Caffeine & Sleep: What YOU need to know

If you’re wondering what’s keeping you up at night, it could be the amount of caffeine that you consume throughout the day. Caffeine is safe for most adults and can even have important health benefits. On the other hand, too much of it can contribute to insomnia and other sleep problems.


Luckily pure and highly concentrated caffeine food products have been illegal in Australia since December 2019. All foods in Australia that contain caffeine, need to meet the standard of 5% or less for foods that are solid or semi-solid, or 1% or less for foods that are liquid. This helps with keeping your caffeine intake down.


The average intake of caffeine in Australia is approximately 210mg per 70kg person (equivalent to approximately 2.7 250ml cups of instant coffee or 2.6 standard 250mL energy drinks). Sales of energy drinks in Australia and New Zealand increased from 34.5 million litres in 2001 to 155.6 litres in 2010 and it has been increasing ever since.


What food and drinks have caffeine in them?

No matter where you find caffeine, the amount of caffeine you consume on a daily basis contributes to your sleep profile. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, carbonated drinks, energy drinks, chocolates and various lollies (for example, Reese’s Peanut Butter cups). Many people think that drinking water counteracts the impacts of caffeine, but that’s incorrect.



Facts about Caffeine:

1. Understand the chemistry. Caffeine is a stimulant. It blocks the effects of a neurochemical called adenosine that builds across your day and makes you feel sleepy. It also increases your dopamine levels, so you become more alert.

2. Spot the symptoms. You’ve probably noticed that it’s more difficult for you to fall asleep after you’ve been drinking coffee. Caffeine can disrupt your body clock because it suppresses melatonin production. You may find that your caffeine intake also reduces your sleep time as well as the amount of restorative deep sleep that your mind and body need.

3. Know the benefits. Studies show that moderate amounts of caffeine boosts your mood and mental performance, and it may lower your risk for many serious conditions including certain cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.


Learn how to enjoy your daily caffeine habit and still stay well rested.


Managing Your 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 can be found in chocolate, carbonated drinks, and even some over-the-counter and prescription medications. Learn to read food labels so you can identify the caffeine content in what you eat and drink.


2. Measure your consumption. While there is no recognised health-based guidance, like an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for caffeine, research recommends limiting your caffeine consumption to less than 400 mg per day or 3mg per 1kg of body weight. Bearing in mind your body’s ability to breakdown caffeine may make this recommendation not possible. Listen to your body before you set your caffeine limit.


For me a second coffee, even before noon, makes a good sleep problematic. I also find that with too much coffee over time makes my sleep 'thinner’ and less deep, making it easy to wake with the slightest noise.


3. Downsize your servings. Of course, you also need to pay attention to the size of your caffeine portions. A single giant mug or oversized take away cup could put you over the limit. Also noting the differences in caffeine in your drink of choice i.e., instant coffee, percolated coffee, barista made coffee, hot chocolate or energy drink.


4. Set a curfew. Timing counts too. Caffeine takes about 20 minutes to go to work, and the effects can last for 6 hours or more. If you want it out of your system by bedtime, time when you have your last cup of coffee.


For me I can safely have my one Large Long Black before 12-noon to fall asleep at 10.30pm. After that I’m playing sleep roulette!


5. Take a break. Tolerance to caffeine builds up quickly, so over time you will need more to have a similar impact. Taking a break from caffeine or ‘cycling caffeine’ as it’s known, could be helpful if you find yourself becoming dependent on it to wake up or feel alert. You know you need a break when your regular coffee doesn’t taste as good as you expected, or you are happy to drink any coffee not just your favourite one. If that happens you may want to consider other natural ways to feel alert.


How to taper or cycle your caffeine

To cycle your caffeine means to give it up for a period to reduce your tolerance. It is recommended you do this for at least a month to have an impact.


There are two ways you can do this: reduce your intake by half until you no longer experience withdrawal symptoms and continue until it is no longer worth drinking caffeine; or, you can go ‘cold turkey’ i.e., stop drinking and eating all forms of caffeine in one go, for a month.


Clients tend to choose the reduction path as the cold turkey path is not without it’s drawbacks. Also, it can take some time for you to trust and believe that you can survive and be alert without your regular cup of caffeine.  


Cold turkey may lead you to experience severe headaches and a feeling of nauseousness which could be hard if you are still going to be working and interacting with others in a professional way. If you do decide to go ‘cold turkey’, I recommend starting on a Thursday, so you have the benefit of the weekend to overcome the worst of your withdrawal symptoms.


I have found on my working days I enjoy my one and only cup of coffee before 10am. On the other days, I wait to see if I crave one before 11.30am to determine if I have any coffee. Sometimes it’s about your routine, for example, where you walk past on your way to work or what comes before you craving or wanting a caffeine hit.   


How to improve your alertness without caffeine

After reducing your caffeine intake, you may want to include some of these techniques to promote and improve your alertness without caffeine.  

1. Stay awake until you’re ready for your long sleep. Napping reduces your sleep drive and makes it harder for you to fall asleep when you really want to. Only nap when you are sleep deprived or if napping is a way that you mange your sleep needs with your lifestyle. Inconsistent napping is unhelpful in the longer term. 

2. Change the way you work. Chunk your work down into 40-minute activities so that your brain stays alert rather than veering off towards automaticity. If you need to, add a bit of competitive energy to maintain your alertness.

3. Move your body regularly and add in stretches. Combined with your chunking of work, add in stretches that counteract your work position so that you can maintain alertness in your posture. I often stand and stretch regularly and I often move away from my desk for phone calls, so I am changing my posture. You can also take a brisk walk or run halfway through your day.

4. Drink more water. While water is a great supplement to caffeine drinking. Downing a glass of plain water, a bit cooler than body temperature, first thing in the morning can help you wake up without the caffeine.

5. Turn up the lights. Exposure to light is another way to make your brain more alert.


You may also have some other ways to maintain your alertness without caffeine which you naturally do. If not, try these to get you started.


Knowing when and how to drink your caffeine will help you to enjoy your favorite brew and leverage the benefits of caffeine without disturbing your sleep! If you find making adjustments to your caffeine intake doesn't change your sleep problem,  please book in a confidential call where we can explore working together on your sleep problem. 

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