Tired? How caffeine is making you sleep less

April 3, 2014

More than 80 percent of Americans start their day with caffeine, and while it can be a helpful way to get going in the mornings, it can also hurt your sleeping patterns.

“Sometimes the effects of caffeine can persist for over six hours,” says David Earnest, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. He performs research on how dietary composition affects circadian rhythms and sleep cycles.

While caffeine can be helpful to jumpstart your day, it can also cause you to go to sleep later and get less sleep each night.

Earnest suggests these tips to consider when consuming caffeinated food and drinks:

1. Avoid caffeine before bedtime

Your sleep pressure—or your body’s signal that you’re getting tired—increases the longer you’ve been awake. For many people, the afternoon slump is a common occurrence that calls for caffeine. But take a look at the clock before reaching for the coffee pot.

Even if you have caffeine six hours before bedtime, it can decrease sleep duration by an hour or more each night. Which means that during the next day, you’ll feel more tired, drink more caffeine, and start the vicious cycle all over again.

2. Look out for hidden caffeine sources

While the name may suggest differently, decaf coffee has almost a quarter of the caffeine as a normal cup of coffee. Other sources—like chocolate or coffee-flavored desserts—can also cause you to have a slight jolt that can affect your sleep patterns if taken too soon before going to sleep.

3. Know how much is too much

“In a reasonable dose, caffeine can help maintain alertness and allow for an improved performance,” says Earnest. “But if the dose gets too high, it can actually make your performance worse.”

If you find yourself having the “shakes,” and your fine-motor skills are suffering, stop drinking caffeine immediately and switch to water. It is possible to have too much caffeine in your system, and drinking water can help flush out the high dose of caffeine that’s hurting your performance.

4. Get up and move

“Many people believe that the dip in activity they experience in the afternoon is because they just ate lunch,” notes Earnest, “but that’s not actually true. This small decrease in activity is completely natural and is made worse if you haven’t had a full night of sleep.”

Instead of trying to power through your slump, go for a walk or do something to get away from your desk for a little while. You can also temporarily move your work area or grab some sunlight and fresh air for a few minutes to stay productive for the rest of the workday.

— Kendall Cherry

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