You’ve done everything right. Rested the injured muscle. Iced it. Stretched it. Eased back into activity.
Still, it hasn’t healed the way you hoped.
You’re at a loss. What else can you do to help this soft-tissue injury heal?
There may be one more thing you haven’t thought of: cutting out the coffee and other sources of caffeine.
Coffee does have some health benefits. However, when it comes to recovering from certain injuries like sprains, strains, tendonitis, bursitis, tennis elbow and others, you may be best to leave it out of your diet. Here’s why.
Coffee Has Many Health Benefits
You’ve probably heard of the ways that coffee and tea can benefit your health. Both have powerful antioxidants that help fight common diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. The caffeine in the beverages has also been linked with improved mood, focus, energy and a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease, stroke, kidney stones, some forms of cancer and dementia.
There are some potential downsides, including coffee’s acidic nature. It can be hard on sensitive stomachs. Because of its caffeine content, coffee can also cause certain side effects in people who drink too much. These may include anxiety, jitters, insomnia, nervousness, frequent urination, stomach upset, rapid heart rate and addiction, which can lead to withdrawal symptoms and fatigue. How much is too much? Research shows that about 4 cups a day seems safe for most healthy adults.
Studies have shown that caffeine can affect different people differently, so it’s an individual thing, but some people will experience negative effects sooner than others and may feel better drinking smaller amounts or none at all.
However, sensitivity isn’t the only thing to consider when it comes to consuming coffee. If you’ve recently suffered an injury and you’re trying to heal, you may want to switch to caffeine-free herbal tea.
Caffeine Affects Blood Flow
Research has indicated that caffeine may delay wound healing. There are many mechanisms by which it may do that, so let’s look at each one. We’ll start with its effect on blood flow.
When you injure yourself, that area requires a good supply of blood to heal. Blood brings in oxygen and nutrients, which are both essential for wound repair. If your blood flow is limited for some reason, it will take longer to recover from your injury.
Caffeine has a direct effect on blood flow. It constricts blood vessels, which temporarily raises blood pressure while reducing the blood available to your wound. In a 2009 study, scientists found that it reduced cerebral (brain) blood flow by an average of 27 percent with little difference between moderate and high users.
Previous studies showed similar results. In one, scientists found that a 250-milligram dose of caffeine reduced cerebral blood flow between 22 percent and 30 percent.
Even more, telling is how caffeine affects blood flow during exercise. In a 2013 study, researchers acknowledged that regular ingestion of caffeine caused the heart to work harder to pump blood through the body. Still, even with the heart’s extra efforts, caffeine impaired blood flow, most notably during exercise.
So, you’re doing all you can to heal that wound, but then you go to exercise, and the injured area may not get the blood it needs not only to operate as it should but to continue to heal. Instead, the exercise may set you back.
Caffeine May Inhibit Wound Healing and Make You Stiff
If your injury involved a cut or tear, again, caffeine may not be a good idea. In a 2014 study, researchers tested the effects of caffeine on skin cells and found that it restricted cell proliferation and cell migration. They then tested it on a model of human skin and found the same results, concluding that caffeine could inhibit wound healing and skin repair. They also found that the more caffeine consumed, the slower the wound healed.
Caffeine may also make you stiff. There is evidence linking it to muscle tension and reduced flexibility, which can slow any physical therapy you may be undergoing to try to heal an injury.
Caffeine is, by nature, a stimulant. It stimulates the nerves that control muscle activity and, depending on how much you consume and how your body responds, it may cause the muscles to contract and stay that way, increasing tension and tightness.
Many injuries occur because of tight and imbalanced muscles. They shorten and limit movement and lack the suppleness you need to regain strength and endurance. They may also seem unable to relax fully, staying contracted or partly contracted for an extended period, leading to spasms, strains, muscle pulls and tears and, ultimately, pain.
Regular consumption of coffee or other sources of caffeine can lead to muscle stiffness indirectly, as well. If you’re going through a stressful period in your life and using caffeine to maintain a difficult schedule, it could be contributing to anxiety, insomnia, and stomach upset, which can make stress worse, leading to additional tight muscles.
Can Coffee Increase Inflammation or Dehydrate Tissues?
When it comes to other possible effects of caffeine, the evidence isn’t quite as clear. We know that injuries typically hurt because of inflammation, so we seek to reduce that inflammation through rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medications.
Might coffee go against our efforts and increase inflammation? One wouldn’t think so initially. Studies are showing the opposite — that coffee and caffeine may help reduce inflammation. Harvard Health lists coffee as a potential anti-inflammatory beverage because of the polyphenols in it. In a 2017 study from Stanford University School of Medicine, scientists found that the natural increase in inflammation associated with aging was reduced in seniors who drank coffee.
However, then there are other studies showing the opposite. In 2017, researchers analyzed 15 studies, some involving coffee, and some caffeine, and found that while coffee seemed to help reduce inflammation, caffeine did not. Instead, it seemed to increase it in some circumstances. In an earlier study, researchers compared coffee drinkers with nondrinkers and found a relationship between moderate-to-high coffee consumption and increased inflammation.
Then, there’s the issue of dehydration. For years, we were told that coffee and caffeine were diuretics, sapping water from our systems, which would be bad for our muscles and other soft tissues. However, then recent research seemed to counteract that conclusion.
In a 2014 study, for example, researchers compared the effects of coffee consumption against water ingestion. They found no significant differences between the two, noting that coffee, when consumed in moderation by those used to drinking it, provided similar hydrating qualities to water.
The Mayo Clinic notes that while caffeinated drinks may have a mild diuretic effect, increasing the need to urinate. They don’t appear to increase the risk of dehydration. Other more recent studies have found similar results, showing that particularly in those who regularly consume coffee, it is not associated with poor hydration.
How to Help Muscle and Other Soft-tissue Injuries Heal Quickly
Considering the evidence we have so far, if you’ve been trying to heal from an injury and it’s not going well, you may want to cut back on coffee and other caffeinated beverages for a little while, just to see if it helps. Meanwhile, here are a few tips to encourage the healing you need.
Don’t Return to Full-blown Workouts Too Soon
This is one of the most common reasons an injury doesn’t heal well. We simply don’t give it enough time. Soft-tissue injuries can be deceiving, in that they often become less painful rather quickly before the tissues have completely healed. We feel better, so we head back out on the track, and soon we’re dealing with the same injury all over again, or perhaps even a worse tear. Always start back into your workouts gently and carefully, gradually building back up to where you were.
Avoid Stretching Too Aggressively
Particularly if you have a tear in the muscle or ligament, aggressive stretching too soon can do more harm than good. The damaged fibers are slowly beginning to heal and reattach to each other — a fragile process in the early stages. Aggressive stretching during this time can lead to further tears. Start gentle, and check with your physical therapist to find out when you can push it a little farther.
Strengthen Any Weak Muscles
Often soft-tissue injuries occur not only because of muscle tightness but muscle weakness. It’s easy to avoid those calf raises or Pilates routines when we’re enjoying our daily runs. Make sure you know which muscles need to be strong to support your chosen activity and get back to strengthening those while recovering from an injury.
Stay Active in Other Ways
If you’ve been sidelined from your favorite form of exercise because of an injury, that’s not an excuse to become a couch potato. Staying active can help keep your other supportive muscles going while keeping your overall body in good shape. Talk to your physical therapist and see what else you might do in the meantime. Good options often include swimming, walking, yoga, strength training (with consideration of your injury), Pilates, tai chi, and others.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Recovering from an injury isn’t just about avoiding coffee or caffeine. You need to give your body and tissues the nutrients they need to heal. Focus on anti-inflammatory foods ― most fruits and vegetables ― protein intake, and healthy fats, and limit or cut out altogether high-sugar treats and processed meats.
For your guide to a healthy diet, make sure to check out The Best Foods that Rapidly Slim & Heal in 7 Days, here!
Addicott, Merideth A., Lucie L. Yang, Ann M. Peiffer, Luke R. Burnett, Jonathan H. Burdette, Michael Y. Chen, Satoru Hayasaka, Robert A. Kraft, Joseph A. Maldjian, and Paul J. Laurienti. “The effect of daily caffeine use on cerebral blood flow: How much caffeine can we tolerate?” Human Brain Mapping 30, no. 10 (2009), 3102-3114. doi:10.1002/hbm.20732.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Foods That Fight Inflammation.” Harvard Health. Last modified September 24, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation.
Higgins, John P., and Kavita M. Babu. “Caffeine Reduces Myocardial Blood Flow During Exercise.” The American Journal of Medicine 126, no. 8 (2013), 730.e1-730.e8. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2012.12.023.
Killer, Sophie C., Andrew K. Blannin, and Asker E. Jeukendrup. “No Evidence of Dehydration with Moderate Daily Coffee Intake: A Counterbalanced Cross-Over Study in a Free-Living Population.” PLoS ONE 9, no. 1 (2014), e84154. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084154.
Ojeh, Nkemcho, Olivera Stojadinovic, Irena Pastar, Andrew Sawaya, Natalie Yin, and Marjana Tomic-Canic. “The effects of caffeine on wound healing.” International Wound Journal 13, no. 5 (2014), 605-613. doi:10.1111/iwj.12327.
Paiva, CLRS, BTS Beserra, CEG Reis, JG Dorea, THM Da Costa, and AA Amato. “Consumption of coffee or caffeine and serum concentration of inflammatory markers: A systematic review.” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 59, no. 4 (2017), 652-663. doi:10.1080/10408398.2017.1386159.
Stanford University School of Medicine. “Caffeine May Counter Age-related Inflammation.” News Center. Last modified January 16, 2017. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2017/01/caffeine-may-counter-age-related-inflammation-study-finds.html.
Zampelas, Antonis, Demosthenes B. Panagiotakos, Christos Pitsavos, Christina Chrysohoou, and Christodoulos Stefanadis. “Associations between coffee consumption and inflammatory markers in healthy persons: the ATTICA study.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 80, no. 4 (2004), 862-867. doi:10.1093/ajcn/80.4.862.
Zeratsky, Katherine. “The Myth About Caffeine and Dehydration.” Mayo Clinic. Last modified September 12, 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/caffeinated-drinks/faq-20057965.