS fatigue can seriously affect your life. It can sap your motivation, limit your job performance, and strain your relationships with family and friends.
One questionnaire study found people with MS-related fatigue who drank coffee reported better concentration and attention spans while completing tasks. The researchers also found the participants had an easier time structuring a daily routine and felt minimal side effects from caffeine. A review of six studies on the effects of caffeine on tiredness in MS emphasized that caffeine — and specifically coffee intake — has been shown to improve fatigue. Coffee contains more than 1,000 naturally occurring chemicals and antioxidants, in addition to caffeine.
While caffeine can have several positive effects on people living with MS, excessive caffeine consumption can also have consequences. This is especially true at high doses.
Caffeine can affect the gastrointestinal system, causing an upset stomach or cramps. Caffeine can also irritate the bladder and lead to urinating more often. Many people with MS already have symptoms of bladder or bowel dysfunction, painful belly bloating, and heartburn. Too much caffeine could make those symptoms worse.
Large doses of caffeine can cause overstimulation, sometimes leading to anxiety, panic, or a racing heartbeat. Anxiety is also a common MS symptom, and caffeine could make you feel more anxious.
More than 13,000 members of MyMSTeam report experiencing insomnia. Large amounts of caffeine, especially in the afternoons and evenings, can lead to difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep. Because fatigue is so common in MS, getting a good night’s rest is critical. Limiting your caffeine intake to the morning hours is one way to reduce the risk of interfering with sleep.
Several research studies in neurology suggest caffeine may have anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Because immune system inflammation of the central nervous system (CNS) causes damage and symptoms in MS, reducing inflammation is a definite benefit. A review of 15 studies seems to suggest that coffee, not caffeine in general, is responsible for the anti-inflammatory action. Some teas are known to fight inflammation too, especially green tea.
Some research suggests coffee drinking may have a protective effect against developing MS in the first place. One study found that people who drank 900 milliliters of fully caffeinated coffee per day –– a little less than four cups –– were less likely to develop MS. A 2018 review of existing research published in Frontiers in Neurology found some studies indicating coffee and caffeine might lower the risk of MS, while others found no effect. More research is needed to see whether high doses of caffeine are neuroprotective against developing MS.
Some studies have looked at how caffeine consumption has an impact on MS disability. A Belgian study published in the European Journal of Neurology found that people with MS who included coffee in their diet had a slower progression of disability. However, other studies have found caffeine has no impact on the development of MS-related disabilities. For now, the jury is out on whether your morning cup of joe can help slow MS progression.
Just like most things in life, moderation is key with caffeine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests adults limit caffeine to less than 400 milligrams per day (about four or five small cups of coffee). Consuming a moderate amount of caffeine, in the form of coffee, tea, or other caffeinated foods, may improve a person’s ability to focus and reduce MS fatigue without causing negative side effects. That said, everyone is different and some people are more sensitive to caffeine. If you have other medical problems, such as anxiety, high blood pressure, or sleep problems, watching your caffeine intake can be very important.
Speak to your health care provider before adding caffeine to your diet or changing the amount of coffee you’re consuming. It’s always smart to be aware of the ways caffeine could help or hurt you, so you can feel your best.
MyMSTeam is the social network for people with MS and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 198,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.
Do you regularly have caffeine? Do you find it helpful for managing MS symptoms? Are you concerned about the effects of caffeine? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.