Fatigue is often part of living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). People — including those without RA — frequently turn to caffeinated drinks like coffee to help alleviate such fatigue. While caffeine may lift your energy levels, is it considered beneficial for your health? Or, for people with RA, could it contribute to your symptoms? Could it be linked to RA flares? Research indicates the answers are mixed — and can vary with each individual.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks the lining surrounding their joints, causing damage to the joints, joint tissue, and bones. While this inflammatory disease can manifest with varied symptoms, people living with RA experience flares (or flare-ups) — intense episodes of joint pain, stiffness, and fatigue.
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and the most consumed stimulant in the world. Caffeine is found in many foods, drinks (especially energy drinks), and supplements. It can be manufactured or found naturally.
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Some of those natural sources include:
The majority of caffeine intake in the United States is from coffee, tea, and soda. In fact, according to the National Coffee Association of U.S.A., more than 62 percent of people drink coffee every day.
The amount of caffeine in a cup or 12-ounce can varies depending on the beverage:
Rheumatologists often recommend lifestyle and diet modifications to help people manage their RA symptoms. Caffeine is usually addressed: Is it considered a trigger for rheumatoid arthritis pain? Will it increase the risk of an RA flare? Research shows the answer is not a neatly packaged yes or no, but is more of a mixed conclusion. Caffeine can be helpful for some people — but not for others.
In 2016, The Iowa Women’s Health Study — an 11-year-long study of more than 30,000 women ages 55 through 69 — concluded that people who drank decaffeinated coffee had an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. It also revealed that caffeinated tea and coffee consumption pointed to a decreased risk of a person developing RA. Researchers concluded a person’s reaction varied from one individual to the next.
Members of myRAteam report having a variety of reactions to caffeine. “Painful day,” one member wrote. “I am trying to cut down on coffee. Caffeine is a trigger.”
Other members have shared that they look forward to their coffee. “Coffee is good,” a member stated. “I drink one cup, which helps me clear my head and gives me energy to start my day.”
Another member noted that one source of caffeine didn’t have the same effect as a different source for them. “I wonder if my flare-up could be from the caffeine in soda,” they wrote. “When I drink caffeinated soda, it affects me. But I can drink an energy drink and it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Polyphenols sometimes occur in the same natural sources that contain caffeine. (A polyphenol is an organic substance found in plants. They contain antioxidants and can have anti-inflammatory effects.) So while you might choose a beverage for its caffeine, it could have other benefits. In fact, polyphenols are so helpful, the Arthritis Foundation recommends drinking tea for its high level of the substance. Green tea in particular has especially high levels of one “super” polyphenol: epigallocatechin gallate (ECCG). ECCG has been called out for being particularly helpful for RA symptoms. Coffee also contains polyphenols.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 400 milligrams of caffeine per day — like that contained in about 3 to 5 cups of coffee — is considered a moderate amount and is generally tolerated by most people. However, that guideline doesn’t specifically consider people with RA. The Arthritis Foundation, however, recommends drinking caffeinated coffee in moderation, which it defines as 1 to 2 cups a day.
Plus, how any person processes and reacts to caffeine varies due to genetic factors. Some tolerate amounts toward the higher end of the dietary guidelines, while others experience side effects like jitteriness, insomnia, high blood pressure, and anxiety.
While caffeine generally does not interfere with standard RA medications, you may want to reconsider your intake if you are taking prednisone. A potential side effect of prednisone is insomnia, so if you find yourself struggling to sleep, reducing your caffeine consumption may help.
Caffeine may actually be useful if you don’t tolerate methotrexate (a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug, or DMARD, used to treat RA) well. A study published in 2017 discovered that 68 percent of people who experience moderate to severe intolerance to methotrexate found that taking caffeine with their dose either partially or fully relieved their side effects from the drug.
Talk to your doctor if you’re taking methotrexate and are concerned about side effects.
If you choose to reduce or cut out caffeine from your diet, do so with your doctor’s knowledge and guidance. They might suggest doing so slowly to minimize withdrawal symptoms, like headaches. Trading a lower-caffeinated beverage for its counterpart might help you taper off. Green, white, and black teas contain caffeine but much less cup-for-cup than coffee. And post in myRAteam to see what other members have tried.
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned that caffeine may be affecting your RA symptoms.
Whether caffeine is beneficial or not — and how much you can best tolerate — depends on you as an individual.
On myRAteam, the social network for people with rheumatoid arthritis and their loved ones, more than 191,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with rheumatoid arthritis.
Are you living with rheumatoid arthritis and wondering if caffeine triggers RA flares? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.