How long does it take to digest coffee?

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We all have different sensitivities to coffee, but have you ever wondered how long it takes to digest it? Interestingly enough, there’s a huge difference between the amount of time it takes to digest coffee vs. how long it stays in your system. Caffeine is a powerful substance, hanging around in your system long after you’ve eliminated the waste from drinking that cup of coffee. So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

Generally speaking, coffee digests within 20-30 minutes of entering your system, which is actually less time than it can take for your body to absorb all of the caffeine! So while you’re just starting to feel that buzz, the coffee itself has likely already left the building. And while that initial jolt from the caffeine is only going to last for less than an hour, because it has an average half-life of five hours, caffeine can stay in your system for ten hours or longer!

Digestion depends on how you take your coffee

Personally, I take my coffee black. It’s quick, tasty, and no fuss. And based on what I learned about adding milk and/or sugar to coffee, I’m even happier to take my coffee that way. Apparently, adding milk, sugar, or both to your coffee can really throw a wrench in the digestion process.

The combination of milk and coffee, on a scientific level, doesn’t necessarily make digestion easy. Both milk and coffee have properties that cause them to react in a way that slows digestion, not only because it delays fermentation, but also because of the additional work your body has to do to break down the milk itself.

So how long of a delay are we talking about? Well, adding milk to your coffee can cause it to take a whopping 24 hours to digest! Who would have ever thought?

Factors that can affect caffeine absorption

If you’re anything like me, drinking coffee after lunch will leave you wide awake at 1 am wondering why you can’t sleep. But I know plenty of people who can drink a cup of coffee after dinner and fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow. Why is this? Well, there are a lot of factors that can affect caffeine absorption and your tolerance to it, including:

  • Male vs. female
  • Certain medications
  • Genetics
  • Frequency of consumption

As it turns out, women tend to metabolize caffeine faster than men, which I found to be surprising! Most of the males I know have no problem drinking coffee any time of day, while I’m the one that can barely drink it past noon. We must just be a unique bunch!

Anyway, onto medications. It seems to be a limited number of medications that can cause increased sensitivity to caffeine, but definitely something you might want to keep in mind the next time you’re given a new prescription by your doctor.

What’s really interesting though, is the impact genetics have on caffeine sensitivity. Gene mapping, while in its infancy, has given us a wealth of information on how our chromosomes and genetic sequencing can impact our health.

But it has also given us fascinating insight into how genetics can affect our sensitivity to caffeine. Research shows that our genes can affect sleep and its association with caffeine, as well as how quickly we metabolize it and how likely we are to become more dependent on it.

It comes as no surpirse that those who rarely or never consume caffeine are likely to be much more sensitive to it. If someone who’s never had a sip of coffee in their life decides to try a cup, it makes complete sense that they would likely feel the effects of it much more than someone who drinks it regularly.

That’s not all that can affect someone’s sensitivity to caffeine, though. Would you have thought that being pregnant, being a smoker, or taking hormonal birth control could play a role here? I certainly didn’t. But it’s actually true.

Being pregnant and being on certain contraceptives can slow your body’s absorption of caffeine while being a smoker causes your body to absorb it much faster. Consider that a fun fact to share the next time you’re in need of some small talk.

What is caffeine?

After discovering how long caffeine stays in our system, I found myself wondering what caffeine actually is. Even though it’s commonly found in darker products like coffee, tea, and chocolate, it’s actually a white substance with a bitter taste found in dozens of plants all over the world. In the U.S. it’s also considered a food additive and a drug!

A drug? Really? So now I’m wondering… is it addictive? Technically no. But you can become dependent on it and experience symptoms of withdrawal if you try to stop drinking it cold turkey.

Responsible caffeine consumption

Is there such a thing as too much caffeine? Is there anyone who shouldn’t drink coffee? Can you cut back if you think you may have an increased tolerance? Yes, yes, and yes. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • It is recommended that you consume no more than 400mg of caffeine per day
  • Children, those with certain medical conditions, and folks with problems sleeping should consult a medical provider regarding caffeine consumption
  • Abruptly quitting caffiene is not recommended so be sure to look into the best way to stop before committing to it

One of the most helpful things I found about this topic were these handy charts that show what time of day coffee will finally be out of your system based on when the coffee was consumed.

For example, if you’re wondering whether to have that coffee after lunch, bear in mind that if you drink a cup of coffee at 1 pm, you should have no caffeine (or close to it) in your system by 11 pm. If you’re a night owl, no biggie. But if you’ve got an early morning the next day, you may want to skip it!

Of course, these are all average estimates and don’t necessarily take other factors into account, but it’s helpful to have a general rule of thumb if you’re trying to drink responsibly. I was completely shocked to learn that the caffeine in coffee can stay in your system for so long.

I’ll definitely be keeping this in mind the next time I’m tempted to have that second cup of coffee to help me through the day. Bottom line: sometimes it’s worth it and sometimes it’s not! At least now we all have some tools to help us decide.