Wine, cheese, chocolate, bread. Everybody has their vice. The one thing they simply cannot do without. Or think they can’t. Mine was caffeine. I love coffee. I love tea. Energy drinks, shots, supplements, transdermal patches – I’ve tried them all and enjoyed every minute. Until it all came crashing down.
I reached a point in my once blissful relationship with coffee where I knew things had taken a turn for the worse. The highs were not as high, but the lows were much lower. I needed more and more coffee to get the same feeling, and, when the boost would wear off, I felt terrible. Barely able to function. It was during one of these mind-melting crashes that the universe threw me a bone. I stumbled across an article with the headline: Early Morning is the Worst Time to Drink Coffee.
According to the article, drinking coffee first thing in the morning could work against you. What’s more, there may be an ideal time to drink caffeine to maximize its effectiveness. Could I have been doing it all wrong, all these years? That sounds about right. I decided to investigate.
WHAT IS COFFEE TIMING?
Coffee timing is timing when you consume coffee, or any type of caffeine, to coincide with when your body has a natural dip in energy. This idea was publicized in a 2013 blog post by neuroscientist Steven L. Miller.
In the post, Miller cites a study which found that, on average, most people’s cortisol levels naturally dip between 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., and again between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Cortisol is one of our body’s master hormones, controlling many functions including our sleep/wake cycle, or, our “circadian rhythm.” Cortisol is responsible for waking us up and keeping us awake throughout the day. According to the study, cortisol is naturally highest in the morning, beginning to rise around 6 a.m. and peaking around 9 a.m.
Miller argues that if you drink caffeine during this peak time, your body could begin to produce less cortisol and rely more on caffeine. After all, why would your body work hard to wake itself up when caffeine is already doing the job?
When should you drink caffeine?
One of the key principles of pharmacology is to use a drug when it is needed, says Miller. Otherwise, we can develop a tolerance. Miller proposes that the best times to drink coffee are during those times when our cortisol naturally dips: between 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., and between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. By delaying your coffee break to when you actually need a boost, you won’t interfere with your body’s ability to regulate your energy, says Miller.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH COFFEE TIMING: TAKE 1
All I had to do was hold off until 9:30. Easy enough.
The first few mornings my mind was literally like a pile of sludge. I was awake, I appeared to be human, checking emails, making phone calls – extremely painful phone calls – walking, talking. The lights were on, but nobody was home. Even the smallest, most menial task felt like climbing a mental Mount Everest. I couldn’t go back to sleep – I wasn’t that tired – but I couldn’t actually do anything productive. I basically spent two and a half hours checking the clock, counting the minutes until I could hit the coffee press and guzzle down that sweet nectar of the gods.
After a couple of days of feeling like a card-carrying member of the zombie apocalypse – with many of my personal and professional relationships on very tenuous ground – I broke. I had coffee before 9:30 a.m.
And it was glorious.
But only for a short time. I noticed that when I had caffeine earlier in my day, I needed more later. Conversely, on the previous days, when I timed my coffee, I needed much less to get me going and keep me going throughout the day. I decided to give coffee timing another try, but perhaps with a little help…
BACK ON THE WAGON
I figured that my problem was that my body just wasn’t producing much cortisol in the morning. After years of chugging the black gold first thing after opening my eyes, my natural wake up juice had probably been shut off. Again, why bother producing cortisol when you have coffee to wake you up instead?
I started researching natural ways to boost cortisol and came up with a few suggestions:
GET ON A SLEEP SCHEDULE
Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype – and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More, argues that falling asleep and waking up at different times – even if you’re sleeping in – can actually make you more tired. According to Breus, an erratic sleep/wake schedule throws your circadian rhythm out of whack and your body never learns when to wake up or fall asleep. By rising and falling at the same time every day (more or less), your body will know when to kick into gear and when to wind down naturally.
USE LIGHT THERAPY
In the case of mammals, light is the most powerful environmental stimulus that influences our biological rhythms, says Miller. Many experts agree that, because of its dramatic effects on the circadian cycle, light is one of the most effective ways to influence your cortisol levels. Several research studies (Scheer and Buijs, 1999; Leproult et al., 2001; Kostoglou-Athanassiou et al., 1998; Figueiro and Rea, 2012) show that exposure to sunlight, or, light that mimics sunlight, in the morning can significantly increase cortisol.
You can use light to influence your cortisol production by increasing your exposure to sunlight in the morning and maximizing your exposure to darkness at night.
Most experts advise getting around 15-20 minutes of bright light in your eyes immediately after waking. You can do this by opening the shades in your bedroom, taking the dog for a walk, driving to work without your sunglasses, using an artificial sunlamp, or (last resort) checking your social media. Yes, if you can’t get light in your eyes by any of these other means, iPhones and other electronic devices emit blue light, or, light with blue wavelengths that mimics the light of the daytime sky.
Conversely, you should minimize your exposure to artificial or blue light at night.
Of course, not all of us can crawl into a cave and head off to the Land of Nod at sundown. For people living in the real world, you can minimize your exposure to cortisol-boosting blue light by ditching your devices a few hours before bed.
Cortisol is the primary hormone that wakes us up. It’s also the hormone that our body secrets in response to stress – if a lion is chasing you, you don’t want to be falling asleep. From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies recognize exercise as a type of stress, and physical activity has been shown to increase cortisol levels (Leproult et al., 1997b; DeRijk et al., 1997). According to Breus you can boost cortisol levels in the morning with just five minutes of exercise. Ideally, Beus advises people to start their day with 25 minutes of exercise, preferably outdoors, but, if that’s not possible, a few minutes of sit-ups and pushups will also help.
USE THE MINIMUM EFFECTIVE DOSE
The concept of the Minimum Effective Dose (MED) advocates for only doing the bare minimum necessary to produce a desired result. For example, if you want to boil water, the minimum effective dose is 212° F. Adding more heat won’t make the water boil more. With regard to caffeine, some research shows that smaller, more frequent doses of around 20-200 mg (the average cup of coffee contains between 100 and 150 mg of caffeine) appear to work better than megadoses. Any more than this and the benefits plateau, while negative effects, such as nervousness, anxiety, inability to focus, and sleep loss, may increase.
All of these suggestions, actually. Although, some were a little harder than others to implement.
I’ve never had much trouble falling asleep or waking up to an alarm, so getting on a sleep schedule was easy. Using the minimum effective dose was also pretty effortless. I found that when I timed my coffee, I needed much less to feel the same effects. When I drank more than I needed, I felt jittery and anxious, so I naturally drank less and only when I felt I really needed the boost.
Light therapy was slightly trickier. I had to convince my fiancée to stop at one Netflix episode, which was a bit of a battle, to say the least. I also had to abandon my e-reader and return to real books. Like, those with pages, that you turn… by hand. While less convenient, it turned out to be a much more pleasant reading experience. Nothing beats an old book smell!
Exercise, however, was where the [explicative deleted] hit the fan.
I consider myself a very active person. I love exercising. I do it almost every day. Just not at 7 a.m. Switching my workouts to first thing in the morning was pretty brutal. I was sluggish, grouchy, and performing at less than 50%. But they gradually got better. Very gradually. After about two weeks, I found that getting outside, getting the sun in my eyes, and my heart rate up was actually working. I felt more energized and my brain felt less like a gelatinous pile of poo.
I’m not going to lie and say that every day I played by the rules. There were some days where I broke down and just had to have some brew. I also cannot say that I am totally free from the desire to greet the day with a steaming hot mug of French press in my hands, or that I spring out of bed and do 25 burpees while singing Zippity Do-Dah. Mornings are still a little rough.
Without my hit-o-Joe, I’m not firing off 1,974,985 word emails, churning out blog pages, or gleefully chattering to anyone within earshot. I move slower and my mood is more subdued. But, thanks to Breus’ advice, I’ve simply rearranged the way I approach my daily tasks to match my energy level. I take the morning hours to organize my day, do some reading, and let my brain slowly power up. Once it hits 9:30-10:00 a.m., and I’ve had my morning cup, then it’s go time.
I’m also enjoying the need for less caffeine overall, and I’m sticking to the practice of consuming the minimum effective dose. Before this experiment, I’d start my day with coffee, need another by ten, one after lunch, and another in the afternoon. Now, I find that if I time my coffee and plan my work accordingly, I only need about a half a cup in the morning and a half in the afternoon.
The point of this whole endeavor was to see if I’d feel better and I do. Do I feel as good as when those first molecules of caffeine hit my brainwaves? Well… It’s a different kind of good. It’s a more even-keel, less hamster-on-crack kind of good. Which is nice. Overall, I’m happy I did the experiment. I’m going to keep coffee timing and practicing the other strategies as best as I can. Of course, there will be good days and bad, but the goal is progress, not perfection, right?
Posted on February 15, 2017