The Pros and Cons of Caffeine: Let’s settle this once and for all.
An acquaintance of mine yesterday asked me how she can get a better night’s sleep. She looked like she had lost some weight since I first met her several months ago which is not good because she was already thin. I assumed it was due to stress since she just completed her Ph.D. I informed her about my Model-Fit blog entry about the importance of sleep, and encouraged her to read it. A big sleep robber is stress. In this particular instance we have an academic who pursued a high degree. I told her that many academics have sleep issues because they don’t know how to quiet and shut off their mind from the day. I understand this through firsthand experience as an undergrad and grad student. The mind is a machine designed to solve problems, but each person needs to learn where the “off” button is so it can let both itself and the body rest. I explained that she needs to figure out how to turn the mind off before bed. There are many ways to do this, but I suggested meditation and putting a notepad next to her bed in case she gets an answer or idea during the middle of the night. With a pen and notepad near the bed she can quickly and easily jot down her ideas and get back to sleep without worrying about losing her ideas or any more sleep. I also recommended balance in diet and exercise, to eat when she is hungry, listen to her body and work out 3-4 times a week.
Besides learning to turn off the mind from the stresses of the day, another big sleep robber is a legal drug called caffeine. Yes, caffeine is a drug, and has most consumers plagued with sleep issues. It is consumed mostly in coffee and tea but is also found in chocolate (more in dark than in milk chocolate), many energy drinks and dietary supplements. The aforementioned acquaintance of mine told me that she has some dark chocolate every night before she goes to bed. I informed her that dark chocolate can have as much as 35 mg caffeine/ounce which is about the same as a cup of green tea. To ingest this much caffeine right before going to bed is unwise unless of course you have a high caffeine tolernance. She was unaware of this so I told her to try not ingesting any caffeinated product after 4pm and no dark chocolate before bed, and see if her sleep improves. I am going to follow up with her on this because I think this may do the trick for her. Turning off the mind can be difficult, but it is even MORE difficult if you throw caffeine into the mix regardless of whether you consume it regularly or not, and on top of that it is even MORE difficult if you have a sensitivity to caffeine (ie you are already a somewhat anxious person). This is because caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant so as a drug it is designed to keep you awake. So it is counter intuitive to think that you will sleep well when you are consuming products (especially right before bed) that contain a chemical designed to keep you awake.
I tried a little experiment with myself recently. I cut out caffeine entirely from my diet which for me was a simple matter of switching from green tea to peppermint tea (a non-caffeinated tea). I noticed withdrawl symptoms that lasted for about a week; irritability due mostly to mental and physical fatigue, mild depression, and I had a harder time waking up in the morning, but I had no issues getting to bed. In fact, I felt tired and sluggish due to the fatigue from the withdrawl. However, after getting through the withdrawl, these past two weeks have been great. I feel as though I’ve slept better, and I have felt great. I have felt natural and normal without caffeine. Less jittery and drained. This is due to quality sleep. I tried one cup of green tea yesterday morning before hitting the gym, but unfortunately the gym was closed so I didn’t get a weighted workout in yesterday. And, because of this, I slept poorly last night. I will try once more to have a cup of green tea and make sure to get a weighted workout in afterward and see if that still affects my sleep. But, I feel as though caffeine causes a disturbance in sleep which makes you feel as though you need more caffeine to feel awake. It is a cycle of abuse. Especially for those with a low tolerance for caffeine. The only way out is to get through the caffeine withdrawl which will lead to getting quality sleep. Try the decaffeinated counterparts of the caffeinated products you enjoy.
I’m going to update this blog when I try one last cup of green tea before a hard weighted workout to see if it was just the fact that I wasn’t able to get in a weighted workout yesterday yet had a cup of green tea which is why I slept poorly or if drinking green tea alone even if I have a hard workout is leading to poor sleep. A poor night’s sleep is the worst. You feel terrible the next day. So it always pays to learn what helps you get the best sleep possible.
UPDATE: So I did a hard weighted workout on a cup of green tea and slept fine that night. So if you have a cup of green or other caffeinated supplement before a hard workout then it will give your workout an edge from the CNS stimulation. Sometimes the edge is more noticeable than other times in my experience. But, if you have a low tolerance to caffeine then unless you are using it to stay awake or to do a hard workout it may affect your ability to get a good night’s rest. But, if you have a high caffeine tolerance and your sleep is fine whether you take it or not then more power to you.
So to take caffeine or not to take caffeine. It really comes down to your caffeine tolerance and/or what you are using if for. If you have unrestful sleep and you take caffeinated products then it may do you some good to restrict your caffeine intake to certain situations as depicted in the caffeine pros list below.
Caffeine Pros: Wakes you up when you are tired yet you NEED to stay awake. Also, gives a little edge to your workout. I can think of three situations where you want to sleep, but you NEED to stay up: work, studying and long distance driving. In these situations, a little caffeine can be very beneficial to keep the mind awake and receptive to stimuli for maximum performance. And, although it may help to push harder during a workout, it may be counterproductive if it a interferes with a good night’s sleep and thus causes your body to breakdown (quality sleep happens to be the best workout supplement…nothing helps your workout more than being fully rested). But, if you are able to take it before a hard workout, and it gives you an edge in the workout without affecting your sleep then it is clearly useful to help ramp up your workout.
Caffeine Cons: If you don’t truly NEED to stay awake or will not work out after consumption then there is really no reason to consume products that contain caffeine. For instance, if you are already feeling awake or you had a good night’s rest then there is absolutely no NEED for caffeine. If you enjoy the taste of certain caffeinated products, there are usually decaffeinated versions of the same products. Be mindful to choose the sugar free versions as well as the regular versions are usually loaded with high fructose sugar which just gets stored as fat.
In sum: It is a draw. Caffeine when used for its sole purpose which is to keep you awake, is a very useful drug. It’s also beneficial before a tough workout either weightlifting or hard cardio (on an empty stomach to burn more fat) because it wakes up your CNS. However, if you don’t NEED to use it to stay awake or train, it can be harmful by interfering with a good night’s sleep by not allowing your mind to shut off. And, a poor night’s sleep leads to a wasted next day. Stay away from products that contain caffeine unless you NEED to stay awake (you will stay awake just fine with solid and consistent sleep) or you know that for certain you will have a hard workout after you take a caffeinated supplement (tea, coffee, caffeine pills etc, basically anything containing the chemical). These apply especially if you have a low caffeine tolerance. Some people have a high caffeine tolerance and seem to sleep well regardless of how many caffeinated drinks consumed and if you fall into this category then more power to you. But, if you are having trouble sleeping, maybe the first thing you should look at is how much caffeine you are consuming and try following these “when to use caffeine” guidelines and see if that helps you get quality sleep. Bottom line, a caffeinated supplement before a hard training session is fine (for me that’s a soothing cup of green tea). Or some caffeine when I NEED to stay awake is acceptable as well. Caffeine consumption at times other than the scenarios mentioned here (for hard training and for times when you NEED to stay awake) can rob you of sleep if you have a low to normal caffeine tolerance so be careful and make wise caffeine decisions. There’s nothing worse than a poor night’s sleep.