Your alarm buzzes and you swat the snooze button three or four times. When you finally do get out of bed, you’re so exhausted that the only way you can start your day is by brewing a pot of coffee.
The caffeine derived energy wears off by mid-afternoon, so you drink an energy drink or more coffee to keep yourself mentally sharp. When you go to bed, you feel restless, and it takes you more than an hour to fall asleep.
This fatigue-caffeine loop is common in modern life. You lose sleep, so you feel tired. You feel tired, so you drink caffeinated beverages.
Caffeine may make you feel better in the short term, but chronically using caffeine as a replacement for a balanced life can hurt your neurotransmitter and hormone levels.
How does Caffeine Give You Energy?
Do you find that the smell of coffee by itself is enough to energize you?
If you drink coffee regularly, your brain can become conditioned to associate the smell of coffee with energy. In fact, research shows that solely smelling coffee may boost mental performance. (1)
Here is a list of the caffeine content in eight ounces of some common drinks (one ounce for espresso): (2)
Caffeine is the most active psychoactive substance in the world. (3)
After you consume caffeine, the lining of your digestive system absorbs it, and the caffeine enters your bloodstream. Once your blood carries the caffeine to your brain, it blocks the neurotransmitter adenosine.
When caffeine suppresses adenosine, dopamine and noradrenaline levels rise, which increases mental function, mood, and the firing of your neurons. (4)
The Negative Effects of Caffeine
Caffeine may be beneficial for short term mental function and have other wonderful health boosting benefits. However, when you consume caffeine regularly as a source of energy, your body builds a tolerance and you need to consume more to get the same effects. (5)
For example, if you regularly drink five cups of coffee a day but only drink one cup today, you’ll likely feel tired, sluggish, and irritable. If you don’t drink any coffee, you may even experience occasional headaches and lethargy.
Caffeine and Cortisol
Consuming caffeine increases your adrenal glands’ production of the hormone cortisol. (6) Cortisol is your stress hormone that helps your body deal with immediate danger. If a bear started chasing you, your cortisol levels would spike. This spike in cortisol allows your body to break down sugar and protein quicker so you have instant energy.
Unfortunately, your body can’t differentiate between an impending bear attack and mental stress. When cortisol levels stay elevated chronically, you may experience the following:
Suboptimal blood pressure (7)
Weight gain (8)
Brain fog (10)
Suboptimal immune system (11)
Cortisol levels naturally peak in the morning and decline throughout the day.
If you’re chronically stressed, your body’s natural cortisol rhythms can become disrupted. This disruption in cortisol can make getting out of bed more difficult.
Caffeine and Adrenaline
Consuming caffeine also causes a release of the hormone adrenaline and the related hormone noradrenaline. Your adrenal glands produce both of these hormones, which also act as neurotransmitters. The primary function of these two hormones is to activate your sympathetic nervous system and your ‘fight or flight’ instincts.
You probably felt the effects of adrenaline when you played a high-stakes sports match or when you watched a scary movie. Your heart races, your eyes dilate, and you become hyper-alert.
Adrenaline and cortisol work together to help your body survive potential threats.
Unfortunately, when stress becomes chronic and your stress hormones remain elevated, you may develop the following: (12,13)
Problems with Digestion
Difficulty falling or staying asleep
Do I need to Cut Caffeine from My Diet?
If you feel like you could benefit from cutting out caffeine from you diet, it may be something to talk to your health practitioner about.
Here are a few other suggestions to consider:
Go to bed at the same time every night. A consistent schedule teaches your body to feel tired at the same time each night.
Don’t drink any caffeine after 3:00pm.
Don’t exceed 400mg of caffeine per day. (14)
If possible, schedule an afternoon nap each day so that your body has time to recharge.
If you can’t live without your morning coffee, consider drinking decaffeinated coffee in the afternoon as well. Occasionally drinking decaffeinated coffee helps disassociate the smell of coffee from caffeine.
Additional Sources of Caffeine
If you are considering eliminating caffeine from your diet, remember that coffee isn’t the only source of caffeine you need to watch out for. Energy drinks, colas, some teas, and chocolate all contain caffeine as well. You can wean off caffeine by replacing coffee with tea. Replace energy drinks with regular water or sparkling water (you can add lemon, mint leaves or strawberries for a different taste).
The amount of caffeine you can handle depends on your genetic make-up and other lifestyle factors. If you’re chronically stressed and don’t handle caffeine well, you might want to think about avoiding caffeine completely.
If you break the habit of using caffeine to make-up for sleeping poorly, your body’s adrenal system will thank you.
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