I love coffee and consume caffeine in the form of coffee and/or a pre-workout drink almost every single day of the week. Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug (yes, caffeine is most certainly a drug) in the world, and not without a whole lot of great reasons, especially when consumed from coffee.
Coffee is a great source of antioxidants which help prevent damage from free radicals (unstable atoms which damage cells) that play a part in aging, chronic illness and cancer. Coffee is a great source of Niacin, cafestol and kahweol - compounds that improve liver health - and chlorogenic acids - which help regulate blood sugar metabolism and blood pressure. There are hundreds of other compounds found in coffee that have beneficial effects to the body, far too many to get into here.
In addition to providing benefits for the body, coffee is great for the mind, primarily due to the caffeine found in it. Caffeine has been shown to possibly help prevent Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, boost short term memory, and of course, keep us awake and stave off fatigue. Caffeine is also the most widely studied sports supplement and has been proven to greatly increase both endurance performance as well as strength and power output, as well as improve reaction time. There are a obviously a ton of great reasons to make caffeine a part of your life, but there is one relatively large downside as well.
Like I stated earlier, caffeine is definitely a drug. It works as a foreign substance to bind to neurons in your brain, but has a markedly different process of many illicit drugs in that it doesn't really provide any outside stimulation as many people may think. Throughout the day, a neurotransmitter called adenosine builds up in your brain. When adenosine levels build up high enough, it makes you drowsy.
Caffeine has a very similar structure to adenosine, so it can also bind to adenosine receptors, effectively blocking adenosine from them, and therefore preventing you from experiencing the feeling of being tired. This is what is actually occurring when you have your morning coffee or slam a Red Bull - you’re blocking the adenosine in your brain from binding to receptors and eliminating the tired sensation.
When you are asleep with no caffeine in your system, your body can clear out the adenosine effectively and you can start your day fresh. However, caffeine has an average (this is important, we’ll come back to this shortly) half life of about 5 hours, meaning that in 5 hours, about half the caffeine in your body has been cleared out, and then 5 hours later half of that, and so on. If you have 200 mg of caffeine at 7am (roughly the amount in 10 oz of coffee or an energy drink), you'll be at 100 mg by noon, 50 mg by 5pm, and by 10pm, down to 25 mg, small enough that by bedtime it wouldn’t really be an issue.
So having a large cup or even two in the morning most likely wouldn't impact your sleep a whole lot, but if you find yourself drinking coffee all day, this can become problematic. You might find that you’re able to sleep decently enough, but in reality you are continuing to pile up adenosine in your brain that wants to make you tired. You wake up still a groggy zombie, and repeat that caffeine all day process day after day, year after year….
That being said, the point of this article isn’t to scare you away from caffeine, but to educate you on what’s actually going on in your body, especially given its numerous benefits. Much more research needs to be done, but it appears that the ability to process caffeine efficiently is directly correlated with the genetics of a liver enzyme called CYP1A2. Most individuals will fall into a slow metabolizer or fast metabolizer group, therefore that 5 hour half life average can vary tremendously from individual to individual. Slow metabolizers will usually feel more anxiety, upset stomach, and a greater level of sleep disturbance than fast metabolizers.
I used to drink literally 1-2 pots of coffee per day in college and sleep relatively fine, but I know of people who can’t have a can of Coke (40-50 mg of caffeine) past noon without being wired the rest of the day. On top of this, caffeine tolerance and rate of metabolization will definitely increase with increased usage, so don’t hesitate to experiment a bit to figure out what works for you. I have advised several clients who drink coffee on and off from waking until about 5pm to switch to a hard stop at 2:30pm, and then to noon, and then to keep it to just mornings, and they reported that their sleep improved immensely. After taking several days to acclimate to each step, they found they had much more energy. I myself have went cold turkey for two weeks (not recommended unless you like half day long splitting headaches), and more recently cut down from 2 morning early cups of coffee, a midday cup, and a 300 mg caffeine pre-workout drink in the late afternoon to a single cup of coffee early morning and pre-workout with caffeine only before very intense lifting sessions late morning, and my sleep has improved dramatically.
Caffeine is a healthy substance to consume with a myriad of benefits especially when drank in coffee, but sleep deprivation will cause pretty drastic decreases in both mental and physical performance. It is essential for caffeine users to find a balance of what works for them, and I’d urge any readers who find themselves “needing” caffeine all day to function properly to try what I’ve advised my clients and gradually cut back. In addition to sleeping better, when your tolerance decreases, you will find you don’t need as much to feel the effects. If you really just love drinking coffee and want to keep sipping it all day, I’d assume you’re a fast metabolizer, and you can probably keep on doing what you're doing and reaping the health benefits!
Did you know that Intelligentsia brews a special blend of coffee just for The Chopping Block? Stop in either store for a free cup and indulge your taste buds anytime.