Dear Dr. Mahler:
I have heard that coffee may help my COPD. What are your thoughts?
Babs from Toledo, OH
About 90% of adults in the United States consume caffeine daily, usually by drinking coffee. Caffeine is found in coffee seeds (the articles that I reviewed stated that seeds are often incorrectly referred to as coffee beans), tea leaves, certain soft drinks (such as “colas” from kola nuts), and energy drinks. Even chocolate contains small amounts of caffeine.
Caffeine is a stimulant and makes people more alert, better able to focus, and think faster and more clearly. There are also studies that show the benefits of caffeine on exercise ability. However, too much caffeine can make you hyper, feel anxious and jittery, speed up your heart, and may make it harder to sleep.
In studies performed many years ago, caffeine was shown to open the airways for up to four hours in those with asthma. Thus, it is considered to be a “bronchodilator” and works just like when you use albuterol or another bronchodilator medication. However, this effect of caffeine on opening the breathing tubes is considered mild.
Whether caffeine works this way in those who have COPD is not clear. However, caffeine has a chemical structure similar to theophylline, a pill used widely in the past to treat to those with COPD. Studies generally show that those with COPD have less breathlessness and better lung function with theophylline compared with placebo (sham or pretend) treatment. I continue to treat some of my patients with theophylline if they have breathing difficulty with daily activities despite taking long-acting bronchodilators and they do not have any heart problems.
Have you noticed any effect on your breathing after you drink coffee or tea? Do you feel anxious or shaky after drinking a cup of coffee or an expresso? Remember, everyone who drinks coffee or tea may respond differently. So, you may need to experiment to find out what amount of caffeine is safe for you and whether it helps your breathing. If drinking coffee or tea makes you feel anxious or nervous, it may also seem like your breathing is worse.
I encourage you to ask your doctor if there is any reason for you not to drink coffee or tea. Also, pay attention to your breathing after your morning or afternoon coffee or tea.
Keep my posted on how things go.
Donald A. Mahler, M.D.