It’s not clear why coffee can stimulate a bowel movement, but the speed of this effect suggests it’s mediated by the brain.

Like opening the blinds and stepping into the shower, a cup of coffee gets people moving in the morning — in more ways than one. This satisfying brew revs energy levels with a dose of caffeine and, for many people, quickly and reliably jump-starts gut activity and an urgent need to poop, the New York Times reports.

But given coffee’s popularity, it’s surprising that we know so little about how it affects the gastrointestinal tract, said Dr. Robert Martindale, a professor of surgery and the medical director for hospital nutrition services at Oregon Health and Science University.

Some studies on the topic — which tend to be small, old and limited — have suggested that it’s probably not the caffeine that triggers the urge to go. One paper published in 1998, for instance, found that decaffeinated coffee had a similar stimulatory effect on the colon as caffeinated coffee, whereas a cup of hot water did not.

Coffee is a complex beverage containing more than 1,000 chemical compounds, many of which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. And determining how they affect the intestines is challenging.

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