How many people do you know who would agree that mornings are almost unimaginable without coffee? That first cup is what gets us up and out the door each morning and the office coffee machine is what helps us survive till lunch.
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However, there is a view that it might actually be better to avoid that early morning brew that so many of us have come to rely on. Could you manage? Here are the reasons you might want to try.
What are the effects of caffeine on the body?
For a long time, drinking coffee was seen as a bad habit, something we should limit or give up completely for the sake of our health; in particular, it was associated with high blood pressure.
In recent years, science has gradually debunked the idea that coffee is to be avoided. It doesn’t cause high blood pressure – but it does provide a whole range of health benefits, including protection against several types of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and many others.
However, most people probably aren’t thinking about the long-term health benefits when they reach for a brew. For the majority, the attraction of coffee is the caffeine hit and the pleasant buzz that comes with it that wakes you up and makes you feel ready for the day ahead.
Caffeine in coffee works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain, canceling the natural signals that tell your body to wind down and prepare for sleep. Caffeine also stimulates dopamine, giving you a mild sense of euphoria.
These effects work together to make you feel more awake, alert and energetic – just what you need first thing in the morning when you crawl out of bed and need something to kickstart your day, right? Not necessarily.
Why it might not be best to drink coffee right after you wake up
The reason why drinking coffee might not be advisable when you first wake up is related to the body’s natural production of a hormone called cortisol. The body produces cortisol as a response to stress or low blood sugar levels, and production occurs cyclically throughout the day.
The production of cortisol is related to the circadian rhythm, and the peaks and troughs vary from person to person, but in general, cortisol is at its highest level when we first wake up. For many people, this corresponds with around seven or eight in the morning.
If you drink coffee first thing in the morning, two things happen. First, the effect of the caffeine will be less pronounced since your body is already producing cortisol, meaning you won’t notice the stimulant properties of the coffee as much.
Second, around mid-morning, as cortisol levels begin to drop and the effects of the caffeine wear off, you will suffer a crash as both of these props you are leaning on are simultaneously removed.
In fact, caffeine actually stimulates the production of cortisol, so you will start the day jittery and wired rather than alert and able to concentrate. This will be followed by a loss of energy and mental performance as the morning wears on.
In short, drinking coffee first thing in the morning limits the beneficial effect of caffeine and then sets you up for the notorious mid-morning crash.
So when is the best time?
According to this theory, it would be much better to wait a few hours for that first hit of caffeine. If you can wait three hours until you pour your first brew, your cortisol levels will be dropping, and your body will be ready for a boost from the caffeine.
Regulating your coffee intake in this way will allow you to manage your energy levels in a much smoother way. Rather than going from being wired to feeling like a zombie, you will benefit from the natural rhythms of your body and will be able to administer an extra boost right when you need it.
Problems with this idea?
Of course, this whole theory does seem to rely on the assumption that you are able to sleep enough each night, that you wake when your body is ready and that you can rely on your body’s production of cortisol to give you enough energy to start the day.
Unfortunately, for many of us, the reality is a little different. Sometimes we need to leave the warm comfort of our bed far before our body is ready, and the only way we can force ourselves do so is by heading straight for the coffee machine.
The ideal solution is to make sure you sleep enough every night and that you wake fully refreshed each morning. Remember, if you have to turn to caffeine as soon as you wake up to get going, you will be heading for the inevitable crash later in the morning. It’s your choice.
What about in the afternoon?
One thing that’s clear is that drinking coffee in the afternoon is generally not a great idea. While the caffeine buzz passes quite quickly, it remains present in our bodies for much longer and can have a detrimental effect on our sleep up to six hours later.
For this reason, you should probably avoid coffee after around two or three in the afternoon. It’s fine to have a coffee after lunch, but after that, you might be better off switching to less caffeinated beverages – or at least decaf.
Wait a few hours and don’t drink it too late
So, to summarize, according to some interpretations of the science, it’s best to wait a couple of hours before your first cup of the morning. However, if you want to sleep at night, you’re better off drinking something else after around two or three in the afternoon.
This means that the best time for drinking coffee for most people, the time when you will receive the maximum benefit from the caffeine without setting yourself up for a crash later on, is probably between about ten in the morning and two in the afternoon. Drink up!