Okay, hand up – who here drinks coffee first thing in the morning?
If you just raised your hand, I’ve got good news and bad news.
Bad news first. Ready?
Having your caffeine fix first thing in the morning will NOT perk you up.
That may come as a shocker, but the good news is, you no longer need to make that sluggish early morning trip to the coffee-maker daily, nor join that long rush hour queue in your go-to café.
If you’re wondering whether we’re pulling some sick April Fool’s joke in the middle of August, there’s actually scientific evidence to all of this.
And it starts with cortisol.
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone.” It gets released in your body when you’re feeling under pressure or that “fight or flight” response in the face of perceived threat or danger .
Because of this natural and evolutionary protective response, high levels of cortisol result in a burst of new energy and strength .
Cortisol also has to do with body chemistry and the circadian rhythm – the body’s internal clock – which regulates the time when you feel awake or sleepy.
Upon waking up, your body experiences increased amounts of cortisol, which helps you transition from a sleepy state to the need to get out of bed (probably not on Mondays but that’s a different story).
Caffeine enters the picture because it’s been proven to increase the production of cortisol .
This has a couple of implications:
To steer clear from caffeine tolerance, as well as the extra anxiety and stress brought about by a rather unpleasant combination of caffeine and high levels of cortisol, it’s important to know when your “cortisol times” strike.
According to this 2009 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism , there are three times during the day when the body’s cortisol levels are at their highest:
Coffee-lover Riyoko Iwata made this lovely infographic to map it out:
According to the study , the highest levels of cortisol peak between 8 and 9 a.m.
But peak times vary...
While the times in the infographic are for normal waking hours (6:30 a.m.), the peak cortisol time frame varies from person to person depending on when they wake up.
If you’re a night owl who gets out of bed at 10 a.m. or an early bird who rises at 4 a.m., you can dial the time by plus or minus three hours, respectively.
According to neuroscientist Steven L. Miller , a postdoctoral research fellow at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, consuming caffeine during your body’s peak cortisol levels – when you’re all naturally “wired up” – limits its positive effects.
In fact, introducing caffeine into your system while your cortisol levels are at their peak can increase your caffeine tolerance, which can disturb your circadian rhythm.
Hence, you’ll get less of a buzz and need even more to stay awake in the future.
The Washington Post also reports that when people talk about developing a tolerance for caffeine, they are unknowingly referring to inhibition of cortisol production .
The bed calling you? Time for a cup of coffee! Unless you just woke up…
“Coffee drinkers who are exhausted in the morning without their coffee have likely altered their circadian rhythm in such a way that they need the caffeine boost in order to reach the level of wakefulness they used to achieve without it,” the article states.
So when’s the best time to get your caffeine fix?
Simple. Find your non-peak times.
Consuming caffeine while your cortisol levels are low maximizes its effect on your body, bringing out the post-spinach Popeye in you – marvelously productive without the jitters.
This is when your body needs the boost, and it’s less likely that the caffeine will interfere with your body chemistry and circadian rhythms if you take it then.
You can take multiple coffee breaks in a day:
Mid-morning, not first thing!
To ensure a harmonious cortisol-caffeine relationship in your system, drink your first cup of coffee around 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.
Because the highest level of cortisol happens between 8 and 9 am, it’s best to limit coffee when you first wake up.
If you think you’ve become too dependent on your early morning coffee (it’s part of your morning ritual anyway), you can try dialing it back gradually until you can finally have your first cup at 9ish.
Of course, it also helps to have enough sleep the night before (try saving all the Netflix binge for the weekend!)
And if you’re tired and sleepless?
Wait at least an hour to take that first cup. (You can do it!)
The afternoon coffee break
If you feel the afternoon slump coming, have another cup between 1:30 and 5 p.m.
Here’s the catch – it’s best to avoid caffeine after 3 pm.
Many people have trouble getting to sleep if they take caffeine later in the day, so you might want to avoid a cup of java or tea in the 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. peak cortisol time frame.
Remember, caffeine remains in your system for up to 12 hours and can eat into your snooze time .
If you find yourself craving coffee later in the afternoon or even evening, try having black tea, which has half the amount of caffeine of coffee, or green tea, which has around one third the amount . Or, for some fresh breath too, try an energy mint, which also has half the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee.
If you want an animated version of this whole article, here’s a short video from the popular science YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE which explains the phenomenon of cortisol, caffeine and the morning routine.
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Is there a big difference between synthetic and natural caffeine? Which gives a stronger jolt? Does it even matter?
Natural caffeine in coffee, tea, and chocolate is much less common than the synthetic caffeine found in so many other products.
Caffeine is found in plant species such as the more popular ones like Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta, as well as tea leaves, kola nuts, cacao beans, Yerba mate and guarana berries.
Not only does naturally-occurring caffeine from said plants keep your cognitive functions at their peak, but it also contains antioxidants that help you fight illnesses like cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Caffeine is NOT addictive, but it sure is habit-forming. You don’t hear about coffee addicts robbing stores and hijacking motorists to get money for a fix. That’s because while caffeine does cause dependence, it isn’t in the same category as opiates or alcohol.