Caffeine: Ups and Downs

Wake up, drink coffee, be productive, get sleepy, drink more coffee, jitter into exhaustion and repeat through the afternoon.

If you rely on caffeine to wake you up and keep you going, you aren’t alone. For most people, moderate doses of caffeine – 200 to 300 milligrams (mg) or about two cups of brewed coffee a day isn’t harmful. Moderate caffeine intake isn’t likely to cause harm, too much can noticeably affect your health especially if you do not have good nutrition and adequate water to offset the potential ills of dehydration.

Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than are others. If you’re susceptible to the effects of caffeine, just small amounts – even one cup of coffee or tea – may prompt unwanted effects, such as anxiety, restlessness, irritability and sleep problems. How you react to caffeine may be determined in part by how much caffeine you’re used to drinking. So, people who don’t regularly consume caffeine tend to be more sensitive to its negative effects. Other factors may include body mass, age, smoking habits, drug or hormone use, stress and health conditions such as anxiety disorders. Some circumstances may warrant limiting or even ending your caffeine routine.

Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. But caffeine can interfere with this much-needed sleep. Chronically losing sleep – whether it’s from work, travel, stress or too much caffeine – results in sleep deprivation. Sleep loss is cumulative, and even small nightly decreases can add up and disturb your daytime alertness and performance.

Using caffeine to mask sleep deprivation can create an unwelcome cycle. For example, you drink caffeinated beverages because you have trouble staying awake during the day. But the caffeine keeps you from falling asleep at night, shortening the length of time you sleep. Caffeine can also increase the number of times you wake up during the night and interfere with deep sleep, making your night less restful. You wake up tired the next day and reach for your morning jolt of Java.

The best way to break this cycle is to reduce the caffeine and add more hours of quality sleep each day. Try to avoid caffeinated beverages eight hours before your desired bedtime. Your body doesn’t store caffeine, but it takes many hours for it to eliminate the stimulant and its effects.

Certain medications and herbal supplements negatively interact with caffeine. Here are some examples. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about whether caffeine might affect your prescription. He or she can say whether you need to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet.

Whether it’s for one of the reasons above – or because you want to trim your spending on pricey coffee drinks – cutting back on caffeine can be challenging. Too abrupt a decrease in caffeine can cause caffeine withdrawal with signs and symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, irritability and nervousness. Fortunately, these symptoms usually resolve after several days.

Tara welcomes questions in relation to nutrition and exercise, to be answered in the weekly column ‘Food and Fitness Matters’. If you have a question please email it to [email protected]

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