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A common belief is that drinking coffee will lead to an immediate trip to the bathroom. Is it accurate to consider coffee to be a latte laxative or is this just a coincidence that is not supported by any physiological proof?

As we have seen in previous articles, there are numerous causes of frequent bowel movements. We now already know that there are foods that increase stool production and that there is a very strong connection between exercise and bowel movements. Another rumor circulating through the grapevine is that there is a link between coffee consumption and the number of times you will go to the bathroom daily [1]. Here, we will explore the connection between coffee and increased bowel movements and if, in fact, we can consider it to be a latte laxative. 

Does Coffee Increase Bowel Movements? 

One common rumor that is believed is that coffee and nicotine can lead to increased bowel activity. This claim was put to the test in one experiment. In this study, there were 16 healthy volunteers asked to partake in the investigation. Eight were asked to consume coffee while the other eight were in the nicotine trail. Coffee consumers were asked to drink a 280 mL cup of strong coffee and their rectal tone was recorded using a sensor. Nicotine users had a similar design and were asked to take the equivalence of two cigarettes in a sublingual patch. 

At the conclusion of the study, it was determined that 30 minutes after drinking coffee, rectal tone increased by 45 percent compared to only a 30 percent increase in rectal tone when participants consumed warm water alone. Increased rectal tone activates muscles in the lower bowel to help push stools through the end of the alimentary tract. When it comes to cigarette use, this same phenomenon was not observed. [2]

Other studies have indicated that the true effects of coffee may be even more pronounced than previously thought. In this study, it was seen that caffeine in coffee can start to have a pronounced effect within 4 minutes on the rectal tone. It has been discovered that caffeine is also able to induce the contraction of the gallbladder which is the first step in gastric emptying but the true mechanism for why this happens is still unknown. [3]

Regardless of the underlying mechanism, two different studies indicate the same conclusion that coffee will be able to increase rectal tone and lead to a bowel movement.

Why Does This Occur? 

Now that we have established a link between coffee and increased bowel movements, let's explore why coffee can be referred to as a latte laxative. The reason that this happens is that of the proven connection between coffee and intestinal activity. Caffeine is able to stimulate receptors along the transverse and descending colon to increase intestinal motility. Coffee is able to cause the same increase in the magnitude of intestinal motility that would be seen if you had consumed a moderately-sized meal. These receptors will link with the smooth muscles that are in the intestines and cause propagating waves that move material through the intestine. When compared to water or decaffeinated coffee, there was a significantly more noticeable effect of coffee on these waves. [4

An obvious connection that you may have made for yourself would be that if you drink caffeine from another source, it should have the same effect. Sodas and energy drinks are some of the most common products that are used in modern society as an alternative to coffee, but studies indicate that there is a much less effect on rectal tone compared to a traditional cup of coffee. The key is what is found in the coffee bean that cannot be artificially produced in the laboratory.  

In the coffee bean, there is a specific acid called chlorogenic acid that is key to this latte laxative. It is believed that this particular acid is able to increase the level of stomach acid faster than traditional foods alone. As stomach acid increases, gastric emptying is more prone to happen so the total time of digestion is much shorter. It is also a reason why many coffee users complain of gastric reflux disease. [5

According to articles in the Washington Post, it has been determined that even if coffee may make you feel that you need to go to the bathroom almost instantly, this is a phenomenon that only happens in about 30 percent of the population [6]. This may vary depending on your personal coffee habits. If you drink more, it is believed that you will not have the same noticeable effects compared to someone who drinks coffee very rarely. 

All in all, you can see that we can add coffee to the list of material that can cause frequent bowel movements. The effects may be muted if you consume numerous cups of coffee per day but average amounts of coffee a day will increase your rectal tone and intestinal motility. 

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