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Caffeine and Sleep: The Happy Medium

Young woman sleeping at the table holding a cup of coffee

Caffeine is the most widely consumed stimulant in the world. Almost 90% of Americans drink caffeine in some form every single day. Due to the unique stressors of the pandemic coupled with an election year, self-reported at home caffeine consumption is going up as both physical and emotional fatigue increases. With this in mind, it is important to understand how caffeine affects our bodies and our sleeping habits.

What Does Caffeine Do to Your Body?

Studies have shown that caffeine improves cognitive ability and focus, decreases lethargy, increases physical performance and arousal, and ultimately decreases the “need” to sleep. Caffeine has also been shown to increase cardiac function, as well as provide several positive benefits to the gut. When used sparingly, people can enjoy the many benefits that caffeine has to offer.

Despite these benefits, there is evidence that caffeine intake can disrupt your sleep. In a study from Risk Management and Healthcare Policy, it was reported that, caffeine and sleep deprivation can create what is referred to as a “sleep sandwich.” It is a vicious cycle in which: user consumes caffeine to improve mood/energy, caffeine interrupts sleep cycle, interrupted sleep interferes with daytime performance, so user consumes caffeine to improve mood/energy, and so on.

Another study from the Sleep Health Journal showed that self-reported poor sleep was significantly higher among women who consumed high-calorie caffeine drinks daily. The combination of high caffeine and high sugar and fat in these types of drinks can greatly decrease sleep quality, especially when they are consumed late in the day.

Is Coffee Still Worth It?

As you can see, there are numerous pros and cons when it comes to caffeine consumption. Many people use their morning cup of coffee as a time to get themselves ready for the many tasks of the day, while others like to socialize while drinking their caffeinated beverage. Some just enjoy the taste and smell of their morning routine, where it may be more of a necessity to others who rely on coffee for “normal” functioning (i.e. the “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my morning cup” folks). Whatever your reasoning, one or two cups in the morning or early afternoon can provide a variety of benefits with very little backlash.

However, something to consider when choosing your source of caffeine is that there may be other ingredients and additives in your cup. Many “coffee beverages” have a lot of added sugar and are high in fat from dairy or dairy alternatives. Choosing caffeine options with low added sugar, low fat, and mostly natural ingredients will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Consider switching to black coffee in the morning, or only adding small amounts of creamers, sugar, or flavored syrup to your cup.

The time of day that you enjoy your cup is also crucial to experiencing disruption to your sleep. A morning or early afternoon drink can boost you throughout your busy day without creating the “sleep sandwich”. Having a late afternoon or evening cup has a much greater potential to disrupt your sleep and should be avoided. Remember that coffee is not the only beverage with caffeine! It is present in sodas, teas, energy drinks, and a variety of other bottled products. Make sure that you check the label before having a nighttime drink.

The Bottom Line

As we know, there are many reasons to have a cup (or two) of coffee in the morning. Whether you like the taste, feel like you need the extra boost, or simply just enjoy this part of your routine. Research shows that caffeine has both positive and negative effects on your energy and sleep cycle. In order to maximize the benefits and diminish the negatives, we must find a “happy medium”. Enjoying a cup or two of coffee a day in the morning, while avoiding the high sugar energy drinks and “coffee beverages” gives us the greatest number of pros vs cons.

The bottom line is that you can easily integrate healthy sleep habits into your routine in addition to enjoying your choice of caffeine!

Learn more about sleep health and other wellness programs offered by Wellness Workdays.

Written by: Emily Calder, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern




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