For many of us, coffee is an extremely important part of our daily ritual. It helps to wake us up, get us in gear, and provide the energy we need to get through our days. Caffeine is relied upon by people all over the world for the same reasons.
But coffee, or any other caffeinated drinks or substance, can also have serious negative effects on our ability to sleep well. There’s nothing worse than laying in bed, unable to sleep because of your late afternoon pick-me-up espresso.
With all things in life, there is a need for balance. Understanding how caffeine affects our sleep patterns can help you regulate your intake and ensure that you remain adequately pepped up during the day, but still able to sleep soundly when the time comes.
How does caffeine affect the body?
Before you understand the facts of caffeine as it relates to your ability to sleep, it’s worth taking a second to consider how it affects the entire body generally.
As awful as it might sound when you take a step back to think about it, caffeine is actually an addictive drug, used and abused by people around the world at higher rates than any other substance, according to the World Health Organization.
The plant-based chemical, also called trimethylxanthine, is a stimulant that affects the body and brain in similar ways as more notorious drugs like amphetamines or cocaine do. When it enters the body, usually via ingestion by way of beverages like coffee, tea, energy drinks or otherwise, it begins working almost immediately. According to the University of Michigan, some of the most common effects that occur with the use of caffeine are:
- Increased heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and blood flow to extremities
- Higher levels of acid secretion in the stomach
- Increased production of urine, and more frequent need to urinate
Additionally, a litany of physical side effects is common when higher levels of caffeine are ingested, including dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, muscle tremors, blurred vision, cold sweats, even heart attacks.
However, most people ingest caffeine to accrue its stimulating effects on the brain. Caffeine works on the brain in a number of ways. For one, it blocks receptors of adenosine, a metabolic chemical that plays a role in drowsiness. The chemical structure of caffeine fits nicely into receptors designed for adenosine; when caffeine takes up their space, adenosine molecules cannot function properly to induce sleepiness, giving users the feeling of pep they crave.
Additionally, through a very complex process, caffeine can induce the famed “fight or flight” response in the body, which increases alertness by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the brain.
Finally, caffeine also boosts the production of dopamine, a neurochemical that plays a key role in the brain’s reward system. Dopamine is the same chemical that is released during sexual intercourse as well as the use of drugs like heroin and cocaine. It’s no wonder that morning coffee cup on consuming energy drinks makes you feel so good!
How does caffeine interfere with sleep?
Given all of the effects of caffeine on the body, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist (or a brain scientist!) to imagine how the simulant qualities of the drug could cause sleep problems.
One of the most sleep-disrupting functions of caffeine is the blocking up of adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine binds to cells in the brain, effectively slowing down their function, and indicating that the time for sleep is near. The result is that we feel sleepy and soon after seek to rest. But, when caffeine binds to these receptor points, blocking adenosine in the process, cells actually speed up their functioning.
The increase of adrenaline, heart rate, dopamine, and blood pressure you get from consuming caffeine will surely reduce your drowsiness. The end result of these changes to the body is that heavy users of caffeine find themselves in states of such high stimulation in the evening that they are not able to fall asleep in a timely manner. This, eventually affects sleep and leads to a shorter sleep cycle, and sleep deprivation.
Missing out on a few hours of sleep one night might not be that big of a deal; after all, you can just have a few extra cups of coffee the next day to balance yourself out. The problem comes when you are regularly missing sleep, and becomes even worse when you rely on extra caffeine to fix the problem. Before you know it, you can be caught in a cycle of needing caffeine to keep you alert because you are so sleep deprived of your caffeine habit.
How to drink responsibly, and still get to bed on time
When used in moderate doses, caffeine can give users the desired stimulating effects without interfering with sleep. The problem is that the perfect amount is different for everyone, and it is often difficult to ascertain. Here are a few tips for making sure you are taking in the right amount of caffeine for you:
- Limit your overall intake levels: According to the Mayo Clinic, 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (about four cups of brewed coffee) is a safe limit for adults. Avoid drinking more than this, and keep in mind that you might personally do better drinking far less; everyone is different.
- Keep an eye on caffeine intake close to bedtime: The effects of caffeine can last up to 12 hours. Obviously, you want to avoid drinking coffee right before bed, but you might even consider cutting out your afternoon cup if you find it difficult to fall asleep at night.
- Switch to decaf, or from coffee to tea: If you find it difficult to sleep at night, try slowly cutting back on your caffeine intake by switching to lower-dose beverages, especially in the afternoons. You’ll be surprised at how much we rely on the ritual and aroma of drinking coffee as we do the actual caffeine.
- Maintain healthy sleep hygiene: In addition to monitoring your caffeine intake, make sure you are getting enough exercise, eating well, and limit your alcohol and nicotine levels close to bedtime. All of these factors can make it easier to sleep better, and help you to have an overall healthy lifestyle.