Caffeine doesn’t have to harm your sleep — how to enjoy that morning buzz while supporting a your circadian rhythm
Is your morning cup of coffee helping or hindering your circadian rhythm?
Many of us can’t imagine living without caffeine. Whether you gleefully anticipate your morning cup of coffee, or enjoy several cups each morning and into the afternoon, there’s no doubt that caffeine makes us better at focusing and producing. Yet we often view caffeine as a crutch, or a naughty habit that’s not nearly as bad as some other habits. Even though caffeine is an addictive substance, it is not inherently bad. It’s completely possible to have a healthy relationship with caffeine on a daily basis. By being mindful of timing, you can get the most benefit from the least amount of caffeine, AND protect your sleep-wake cycle. Before we talk about how, it’s important to understand some of the science behind wakefulness and sleep:
Cortisol is a super important hormone released by our adrenal glands. If we’re getting adequate sleep, most of us experience an early morning burst of cortisol between 8-9am. You may hear about cortisol being this evil stress hormone in the holistic health world, but it’s actually essential to life – we would die very quickly without it. Having a morning burst of cortisol is completely normal and healthy, and it’s what helps us to feel more awake as the morning progresses. The common problem here is that many of us consume our first cup of coffee before our morning cortisol has had an opportunity to support our wakefulness.
Adenosine is another important substance to know about when it comes to caffeine. Adenosine is created in the brain and helps to create our sleep pressure throughout the day. Adenosine should be lowest in the morning, and slowly builds and peaks in the evening, helping us to fall asleep. Caffeine sneaks in and binds to adenosine receptors, which blocks adenosine. This leads to the wakefulness and alertness we feel after that delicious cup of coffee. The caveat here – even though caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, the brain is still releasing it. If we consume caffeine all morning, and then stop after lunch, it’s not unusual to experience a crash. As the caffeine wears off, the adenosine receptors become flooded with all that built-up adenosine, and we feel even more exhausted, which often leads to reaching for an afternoon cup of coffee. Why is this problematic? Caffeine has a half-life of about 4-6 hours. This means that 4-6 hours after drinking a cup of coffee, HALF of the caffeine will still be present in your body, doing what it does best – keeping you awake. Depending on one’s ability to metabolize caffeine, it can take 8-12 hours to completely leave the body. Lingering caffeine in the body in the afternoon or evening can delay the natural build-up of adenosine, leading to delayed sleep pressure, and delayed time into the deeper restorative phases of sleep. Poor sleep leads to more fatigue and the desire/need for caffeine, and you can see the potentially vicious cycle here!
My recommendations for caffeine intake:
1) Stay mindful of your body’s natural rhythms. Let that morning cortisol surge before introducing caffeine. Get outside without sunglasses for 15 minutes each morning to get some light in your eyes, which helps facilitate wakefulness. THEN, drink your morning caffeinated beverage(s) sometime between 9:30-11:30am. Not only will you be protecting your sleep-wake cycle, but you’ll have allowed cortisol to peak naturally, and you shouldn’t need as much caffeine to feel focused and productive.
4) Know how caffeine affects you. We all respond differently to caffeine. I’m extremely sensitive and a slower metabolizer, while folks I know can handle large amounts of caffeine without any adverse effects. If you’re someone who is already anxious, jittery, or running around in fight-or-flight on the daily, caffeine may not be your friend right now. This is your body’s intelligent way of nudging you towards more grounding habits. Focus on the “Yin” qualities – good sleep, breathwork, nature walks, self-care, meditation, yoga nidra, and avoidance of stimulants. Bring in the herbal tea – chamomile, passionflower, lemon balm, and lavender can all have calming properties.