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The First Pillar - Is there Something Getting in the Way of Your Sleep?

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

A figure asleep on a table with a cup of hot coffee and partially finished iced coffee

Recently I introduced the four pillars of health, of which sleep is one. Sleep is probably one of the most neglected pillars of the four, and one that we can frequently end up scrimping on for a variety of different reasons. But it doesn’t take much of a sleep deficit before we will start to feel the effects, and long term sleep deprivation may increase the risk of depression and anxiety, along with numerous physical health conditions such as weight gain, high blood pressure and risk for diabetes.

Sometimes, despite all our best intentions, we can struggle to get off to sleep at night. One culprit could be the coffee that you drank during the day, as caffeine can contribute to insomnia and other sleep issues. We can find ourselves trapped in a vicious cycle of needing coffee to perk us up and keep us going during the day but then not being able to sleep well at night, thus needing the caffeine boost again the following morning.

While we could give up coffee without sacrificing any essential nutrients, it’s a small pleasure that many of us would miss and it is possible to still enjoy a good cup of Java without worrying that we’re going to be up all night.

Facts about Caffeine:

1. Understand the chemistry. Caffeine is a stimulant. It blocks the effects of a neurochemical called adenosine, that makes us feel sleepy, and increases our sensitivity to dopamine (another neurochemical) so we become more alert and feel good.

2. Spot the symptoms. Caffeine can disrupt our body clocks because it suppresses melatonin (a hormone involved in the sleep cycle). In addition to reducing our total sleep time, we may also wind up reducing the amount of restorative deep sleep which is vital for both our minds and bodies.

3. Know the benefits. Studies show that moderate intake of coffee boosts mood and mental performance, and may even lower our risk for serious conditions including certain cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

Managing Caffeine Intake:

1. Consider each source. While coffee and tea account for more than 90% of the caffeine in the average diet, there are some additional sources that may surprise you. Caffeine is also found in chocolate, colas, energy drinks, and even some over-the-counter and prescription medications - Try to get into the habit of reading labels so that you know exactly what you are putting into your body (this will also help with your nutrition pillar too!).

2. Measure your consumption. It’s wise to limit your caffeine consumption to less than 400 milligrams each day. That’s about 4 cups of coffee.

3. Downsize your servings. Of course, you also need to pay attention to the size of those cups. A single giant mug or oversized fast food cup could put you over the limit.

4. Set a curfew. Timing is important!!! Caffeine takes about 20 minutes to go to work, and but the effects can linger for hours and hours after that! The single most important information to know about drinking coffee is that:

The half-life of caffeine in the body is approximately 6 hours.

What this means is that if you drink a cup of coffee containing 200 milligrams of caffeine at 3pm there will still be approximately 100 milligrams in your body at 9pm, and 50 milligrams at 3am! Although the levels may have dropped enough by bedtime for you to be able to drop off, your deep restorative sleep may well still be impacted by the caffeine that is still floating around your system.

5. Take a break. Tolerance to caffeine can build up quickly, meaning that we can find we are needing to drink more and more coffee to get the state of alertness that we are looking for in the morning. So, if we can resist overindulging on a regular basis then it will have more impact when we do have a coffee.

6. Avoid energy drinks. Many experts warn against the use of products like energy drinks and caffeine powder that deliver large amounts of caffeine very quickly. They can contribute to heart conditions and anxiety, especially when combined with alcohol.

7. Drink more water. On the other hand, water is a great supplement to coffee drinking. Downing a glass of plain water first thing in the morning may help us to wake up with less coffee than usual.

8. Turn up the lights. Exposure to light is another safe way to make your brain more alert. Take a morning run or walk around the block during your lunch hour. Watching the sun rise and the sun set are great ways of helping your body clock keep on track.

9. Talk with your doctor. Your doctor can advise you about any individual concerns about coffee. You may want to cut back if you have high blood pressure or you’re pregnant or nursing.

Caffeine can have positive effects for most adults when used wisely. Knowing when and how to drink our coffee will help us to enjoy our favorite brews without disturbing our sleep.

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