Caffeine and Sleep: Striking the Right Balance
By Lindy Mahoney, BS, RPSGT, Avera Sacred Heart Sleep Diagnostics Lab
Information provided by the National Sleep Foundation
Are you someone who needs a fresh cup of java to coax you out of bed in the morning? Or perhaps you prefer an afternoon jolt from the cola vending machine. Or maybe you're more the candy bar type. In any case, you're not alone. In our 24/7 culture, cups of coffee, soda and candy bars are staples of everyday consumers. How did caffeine become the drug (and food) of choice?
Because caffeine is a stimulant, most people use it after waking up in the morning or to remain alert during the day. While caffeine cannot replace sleep, it can temporarily make us feel more alert by blocking sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain and increasing adrenaline production. Caffeine also increases dopamine levels -- the neurotransmitter that is affected by drugs like amphetamines and heroin. Obviously, it increases dopamine on a much reduced level from those drugs, but this may be the source of caffeine's addictive quality.
There is no nutritional need for caffeine in the diet. Moderate caffeine intake, however, is not associated with any recognized health risk. Three 8 oz. cups of coffee (250 milligrams of caffeine) per day is considered a moderate amount of caffeine. Six or more 8 oz. cups of coffee or soda per day is considered excessive intake of caffeine.
Although caffeine is safe to consume in moderation, it is not recommended for children. It may negatively affect a child's nutrition by replacing nutrient-dense foods such as milk. It may also delay sleep onset if caffeine is consumed too close to naptime or bedtime. Likewise, doctors and experts recommend limiting the amount of caffeine consumed during pregnancy to one or two 8 oz. servings per day.
Caffeine's strongest effects are felt for about an hour after taking it, but some effects last 4 to 6 hours. Thus, it's important to stop drinking caffeine at least four hours before bedtime. Even more important, we should not substitute quality sleep with excessive amounts of caffeine (more than 48 ounces per day). In fact, this substitution creates a vicious cycle - the more tired you are, the more caffeine you'll consume to stay awake during the day; but the more caffeine you consume, the harder it'll be to fall asleep at night.
To strike the right balance between caffeine and sleep, one should get 7-9 hours of sleep each night and consume no more than 48 ounces (6 cups) of caffeine early in the day. With this established, you can enjoy your morning cup of Joe and your afternoon glass of ice tea, in moderation. Just remember, no amount of caffeine can replace getting 7-9 hours of Zzz's each night!