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MS and Coffee

By Matt Cavallo
We all have crutches in life. Coffee is mine. Always has been, and in fact, I can remember my first cup. I was 12 years old on an overnight ski trip in Vermont. It was a group ski trip and there were chaperones, but my parents weren’t there. My parents were big coffee drinkers, but they never let me have a cup. When we had breakfast at the ski lodge, the waitress asked if I wanted coffee with my breakfast. Taking advantage of my freedom, I, of course, said yes. It was love at first sip.

More than 30 years later, coffee is the fuel that propels me. I can’t function unless I have that first cup of the day. It is a part of my morning routine. On workdays, as I am getting ready, I have my single cup brewing to accompany me in traffic. Once I get to the office, I typically drink coffee up until about 1 p.m., adding up to four or five cups. If I drink anymore after that, I am up all night.

I don’t drink coffee for the flavor. I drink it to help fight the fatigue. I don’t take any medication or supplements for my MS fatigue, nor do I drink five-hour energy or any of the monster energy drinks. I had energy drinks once, and I was tossed and turned all night because my brain wouldn’t turn off. For me, a cup of black coffee is the only thing that keeps me focused, alert, and able to fend off the fatigue.

So, does coffee really help with MS fatigue or is it just my crutch? I did some research into the subject and the results were surprising. There were actually two studies, one in California and one in Sweden, which showed that people who consumed more coffee have a decreased risk of developing MS. 

In that study, 2,300 people on a health plan in northern California showed the people who drank the most coffee had lower odds of getting MS. The Swedish study revealed that people who drank three to six cups had less of a chance of developing MS than those who didn’t drink coffee. People who drank seven cups had even less risk of developing MS.

Of course, this research doesn’t help me because I already have MS, but it was still interesting that there was correlation between coffee consumption and risk of developing MS. Interestingly enough, it isn’t thought to be the caffeine that reduces the MS risk. Dr. Elias Sotirchos, of Johns Hopkins University, pointed out that coffee has more than 1,000 biologically active compounds and that consumption of soda and tea did not change the MS risk in the studies. 

I then wanted to find out if there was a benefit to drinking coffee for those of us who already have MS. Again, there was some promising research. Caffeine has some properties that help stimulate the nervous system and fight inflammation. There is also some evidence that coffee can help with other neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s. 

Coffee does has some negative side effects, however, like irritability, insomnia, muscle tremors, and increased need to use the bathroom. This is why it is important to manage your coffee intake. For me, I need to drink it in the morning and have my final cup right after lunch. If I have a big project or presentation and I drink a late coffee to stay sharp, I always regret it later that night. If I manage my intake right, I am able to manage the side effects.

I also don’t mix it. I buy high-quality beans and drink it black. I don’t add cream or sugar. It took me a while to enjoy coffee without mixing in cream or sugar, but I found that eliminating the mixing also eliminated some of the bad side effects. Too much sugar will lead to a sugar crash and too much dairy can lead to some unpleasant stomach issues. I find now that when I drink it black, I enjoy the taste more than when I get one that has been sweetened.

While research shows that there actually may be some benefit drinking coffee if you have MS, consult your neurologist if you have any questions about your personal coffee consumption. If you are going to drink coffee, find what works for you to manage the side effects. If you have MS, coffee can still be the best part of waking up.