The People's Perspective on Medicine

Nurse Endorses Coffee to Stimulate Bowels After Surgery

Passing gas doesn't seem like a great accomplishment unless you have had abdominal surgery. Doctors need to stimulate bowels after surgery to prevent POI.

Anyone who has had abdominal surgery knows that the surgical team won’t let you leave the hospital until you fart. The passage of gas demonstrates that your digestive tract has started working again. The reason that is so important is to prevent some serious called POI (post-operative ileus). In essence, parts of your intestines stop functioning. There aren’t a lot of successful medical strategies to stimulate bowels after surgery.

Lack of muscular contractions in the digestive tract can then lead to a buildup of fluid and gas in parts of the bowel. After three days doctors get worried if you do not “break wind.” The symptoms of POI include nausea, vomiting, pain, bloating and abdominal tenderness (Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, Feb. 2009). 

Coffee Can Stimulate Bowels After Surgery:

Q. As an RN since the 1970s, I’ve cared for countless patients who’ve undergone abdominal surgery. We used to keep many of them “NPO” (meaning “nothing by mouth”). We sometimes gave them very small amounts of clear liquids until we heard normal bowel sounds and they passed flatus (gas).

We subsequently learned that there were safe ways to stimulate the digestive tract and help get things back to normal. Giving patients coffee definitely yielded excellent results. In addition to coffee, virtually any warm or hot drink was really helpful.

In addition, many surgeons routinely prescribe chewing gum! I’ve not studied this, but perhaps the entire experience of chewing and swallowing, along with the sugar, stimulates peristalsis.

Of course, every post-operative patient must be carefully evaluated by their health care practitioner to determine when it’s appropriate to resume taking anything by mouth.

A. You might be surprised to learn that scientists have studied the effects of coffee on post-operative bowel function. A recent randomized controlled trial found that coffee was more effective than tea for getting the bowels to move after surgery (Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, Aug. 2019).  Even though some people in the tea group cheated and drank a little coffee, those assigned to coffee got out of the hospital a day earlier.

What About Gum to Stimulate Bowels After Surgery?

A thorough review of 17 studies on gum chewing after Caesarian section found that this:

“enhances early recovery of bowel function”

(Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Oct. 17, 2016)

You are right that the judgment on when this is safe must be made on an individual case-by-case basis. Coffee, warm water or chewing gum are low-tech remedies to stimulate bowels after surgery and prevent POI. 

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
Digestive Disorders
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Digestive Disorders
Citations
  • Carroll, J. and Alavi, K. “Pathogenesis and Management of Postoperative Ileus,” Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, Feb. 2009, doi: 10.1055/s-0029-1202886
  • Hasler-Gehrer, S., et al, "Does Coffee Intake Reduce Postoperative Ileus After Laparoscopic Elective Colorectal Surgery? A Prospective, Randomized Controlled Study: The Coffee Study," Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, Aug. 2019, DOI: 10.1097/DCR.0000000000001405
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Often, it doesn’t say whether it’s regular or decaf coffee that is helpful. Also, with chewing gum, the artificial sweeteners may have a laxative effect if used frequently.

It must be true. I wish I would’ve known this in the 70’s after giving birth to my children as a non coffee drinker.
The nurse told me I couldn’t go home until I had a BM when your stay consisted of 5 days.
I never had an issue with BM’s as I went regularly every day until that hospital visit. When my husband started drinking coffee just the smell of it would send me running to the toilet. As a tea drinker I will have a cup of coffee when I’m abit sluggish. It really works for me.

Years ago, I worked for a large Taiwanese-owned steamship Company. I was one if the few Americans and my position fully immersed me in the many unique cultural and food ways including the wonders and importance of a good-working bowel system.

EVERY morning all of the Taiwanese employees and executives would drink cups of hot (or very warm) water before drinking tea. Why? By doing this guaranteed a healthy bowel and elimination system due Traditional Chinese Medicine. I was advised to never start my day drinking a cold anything. Just a cup of hot water.

After 45 years and doing this every day I’ve yet to experience anything other than overall good health.

Just wondering if coffee enemas could work just the same? Also, does anybody have a protocol for Idiopathic or Idiosyncratic Gastroparesis?

I have never been a coffee drinker and I prefer to use sugarless gum after surgery. I chew it about 3 times a day until I find myself going again. Just because you move your bowels once doesn’t mean you are ok. Keep drinking your coffee or chewing your sugarless gum for about a week until you know you are going normally again.

As a non-coffee drinker, I think suggesting that I drink coffee is horrible. Some people think that smoking stimulates the bowels so maybe I should take up smoking.

Nancy,

Please note that the nurse suggested hot beverages…such as water as an alternative to coffee. She also offered chewing gum. Either might be helpful for garden-variety constipation or post-abdominal surgery.

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