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Should You Give Up Your Early Morning Coffee?

Posted on 21 July 2023

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Diet and nutrition expert Michael Mosely recently wrote a post for the Sunday Times that got picked up by a number of news outlets. In it, he warns against drinking coffee within the first hour or so of waking up. This is probably sound advice, and the science behind it is worth understanding from a longevity standpoint.

Firstly, let’s get one thing clear: drinking more coffee is likely to be beneficial for health and longevity. We’ve written about the numerous benefits of coffee in the past, which are probably rooted in both the caffeine and antioxidant content of the drink.  Studies generally suggest that drinking up to 4 cups of coffee per day can result in a 15% (or even more in some cases) reduction in death from all causes compared with not drinking coffee at all.

A table from a 2018 report summarising data from multiple studies and meta-analyses on the relationship between coffee consumption and longevity.

With that being said, caffeine is a drug that interferes with sleep, which we also understand to be highly important for health and longevity. It’s the often overlooked ‘third pillar’ of health alongside diet and exercise, and is perhaps even more important than the other two.

Most people know that drinking caffeine too close to bedtime can interfere with your ability to sleep. This is because caffeine blocks brain receptors for a molecule called adenosine. While melatonin makes us feel sleepy, adenosine is the chemical that actually puts our brains into sleep mode.

So, what’s wrong with drinking coffee in the morning? When trying to improve sleep, most people become fixated on the getting to sleep part, but it turns out that the way we wake up is also very important. A few hours after we wake up, we get a spike in levels of the hormone cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Cortisol increases your metabolic rate, promotes alertness, and also puts in motion a timer that will affect when you start to feel sleepy later in the day.

Typical changes in the levels of melatonin, cortisol, and core body temperature throughout the day. These changes may occur earlier or later depending on many factors, including the individual’s genes.
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Manipulating the sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythms to improve clinical management of major depression

For a healthy sleep/wake cycle, it’s ideal that your peak in cortisol be as narrow as possible and for it to occur at the same time each day. However, drinking caffeinated drinks soon after you wake up will trigger a rise in cortisol before its natural peak is supposed to occur. This may interfere with the sleep/wake cycle, and could make you start feeling tired earlier in the day.

If you feel like you need coffee to ‘get through the morning’, it may be a sign that you aren’t getting enough good quality sleep – in fact, the coffee could be doing more harm than good. Here are some tips for reducing your reliance on caffeine in the morning:

  • See 5-10 minutes of sunlight outdoors within an hour of waking. Sunlight is very important for regulating sleep – you can read more about why that is here.
  • Wake up at the same time each day.
  • Raise your core body temperature within an hour of waking. This can be done by drinking a hot drink or taking a cold shower (perhaps counter-intuitively, cold showers raise your core body temperature).
  • If you’re up for it, do some exercise within an hour of waking.
  • However much of this advice you choose to follow, try to maintain a consistent morning routine.

It’s fine to drink a lot of coffee – in fact, studies suggest that 400mg (about 4 cups) per day may be the sweet spot, with increasing amounts being detrimental. Some people metabolise caffeine more rapidly than others, but as a general rule, try to avoid caffeine within an hour of waking and within 6 hours of going to bed. See here for more detailed information about when you might want to avoid caffeine.

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    Title image by Fahmi Fakhrudin, Upslash

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