Coffee and RA: What’s the Link?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on April 05, 2022
3 min read

Do you love coffee? Do you easily put away two or three cups a day? You’re not alone. On average, Americans drink just over three cups a day. But if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), is that a habit you need to change? Studies show mixed messages. Some research suggests that coffee might make your RA worse, while others don’t see a connection. Here’s a look at what experts have to say.

Coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant that boosts your energy levels and makes you feel awake. While some studies say getting lots of caffeine can be harmless or even helpful for certain conditions, that may not be the case with RA.

One large-scale study to examine the effects of coffee and tea on RA found that drinking too much coffee was associated with a higher risk of developing RA. But the coffee link was found in seropositive RA and not in seronegative RA. What does this mean? Simply put, if you have RA symptoms, your doctor will order blood tests to see which type of RA you might have. This is based on the presence of two types of proteins: rheumatoid factor (RF) or anti-cyclic citrullinated peptides (anti-CCPs). If your blood tests positive for either, it’s considered seropositive RA. Those with seropositive RA tend to have a more severe form of RA.

But a recent review of five separate studies done to test the link between RA and coffee found something different. According to researchers, each additional cup of decaffeinated coffee per day increases your risk for RA by 11 percent. They say it might have to do with the decaffeination process.

To remove caffeine from coffee, lots of industrial chemicals are used. Ingesting even small quantities of these chemicals could increase your risk for connective tissue disorders like lupus and RA.

Tea, on the other hand, was found to be beneficial for people with RA. Tea’s antioxidant properties were found to lower inflammation. But not all types of tea have this effect. Black tea didn’t do much for inflammation, but drinking green tea reduced your risk for RA by 35%. More studies are needed to truly prove this link.

Caffeine is a type of drug and it can interact with or worsen the effects of some of the prescription medications you may be taking to manage RA.

Low-dose steroids like prednisone are a common prescription for RA. While prednisone is not a stimulant, it can make you feel jittery and extra alert. Combining this with caffeine may make you hyperactive and affect your sleep quality.

Another medication commonly used for RA is methotrexate (Rheumatrex, Trexall). It has some common side effects, including:

  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain

According to research, caffeine found in coffee and dark chocolate may help ease some of these side effects. In one study, experts found that caffeine was able to help with severe side effects in 55% of the participants. Around 13% reported partial relief.

Caffeine is also found in several pain relievers to ease headaches or pain. But it increases inflammation, a common problem in RA. If you’re on prednisone or another type of steroid, or plan to take any over-the-counter pain medications, ask your doctor if you should change your coffee routine.

Most studies haven’t found a significant risk between drinking coffee and developing or worsening RA. That's good news if you can't start your day without it. The anti-inflammatory compounds found in caffeine may even help with your RA symptoms. But more research needs to be done on this topic.

The FDA considers around 400 milligrams of caffeine to be safe for healthy adults. That’s around four cups of brewed coffee per day. But if you are pregnant, you should limit it to 200 milligrams per day. Be mindful of how much caffeine you’re getting each day.

Caffeine is found in many things you may eat or drink, such as:

  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Sodas
  • Chocolate
  • Energy drinks
  • Supplements

Most of these products contain lots of sugar, which can make inflammation worse. If you do plan to drink caffeinated beverages often, try to cut back on how much sugar you add to them. If you have moderate to severe RA, check with your doctor to see what they recommend.